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University of Michigan president fired after probe into alleged affair with a subordinate

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel speaks during a ceremony in January 2017 at the university in Ann Arbor. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
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The University of Michigan’s governing board has fired the school’s president after an investigation into an alleged sexual affair between him and a female subordinate found evidence that he engaged in inappropriate interactions with the employee.

The board announced the immediate removal of Mark S. Schlissel in a statement Saturday evening. Mary Sue Coleman, Schlissel’s predecessor, was named interim president.

On Dec. 8, the board said in a statement that it received an anonymous complaint that Schlissel may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a university employee. “After an investigation, we learned that Dr. Schlissel, over a period of years, used his University email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the University,” the board said.

The university also released a letter from the board to Schlissel including excerpts from emails the investigation uncovered.

“On July 1, 2021, you exchanged emails with the subordinate using your University of Michigan email,” the board’s letter said. “In this exchange, she states that her ‘heart hurts’ to which you respond ‘i know. mine too.’ You state that ‘this is my fault’ and that you are ‘in pain too.’ You finish with ‘I still wish I were strong enough to find a way.’”

Schlissel declined to comment on Sunday. He had served as president of Michigan since 2014. In October, he announced that he planned to step down from the presidency in June 2023.

The public university, with more than 47,000 students on its Ann Arbor campus and thousands more on campuses in Dearborn and Flint, is one of the most highly regarded in the nation. It maintained that stature throughout Schlissel’s tenure.

But the university was beset by controversies in recent years over its response to the coronavirus pandemic and sexual misconduct allegations leveled at one of Schlissel’s top lieutenants, former provost Martin Philbert.

In August 2020, after an independent review of the allegations against Philbert, Schlissel was contrite in a statement to the Michigan community. “The university has fallen far short of creating a culture that rejects harassment and misconduct and ensures that no one in our community fears retaliation for reporting,” Schlissel wrote. “What kept coming through to me was how many people were badly hurt by Philbert’s behavior, but also how afraid they were about coming forward.”

University of Michigan reaches settlement with women who reported sexual harassment by former provost

Regarding the pandemic, critics charged in September 2020 that the university was not taking adequate steps to protect public health as it operated with many classes online and some in person. Schlissel disputed those contentions.

That month, the faculty senate narrowly approved a resolution of no confidence in Schlissel’s leadership. At the time, Michigan’s governing board stood by the president.

But the board quickly reached a breaking point after looking into Schlissel’s behavior during the past several weeks. It released dozens of redacted emails and text messages that it said illustrated his inappropriate conduct.

One flirtatious exchange occurred on Oct. 5, 2020.

“i didn’t know you went to HBS,” Schlissel emailed the person, according to the board-released documents. The initials appear to refer to Harvard Business School.

“I’m smarter than I look,” the person replied.

“you look smart,” Schlissel wrote.

“That’s the look I was going for,” the person replied.

In a later exchange, the board said Schlissel received an email from the subordinate in which she had written “Oh yes!” On Jan. 9, 2021, Schlissel wrote her in response: “Love it when you say that.”

The board said it could name a successor as soon as this summer.

Coleman, the interim president, said in a statement Sunday: “While saddened by the circumstances, I am honored to be asked to again serve the University of Michigan.”

In 2015, a year after he took office, Schlissel wrote a piece for The Washington Post about sexual misconduct on college campuses. “I am a university president, a physician-scientist, an educator and a father,” he wrote. “The issue of sexual misconduct at the University of Michigan, and at all of our nation’s campuses, keeps me awake at night. I feel personally responsible for the safety of all students at U-M.”

From 2015: U-Mich. president writes that it's time to talk openly about sexual misconduct