What should President Schissel's legacy be at the University of Michigan?
The Transfer Student Perspective: Experiencing Scandal Ten Days into Life as a Wolverine
By Kailyn Simmons and Alexandra Scheib
Interview coordinated by Carlos Lundback
Arjun Patel is a sophomore from New Jersey who just transferred to the University of Michigan starting in the winter term. He is majoring in Economics, and despite only arriving this semester, he is knowledgeable of life on campus because Michigan has always been his dream school.
Arjun Patel began taking classes at the University of Michigan on the first day of the winter semester after transferring from another school. Ten days later, former President Mark Schlissel was fired effective immediately, and countless emails exposing his relationship with a university employee were released to the student body. In his ten days as a student during Schlissel’s presidency, Patel was able to learn a lot about the political climate at the University of Michigan (UM). It’s hard not to notice “Hail to the Victims” signs all over campus or an entire tent village planted on the public land across the street from the President’s house to protest the lack of action that has been taken to protect survivors of sexual assault. Furthermore, whether someone has been a student here for one semester or eight, it seems like everyone has claims about his tenure and the legacy he is leaving behind. “I was certainly surprised about it, and I expected more from Michigan. It was definitely a shock in my first weeks,” Patel said. When asked about the nature of Schlissel’s termination, Patel stated, “I thought he was fired for the wrong reason. He should have been ousted years ago.”
Starting just a few months into his presidency that began in 2014, Schlissel was scrutinized for mishandling Title IX cases involving sexual violence, leading to a federal investigation. Later on, Schlissel was criticized for his part in the decision to reprimand a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student because they wished to study abroad in Israel, with critics citing first amendment violations. The former president was also criticized for his response to climate action movements on campus, the move to raise tuition prices to the highest of any public university in the country in the middle of a pandemic, his poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic, his failure to respond to the graduate student employee union’s work stoppage in an appropriate manner, and the university’s response to further Title IX violations and sexual assault cases. Ultimately, it was his inappropriate relationship with a university employee that led to his being fired.
For a brand new student at UM, the waves that followed Schlissel’s abrupt removal were hard to fully comprehend. When the Board of Regents released emails detailing this inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, it led to a flood of outrage, press coverage, and memes, which affected Patel’s transfer student experience. After transferring to this school, he received the message that not only was the administration here terribly flawed, students also didn’t care, as evidenced by their turning it into a big joke through the making of t-shirts and memes mocking Schlissel’s inappropriate relationship. For Patel, the jokes were funny, but he acknowledges the message that it might send to the general public. Whether or not it will impact the university as a whole, he believes “Michigan is still an elite school and it holds that reputation very well.” He does not believe that the university will suffer terribly from this scandal. As somebody who applied and transferred to Michigan during the height of tuition increases and the height of the Dr. Robert Anderson fallout, the school’s policies clearly didn’t stop him, and he believes it won’t hurt the university in the future. Patel says Michigan “has a work hard, play hard culture that is unmatched to any other Big Ten school I know.” UM has consistently been ranked among the top universities in the country, but also boasts a history and university culture so long and rich that it is difficult to see the actions of one person or leader negating all that it stands for.
Schlissel has been a controversial leader since taking office almost eight years ago, with many students outraged by his response to numerous university controversies. Despite the enactment of policies such as the Go Blue Guarantee—which was met with overwhelming positivity—the bad does outweigh the good and leads students like Patel to question why Schlissel wasn’t fired years ago. His legacy is yet to be fully understood, but even those like Patel who just arrived on campus know that while it will not impact the university on the whole, he will not be praised for his time as president of this university.
In the Interest of Full Public Disclosure or In the Interest of Saving Face?
by Tuhin Chakraborty and Kristen Boudreau
Alyssa Donovan is a junior in the Ford School of Public Policy. She is a survivor of sexual assault and uses her experiences to fuel her advocacy for change, especially in relation to institutional responses to sexual assault and misconduct, survivor advocacy, and accountability in general.
On January 15, 2022, with “great disappointment”, the University of Michigan Board of Regents announced the firing of former President Mark Schlissel as a result of an inappropriate relationship with a university employee. In their announcement, the Regents included 118 pages of redacted communications between Schlissel and the woman infamously dubbed “INDIVIDUAL 1”. The Regents have said that these communications were provided “in the interest of full public disclosure.” However, Alyssa Donovan, a student at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and a survivor of sexual assault who is active in efforts to properly and effectively address gender-based misconduct, believes that this may not be the full story. Donovan believes that Schlissel’s mark on campus should be defined by his exit and that it is possible the motivations behind the release and the timing of this scandalous termination were premeditated.
Regarding Schlissel’s legacy at the University of Michigan (UM), Donovan has stated that it “should be rooted” in his firing due to sexual misconduct. His termination could even be characterized as the most defining moment of his tenure, above any previous action taken by him that could be considered positive for the university. While it is clear that Schlissel’s conduct is not as severe as other cases, most notably that of Dr. Robert Anderson, his dismissal should “set a precedent” of accountability that will hopefully remain at the UM for generations to come. It is worth noting that holding a living individual accountable for their actions may be more effective in mitigating and preventing misconduct than anything that can be done to Anderson, who died nearly a decade before a multi-million dollar settlement was reached to compensate the victims of his heinous actions.
