Bluish and Jewish –
Mark Schlissel talks about his role as U-M’s new president.

Mark Schlissel talks with the press during the announcement of his appointment.
Mark Schlissel talks with the press during the announcement of his appointment.

There’s a buzz on the University of Michigan campus these days. Dr. Mark Schlissel, currently the provost at Brown University, was named the school’s new president. He will take office July 1.

“This is an exciting time for the University of Michigan,” says U-M regent Andrea Fischer Newman. “Mark Schlissel brings an exceptional portfolio of scholarship and leadership and, just as importantly, a tremendous commitment to Michigan’s public ethos.”

Regent Laurence Deitch says, “We were privileged to have a pool of extraordinary candidates, and Dr. Schlissel was simply the best of the best. That’s why we picked him unanimously.”

That’s why we picked him unanimously.”

Schlissel, who is warm and approachable, has a long list of impressive accomplishments. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences from Princeton University and a M.D. Ph.D. in physiological chemistry from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he also did a residency in internal medicine and went on to become a faculty member. He moved to University of California-Berkeley, where he advanced from associate professor to full professor and was dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters & Science. In 2011, he became provost at Brown University.

About to be U-M’s 14th president, succeeding Mary Sue Coleman, Schlissel is the second Jewish president of the university. (The first was Harold T. Shapiro, from 1980-1987.)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Schlissel, who had a bar mitzvah and grew up in a traditional Jewish home, says he’s not technically observant but still identifies with Jewish culture. He has been married 29 years to Monica Schwebs, an environmental lawyer. They have four grown children, all in their 20s.

With a medical background, he brings a new dimension to the presidency.

“We are fortunate that Dr. Schlissel is a remarkable physician-scientist who will bring to the presidency an important depth of understanding about academic medicine and biomedical science,” says Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., and executive vice president for medical affairs and Health System CEO.

“Schlissel means ‘key’ in Yiddish, and we know President-elect Schlissel holds the key to Michigan’s future successes. Given his track record, we can expect he will continue Mary Sue Coleman’s trajectory of extraordinary leadership. This bodes well for the future of the university and our Health System.”

Schlissel recently talked to the Jewish News about his upcoming presidency, goals for the university and his Jewish roots.

Q: What is your vision for the university?
“I want to focus immediately on three types of interests: First is access and affordability. I think as a public university, Michigan has an obligation to be accessible to the most talented and hard-working students regardless of their financial circumstances. Students should be able to come here without worrying about their families being adversely affected.

“The second is academic excellence. What makes Michigan special is its enormously wide array of truly spectacular academic programs.

“The third is I want to support and enhance research that has the highest value to society. When you talk about research that has impact, you think of engineering, medicine and public health, but to me, scholarship in anthropology, English, music and politics also has a great influence on how we understand ourselves, relate to one another and understand the historical context in modern problems and issues.”

Q. Minority enrollment at Michigan has declined significantly since the ban on affirmative action in public university admissions, and recently African American students have reported feeling isolated and marginalized on campus. How do you plan to address the issue of diversity?
“As the fraction of African American and other minority groups on campus diminishes, the tendency toward isolation increases, so part of making the campus climate inclusive is working to increase the numbers. Although one might work to try and change the law, I feel completely obligated to follow the law. But I think there are ways to enhance minority enrollment in Michigan completely consistent with the law. I want to conduct outreach efforts to make sure every single talented student from an underrepresented group applies.

“I want to make sure that the university has as many talented students to choose from — especially qualified students who think they will never get in, or won’t fit in, or their parents can’t afford it. I want to make sure we do very serious outreach in advertising and public relations. Then I think they ought to be judged fairly, for their academic performance and extracurricular activities and accomplishments in the formulaic way that we look at all students. I’ll have to brainstorm and engage in discussions in the community and with students — especially those from underrepresented groups.”

Q. What do you imagine will be your biggest challenge transitioning from a small private Ivy League school to a large public university?
“Brown is five times smaller, but, like Michigan, it strives for academic excellence, focuses on undergraduate education and values diversity. Before coming to Brown, I was at UC-Berkeley, which is very similar to Michigan in academic excellence, research, teaching and attempting to celebrate diversity and tolerance. Sometimes when I had a bad day dealing with issues in my office at Berkeley, I would take a break and walk through an area filled with students when classes were changing. I would see kids laughing and feel their energy, and I could almost see and hear the future. That’s the feeling I get in a large public university that I will be able to replicate at Michigan.”

Q. So the students may spot you on the Diag during class change?
“Absolutely! I do not plan to spend my life cloistered in Fleming, the administration building. I would like to oftentimes meet people in their offices and attend meetings outside the building. When I’m out, if someone recognizes me along the way, I am happy to say hi.”

Q. Do you have any ties to Michigan?
“No one close, but as a lifelong academician, you can’t help but run into people that were trained at Michigan and are now leading faculty members across the country. I have gotten hundreds of emails from people I had no idea had a Michigan connection. They all tell me how special it is and how much I am going to enjoy the environment. It makes me even more excited.”

Q. With your background in medicine and life sciences, what are your ideas about the medical school’s role in community outreach?
“Medicine touches the community quite directly but in a way that’s different than the rest of the campus. In addition to doing research, it takes care of sick people — and people get sick across all spectrums of society — and it’s a way for the university to reach out to the full economic strata. A community that surrounds an academic medical center grows to appreciate and love the institution for the care that they get. University of Michigan hospital is amongst the best in the nation and attracts people not just in Ann Arbor, but in the Detroit area and all over the country.”

Q. Michigan has very enthusiastic sports fans. What role do you see sports playing in the university as a whole?
“Sports are wonderful for the culture and energy of the campus. They provide excitement for the current students and keep the alumni connected to the university. Michigan should be enormously proud of a very long tradition of really excellent teams that represent the university well. Michigan gets it right in terms of the balance between big-time athletics and being a major academic university. All the athletic programs operate at a level of integrity, sportsmanship that I am proud of; we have to balance the focus on athletics with the focus on academic excellence.”

Q. There was a lot of coverage recently in the Jewish press on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association. The boycott was rejected by many university presidents, including U-M. Can you comment on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as it relates to institutions of higher education?
“This is something that was discussed at great length at Brown and our position was similar to President Coleman’s and Provost Pollack’s. I think it’s the wrong thing to do — whether you agree or disagree with the politics and decisions made in any country. The beauty of academics is supposed to be intellectual freedom and if people don’t talk to one another, there will never be progress on these problems. It’s an absolute no brainer that academic boycotts are counterproductive to social progress.

“Speaking of Israel, I just spent a weeklong educational trip there with an organization sponsored by the American Jewish Committee called Project Interchange that connects leaders worldwide with Israel. We toured the country and met with leaders of Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University and both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including the Palestinian PM.”

Q. Your children are grown, what do they do and will any of them be moving to Ann Arbor with you?
“My youngest is a junior in college; I have a son who is a Ph.D. student in molecular biology, a daughter who is a pediatric resident and my oldest is working in New York City. None will live in Ann Arbor, but they will be visiting as Ann Arbor will become home base for our family.”

Q. You were born and raised in Brooklyn and grew up in a Jewish home. How does Judaism guide your life and career?
“What I took away from my religious education when I was younger is a sense of community, ethics, culture, history and an awareness of the positive roles that religion can play in people’s lives. That has stayed with me. There is a Hillel on the Brown campus and I have been invited and attended dinners there and given talks. I have a warm place in my heart for Hillel and the Jewish community, and I look forward to being considered a part of that community as well as a part of the broader community in Ann Arbor.”

Alice Burdick Schweiger | Special to the Jewish News