Can interim president rescue Michigan’s image after 2 major scandals?

Mary Sue Coleman steps back in to reinforce safe strategies after fallout from the Schlissel affair and a $490 million sexual abuse settlement.

At the top of the University of Michigan’s home page, emblazoned in maize, is a link that says “Report Sexual Discrimination and Misconduct.”

It is just one part of the strategy by the institution under interim President Mary Sue Coleman to try to rebuild its image—and trust—amid a pair of massive scandals involving a former university physician and former university president Mark Schlissel.

On Wednesday, the university agreed to a $490 million settlement with more than 1,000 students who said they were sexually abused over the course of many years by the now-deceased Dr. Robert Anderson. That development came on the heels of Schlissel’s firing last weekend over claims of an inappropriate relationship he had with an employee.

“Our most solemn responsibility to our university and community members is to support healing and restoration of trust in an environment where safety is paramount,” Coleman said in a joint letter to the community with the Board of Regents. “Once approved, we hope that this settlement will continue the healing process for survivors. At the same time, our work is not complete. The Board and administration plan to accelerate further efforts to work toward a campus with a positive, nurturing and safe culture that reflects our values as a community. We will strive to be free from abuse and sexual misconduct, building on the work that hundreds in our community are committed to succeeding.”

To ensure the safety of its community and to also provide avenues for that reporting, Michigan said it will through the work of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, which has been in place for more than three decades, and the launch of new initiatives for the community. The question remains, however: Can U-M do that? Before he was removed, Schlissel himself helped launch a number of initiatives last year aimed at providing that safer community with guidelines and policies for reporting on and meting out harassment.

Coleman acknowledged, “The events of the past few days have been challenging and unexpected [but] in the coming weeks, months and beyond, we look forward to hearing from more members of the university community about how we can continue to achieve the environment and culture of safety and trust we envision. Together, we will move forward.”

After nearly eight years in retirement, Coleman has returned at the Board’s request to try to rescue U-M’s reputation. She was the first female president hired in the institution’s history in 2002. She helped build the university’s Life Sciences Institute that is named for her, increased research, led a multibillion-dollar capital campaign and was named one of Time magazine’s “10 best college presidents.” “I have spent my entire academic career at or advancing public research institutions and their teaching function,” she said after the announcement by the Board. “My deep and profound belief in the students, faculty, staff and alumni of this institution’s three campuses gives me great confidence that we will come together during this period to advance the values and the excellence that define the University of Michigan.”

More from UB: Bevy of presidential changes highlight start to new year

She also will be highly focused on helping ensure many of those strategies launched last July will make a real impact. One of the biggest is a Culture Change Initiative, in which its human resources staff and Dean of Nursing Patricia Hurn have been tasked with leading surveys, focus groups and town halls to get the pulse of the university’s populations as well as set expectations for students, staff and faculty in the future.

“My hope is that anyone who walks the halls of the university can feel the desired culture, feel psychologically, physically and socially safe and feel they can bring their best selves to campus every day,” Jacobs said at the announcement. “Our goal is to engage with the U-M community to develop the kind of culture and climate where everyone can thrive.”

Another is the further development of its New Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office that among other things investigates misconduct and discrimination. An advisory group comprised of students, staff and faculty also was put in place to oversee those matters and work with the office.

Perhaps the most significant are the policies themselves, which detail the costs of the supervisor-employee relationships, how reporting should occur and the penalties for those who engage in misconduct, including those that have reached emeritus status. They were policies launched by Schlissel and called out by the Board upon his removal. Regents wrote: “Your conduct … is particularly egregious considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel, and your declared commitment to work to ‘free’ the university community of sexual harassment or other improper conduct.”

Now clear of two major obstacles—although Michigan has set aside another $30 million for survivors of Dr. Anderson’s alleged misdeeds—the Board expressed confidence in Coleman as it looks for its next full-time president.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

Most Popular