According to Donovan, “[Schissel’s] choices directly impact[ed] students’ lives”, which is what makes this whole situation so unsettling. Perhaps equally unsettling, however, was the university community’s reaction to INDIVIDUAL 1. Donovan speculates the Regents “had to have known” that students would have “a field day with the content provided.” Therefore, it is possible that the university planned the timing of Schlissel’s correspondence release to “keep more students from speaking up” about sexual misconduct at the university. In other words, the release of Schlissel’s emails may have been a strategic distraction to dull potentially further fallout from what is obviously a reputational nightmare for university administration.
The Regents’ possible plan to go ahead and release these emails in an attempt to prevent further tarnishing of the university’s reputation may have worked, especially when considering students’ reactions and the potential effects of their reactions. The “field day” that Donovan refers to includes comments such as “Mark schlissel you dawg”, “someone please tell me who individual 1 is”, and “Queen don’t hide your name”, which circulated on YikYak, a popular app on which users write anonymous posts viewed by people within a five-mile radius. Referring to Schlissel as a “dawg” implies a degree of camaraderie with him as a way of laughing off the seriousness of his actions. Not to mention the fact that students turning him into a meme—“always knew schlissel was submissive and breedable”; “daddy schlissel”; “lonely -m”—then calling for the identity of INDIVIDUAL 1 to be revealed implies their desire to turn her into a meme as well, even though she was the victim of sexual misconduct and of a serious power imbalance. Seeing this certainly could scare other victims of sexual misconduct at the university from sharing their experiences for fear of themselves being turned into a meme, too.
Overall, Donovan and others on campus consider Schlissel’s termination and the resulting reactions as actions that have brought and will continue to bring mixed results. Specifically, Donovan called the dismissal a “double-edged sword” for the university in terms of its credibility and position for future sexual misconduct policy and enforcement. On one hand, the Regents taking such swift action against such a high-ranking individual for gender-based misconduct shows that severe consequences do in fact exist for such behavior and that nobody is above justice. On the other hand, the timing of the email releases following Schlissel’s exit can be considered suspicious since it may have helped the university distract from further fallout over sexual misconduct on campus, which may have in turn enabled the university from seeing its reputation further tarnished. Donovan argues that these emails may also have taken the focus from the Anderson settlement and the negative publicity coming from it. These potentially disingenuous motives, coupled with how this incident’s associated meme culture might disincentivize future misconduct reporting, do much to qualify and contextualize an otherwise strikingly decisive reaction to sexual misconduct on campus.
Where Administration Falls Short, Students Give Sexual Assault Survivors a Place on Campus
By Alexandra Scheib
Interview conducted by Tuhin Chakraborty
Emma Sandberg graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy in 2021. She provides the perspective of an alumnus and of a student who dealt directly with sexual assault as Executive Director of Roe v. Rape on campus.
In her time at the University of Michigan (UM), Emma Sandberg served as the Executive Director of Roe v. Rape, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual violence heal through activism. While serving in this role, she led numerous sexual assault survivor activism efforts on campus and met frequently with administrators from all relevant offices. This helped her to develop close relationships with many members of the Michigan community, allowing her to hold a unique perspective on the structure of power that exists at UM, both powerful and powerless. Many UM students have approached administration via protest, meeting, or letter writing, and one constant emerges from these interactions: students feel as though they aren’t being heard. Even worse, we know they aren’t being heard, due to the lack of response. In Sandberg’s experience, Schlissel appeared sympathetic to those accused of sexual misconduct, yet did not have that same sympathy for survivors, which is the opposite of what students call for.
Sandberg believes that Schlissel’s legacy should be both his incompetence with his handling of the pandemic, as well as his (lack of) response to Dr. Robert Anderson survivors and sexual assault survivors in general. Overall, he failed at what is considered to be the most important job of a university president: keeping students and the community safe. To back up this claim, she cites Schlissel’s promotion of Martin Philbert—someone with a known history of sexual harassment—to the powerful role of provost, his turning a blind eye when countless students were assaulted or harassed by professors, and his implementing and defending an unnecessarily traumatic policy that required claimants (victims) in sexual misconduct cases to be directly cross-examined by respondents (alleged perpetrators) rather than a personal advisor or attorney.
In her role as the director of a nonprofit helping sexual assault survivors, the majority of the perspectives she has are shaped by the sexual misconduct policies that developed under Schlissel’s authority. These sexual misconduct policies actively discouraged survivors to come forward both because the investigative process was traumatizing and because in the rare instance that a report did lead to a determination of responsibility, there was no real accountability or disciplinary action. Survivors said they felt that their assault was belittled by the university. In the case of sexual assault, this belittlement further harms victims and results in growth of the systemic problems that allows for sexual assault to persist both on campus, and in general. This is just one way that Schlissel failed to protect students on campus.
