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Stakes high for UM regents as search for Schlissel's replacement looms


Mark Schlissel's announcement that he will step down early as University of Michigan president would have been shocking if it weren't for the coronavirus pandemic and the scandals and rancor on campus, three experts on major universities said.

What used to be considered a "plum job" has become a position ripe for burnout, those experts said. With few details about what led to Schlissel ending his contract early, they said the school's Board of Regents faces a challenging task in recruiting his replacement.

And the stakes are high — the wrong choice could further damage the university’s prestige, already battered by sexual abuse and misconduct scandals.

Whoever is chosen to lead the university will be charged with maintaining its elite status, operating a major medical institution and managing a series of campus crises. Few candidates will have the leadership, academic and organizational skills to do it well, said James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

And Schlissel's decision to leave early may mean qualified candidates shy away from the job, said Ray Cotton, a Washington, D.C.-based higher education attorney.

Schlissel announced on Oct. 5 he would be stepping down as UM president in 2023, a year before his contract expires. He told a roomful of UM guests after a speech on campus last week that his announcement followed discussions with the Board of Regents, though he did not elaborate. Board of Regents Chair Jordan Acker declined to comment on the discussions.

Schlissel told the guests his decision to step down was an effort to avoid uncertainty and allow time for a "thoughtful and deliberate" transition, adding he has no specific plans for his future. 

More: UM's Schlissel talks achievements, 2023 departure in annual speech

With little detail about the reasons for Schlissel's exit, the public is left to speculate about what happened, Cotton said. They might question whether there is something wrong within the university's highest ranks, he argued.

"You don't leave UM early," he said. "The man is a brilliant person in higher education and highly regarded, outside of his own state, apparently. So why is he leaving early?"

Cotton said he does not know Schlissel but is aware of his "terrific" reputation.

"Make no bones about it, this is a failure," Cotton said. "... If he didn't leave because of illness, the board's going to have to explain it. He made a decision he wanted to leave. Really?... Something pushed him over the edge. What was it?"

Acker rejected the notion that a rift exists between his fellow regents and the university administration or that Schlissel's early departure could cast a shadow over UM's future. He said Schlissel's decision to retire had nothing to do with his relationship with the board. 

"While boards and administrations may have policy disagreements, the personal relationships of our board have always been collegial," Acker said. "We appreciate the work Mark has done to get the university through very difficult times, and that is reflected in his new contract."

Regents announced they would be giving Schlissel a 3% salary raise on Sept. 23. Acker said the board wished to thank him "for his work on issues affecting our university and those we serve" in a press release about the raise

"I look forward to, when we pick his successor in due course, them serving a long time," Acker said in an interview. "This is an incredibly prestigious public university and that is greatly because of the work of Mark Schlissel that it is going to stay that way." 

Time to search

Schlissel's announcement gives regents ample time to find his replacement, which is a key ingredient for a good presidential search, Association of American Universities President Barbara Snyder said. 

"I think the most important thing, if you're focused on the implications for the university, is that there be a good transition," she said. "That means plenty of time for the board to form a search committee that will get feedback from all sorts of stakeholders, including campus, but also alumni and people off-campus and the community as well."

Snyder didn't point to specific qualifications regents should seek in a successor, other than that it be "the right leader for the right place at the right time."

Governing boards of elite research universities like UM have historically sought presidents who are academics first, experts said. Even if the candidates previously worked as a doctor or an attorney outside of academia, they also would be deans of colleges in their fields and serious intellectuals and researchers. 

"You would be surprised at how few highly qualified people, especially since COVID, are interested in these jobs," said George Mason's Finkelstein. "There may be hundreds of applicants, but there may only be half a dozen who are well qualified."

Regents will want "an experienced academic leader" who has experience running another major institution as president or provost, he said. 

Deans of universities are increasingly taking the step to become school presidents, said Judith Wilde, a research professor at the Schar school. As the proportion of university budgets coming from state and federal funding shrinks, she said deans are taking on more responsibilities like fundraising, acting as mini-presidents at many institutions.

Wilde and Finkelstein listed a series of qualifications UM regents likely will want in their next president.

Regents will push for a woman or person of color to take the role, they predicted. They will want someone who has experience at a public university with a major medical school and an NCAA Division I athletic program. Regents will also want someone with a demonstrated record of successful fundraising. 

The candidate almost certainly will be external instead of a current UM employee, they agreed. 

Andrew Richner, an attorney with Clark Hill law firm and a former regent, said he doesn't believe Schlissel's announcement will diminish the pool of candidates to replace him. Richner served on the board from 2002 to 2018. Schlissel was hired in 2014.

