Tensions between U-M regents, President Mark Schlissel may have reached a boiling point - Spotlight Michigan

Tensions between U-M regents, President Mark Schlissel may have reached a boiling point

Detroit Free Press — Tensions between the University of Michigan Board of Regents and President Mark Schlissel have been building for more than a year and may have reached a boiling point this summer, sources told the Detroit Free Press.

The discontentment began around Schlissel’s handling of the case of Martin Philbert —  who held the position of provost, the school’s top academic officer — and Philbert’s long history of sexual misconduct at the university.

It rose again this summer, when news broke that the university’s new project in downtown Detroit, the Detroit Center for Innovation, as originally pitched to the regents was dead in the water. The board learned that Schlissel had kept them in the dark for months while he talked with the university’s top donor about the troubled project, according to multiple administration sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel speaks during the Board of Regents meeting on Thursday, June 15, 2017, at the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor. The new Go Blue Guarantee, unveiled and approved by the board will offer free tuition to some in-state students.

This story is built on accounts from seven university insiders and documents obtained by the Free Press that support accounts.

The board has kept the feelings of dissatisfaction behind closed doors, but that might change soon. It is tradition for the board to evaluate the president and give the officeholder a raise at the September board meeting. The board meets on Thursday.

Board member Mark Bernstein acknowledged the tensions exist, but characterized them as the normal workings of a board. He also defended Schlissel’s track record at the school — one of the nation’s top public universities.

“Given the countless complex issues that our board considers, disagreements with the administration are inevitable and, frankly, healthy for the university,” Bernstein said. “On the big things, our board has unanimously supported the ambitious agenda that President Schlissel has championed,” he said, mentioning the Go Blue Guarantee that gives free tuition to families who make under $65,000 a year and work on carbon neutrality for the university. “Nothing confirms the broad bipartisan support for President Schlissel more than our unity in furthering these consequential, concrete actions.”

The Free Press asked the remaining board members — all of whom are publicly elected officials — repeatedly for comment. None would grant an interview about Schlissel or his performance. Sources said that regents Jordan Acker, Denise Ilitch, Paul Brown and Katherine White have been the most unhappy with Schlissel. Bernstein and Regent Ron Weiser are those most in Schlissel’s corner.

It is not unusual for boards and presidents to disagree and for board members to be split over president’s performances. For example, the board at Wayne State University spent much of 2019 torn over whether to fire President Roy Wilson. However, unlike U-M, Wayne State’s board battle was conducted publicly, including at the board table.

Schlissel declined to answer specific questions asked by the Free Press, but issued a statement this week saying he is proud of the work being done at the university.

“The relationship between the Board of Regents and the president at the University of Michigan is critically important for the well-being of the institution,” he said in the statement. “While I will not discuss the private conversations I have had with members of the board, I will tell you how proud we all are of our important achievements during one of the most stressful times imaginable. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic these accomplishments speak to what we have done for the university by working effectively together.

“We are especially proud of the successful launch of a vibrant fall term with most classes being offered in person, a robust array of activities for students, research labs operating at full capacity and one of the most highly vaccinated communities anywhere in the region.”