She reflects on the end of his presidency as being both positive and negative. It was a celebration of the possibility for change on campus, but the circumstances were rather upsetting. The interesting thing, Sandberg says, is that while Schlissel’s dismissal is considered one of the lowest points in UM history, for many current students, his ousting was a triumph. She offers a warning however, to current students and those reflecting on the situation as a comedy: the fact that the president himself violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy reinforces the idea that these policies need to be taken seriously. Yes, all university presidents do something that positively impacts students, but what defines a president is how they handle the most pressing issues of their tenure. Between the pandemic and sexual assault on campus, Schlissel failed to competently address these important issues.
While the university’s credibility was improved by dismissing Schlissel, overall the institution lost a lot of credibility given that those in the highest positions of power were violating the policies. In response to being asked whether or not the University would learn from their experiences, Sandberg says she would like to think so, but after three and a half years at the school, she is skeptical. While the Board of Regents finally found a reason to fire Schlissel, she feels that this outcome was hardly a check on the president. She proposes some solutions to help these systematic changes that allowed former President Schlissel to be in power for so long. She argues some of the criteria used to determine whether sexual misconduct occurred is unnecessary and not required by law. She suggests that, in the future, those who are overseeing Title IX cases need to be replaced or retrained. On a more micro level, pertaining to UM’s own campus, she feels that we need an established and well resourced center on campus that actively advocates for survivors and supports survivor activism. She hopes that we don’t just move on. Schlissel’s presidency is something to learn from.
Failing to Protect the Environment is Failing to Protect UM
By Alexandra Crilley
Lexi Crilley, a sophomore Program in the Environment major, has involvements on campus with Students for Clean Energy, Fridays for Future, and the Environmental Justice Coalition. Through her leadership roles in almost all of these organizations, she is very knowledgeable of and has had a direct impact on UM’s climate change policy.
Former President Mark Schlissel was granted decision-making power at an incredibly important moment for both the University of Michigan (UM) and the planet: the era of climate emergency. According to data from the UN’s recent IPCC report, less than a decade is left to take drastic action to combat the climate crisis before the damage done to the planet becomes entirely irreversible. As a massive institution with global connections, UM has a responsibility to contribute to the efforts of combatting this existential threat.
The same power systems that created the climate crisis are the ones perpetrating these cycles of oppression. Unfortunately, our institution has been largely complacent in these cycles. During his time as university president, Schlissel did the bare minimum to take action against the climate crisis: he accomplished only what he was pressured into and failed to take responsibility for anything else.
One step in the right direction was the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN), which Schlissel created in 2019 to evaluate UM’s environmental impact and form a cohesive plan to reduce emissions. The commission released a report in March 2021, determining three categories of carbon emissions and targets for each sector. The goal for Scope 1 emissions, consisting of direct, on-campus sources, is for them to be eliminated by 2040. The goal for Scope 2 emissions, which are from purchasing electricity (i.e., energy from fossil fuels), is to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The goals for Scope 3 emissions, which are indirect and from sources such as commuting, food procurement, and university-sponsored travel, will be established by 2025. The PCCN website states that this is only the first component of a “comprehensive climate action plan.” However, in the full year since it was published, we have seen little to no substantial effort for change.
Under Schlissel, there has been progress in Scope 3 emissions, particularly with food sourcing. In 2020, Michigan Dining had 88% of its food grown or produced in the state of Michigan, 20% of which was from sustainable local sources. They have also increased the availability of plant-based options and have done quite a bit to eliminate waste by using biodegradable containers and engaging in large-scale composting. These actions have been effective in reducing emissions and overall ecological impact: less carbon dioxide released from transporting food, less methane released from food rotting in landfills, less resources consumed in the production of food, and less plastic polluting the environment. These are victories worth celebrating, and they can be partially attributable to Schlissel.
Another result of the PCCN report was the University’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels. In March 2021, they announced that they would stop investing in coal and oil, and that natural resource investments will shift toward renewable energy, but came after the university had already invested $1.5 billion dollars in fossil fuels. It is also important to note that this decision came after several years of student activism, largely led by the Climate Action Movement—the same group of students that Schlissel had arrested for organizing a peaceful sit-in at the administration building in 2019. The massive loopholes in this commitment show not only the hypocritical and performative nature of the university’s climate action, but also its tendency to consistently choose temporary financial gain over the health and well-being of the environment and every one of us who lives, breathes, eats, and studies here.
UM is a public institution. It is not a corporation. Yet the administration ruthlessly prioritizes profits, even when the futures of its students are at risk.
While Schlissel, at times, has been the infamous face of UM during his almost eight years as president, he provides neither an accurate nor a fair representation. The institution is far more complex and powerful than just its president. This means that it has a greater capacity for change and that greater effort may be required to influence everyone involved. While Schilssel did implement policies that will have beneficial consequences, he did not respect these needs of his students or listen to our voices. Thus, the legacy he leaves is one of performative action and potentially dangerous hesitation.
As a student, I am dismayed that the administration fails to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis despite the groundbreaking environmental research and clean energy developments occurring on this very campus. As an activist, I am optimistic about the new opportunities presented by this recent shift in leadership, and I remain hopeful that meaningful change can still happen to save the planet and all of its inhabitants.