"If someone wants to leave a year early on a 10-year contract, it's kind of understandable given what the challenges of the job are," he said. "It's a very demanding job, and it takes its toll."

Controversies under Schlissel

Schlissel faced a series of challenges at the helm of UM, particularly over the last two years.

He was criticized by faculty for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic last year. Some said the university had not pursued enough regular testing of students, staff and faculty to determine whether campus was safe for students to return. The pandemic protocols played a role in a Faculty Senate no-confidence vote that narrowly went against the school president, 957 in favor and 953 against, with 184 abstentions. 

More: Schlissel faces no-confidence vote from UM faculty senate

Schlissel also came under fire from faculty and graduate students regarding his handling of the sexual misconduct scandal involving Martin Philbert, the former professor and provost accused of sexually harassing women and being involved in multiple sexual relationships with people in the UM community. The university agreed to a $9.25 million settlement with eight accusers last year

People had reported Philbert's misconduct to university officials as early as 2005. Allegations against Philbert were known to university officials, including Lori Pierce, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs, who was a member of the search committee that vetted Philbert when he was a candidate for provost, according to a report released last year by the WilmerHale law firm. Pierce did not tell the committee members or Schlissel about that investigation, and Schlissel in 2017 named Philbert provost, the second-highest academic role at the school, according to the report.

More: Search committee member did not reveal past harassment claims against UM provost, report finds

Schlissel, who joined UM as president in 2014, removed Philbert from his post in March 2020, about two months after receiving an anonymous letter from a group of women accusing Philbert of sexual and emotional abuse.

More: Search committee member did not reveal past harassment claims against UM provost, report finds

Former UM violin professor Stephen Shipps is accused of transporting a girl under 18 across state lines with the alleged purpose of having sex with her in 2002 when he was a professor. Shipps is scheduled to plead guilty to an unspecified crime Nov. 16 in front of Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood, according to a Tuesday federal court filing.

Shipps retired from the university in 2019 after the student newspaper wrote about decades of sexual misconduct allegations against Shipps, including unwanted touching, inappropriate statements and sexual relationships with teenage students.

Schlissel recommended last year that the regents fire music Professor David Daniels, a renowned opera singer after an internal UM investigation showed that Daniels harassed nearly two dozen students, solicited some for sex and sent them nude photos. He became the first UM faculty member to be stripped of tenure in 60 years.

Those scandals are dwarfed by the accusations against former university Dr. Robert Anderson. Hundreds of people, including prominent former athletes, have accused Anderson of sexual abuse. The former head of the University Health Service and team physician for the athletic department died in 2008.

More than two dozen UM officials knew as early as 1975 that Anderson had been accused of sexual misconduct, according to a report from WilmerHale released in May.

UM is in mediation with more than 850 former UM students and others who claim they were sexually abused by Anderson, and Schlissel said the accusations are an enormous liability for the university.

More: Ex-UM music professor Shipps set to plead guilty in sex case

Regents' plans unclear

Schlissel's successor likely will inherit many of those controversies, as well as the day-to-day management duties of the major institution. 

That's why at least the final stages of the upcoming presidential search should be public, Wilde said. The public will help vet candidates and ensure they will be a good fit. 

"They will find things," she said. "If you address that as part of your presentation along the way, that's very different from having people search for it and find it and feel that it was purposely left out of any of the information they had from the search firm."

Acker declined to comment on regents' plans for recruiting Schlissel's replacement, though he said Schlissel will be part of the process.

"Mark has accrued and given us many years of wisdom through his service at the institution," he said. "To not listen to that would be foolhardy. I think he will be a valued member of (the team) searching for his successor."

The UM Board of Regents hired a search firm and formed a search committee of regents and faculty members in 2014 after former President Mary Sue Coleman decided to retire when her contract expired that year. 

Regents almost certainly will hire a search firm, Wilde and Finkelstein agreed. Firms are probably clamoring for the job, they added.

Presidential searches can be lucrative deals, said Wilde, who specializes in presidential searches. She said search contracts are expensive, typically ranging between $180,000 to $250,000, with costs like travel reimbursements and overhead layered on top. 

The search process will be essential to setting UM on course for the future, Cotton warned. A candidate who can't get along with the campus community or regents might not last, which could have disastrous effects.

"You cannot have a situation where the next president leaves early," Cotton said. "It would really tarnish the reputation of that university and make it very difficult to get a good person that time around."

ckthompson@detroitnews.com