UM’s Mark Schlissel on How You Rotate a $ 10 Billion Business Overnight


How to rotate like that in three days?

You got a lot of good local leaders and a lot of smart people and you know, people who are willing to take advantage of the moment and experiment. And you know, we really had no choice. … The idea was to focus on the health and safety of people, while maintaining the mission of the university as much as possible. We have made keeping people employed as a priority as we have moved to a kind of work-from-home mode, to keep people healthy, to keep the health care system operational. It was a lot to do and a lot of uncertainties. The other really interesting thing, KC, is that it’s a great example of having to make decisions in a time of uncertainty. We know a lot more about the virus now than we did when we started. … It really took a while to make decisions with incomplete information to keep trying to bring them closer to reality.

So how do you deal with this?

I rely a lot on people who are really smart and have a lot of expertise. … Our management team met on an incredibly regular basis, hours a day. We call in experts as needed. But one of the really interesting learning experiences is this: usually relying on expertise does the trick, but it turns out in a community that is going through something that has really never happened to it before. .. there is a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. And people want to be heard, they want their leaders to understand what the pandemic experience looks like for them. So we can think about it, you know, as a virologist, or as a doctor, or as an immunologist, how to keep people safe, but we also have to take into account how they feel about things. and what their lived experiences are and what their fears and anxieties are, whether rational or not. And that was a big part of the learning curve for me, is figuring out how to incorporate not only expert opinion but also the lived experience of tens of thousands of people.

Are there any opportunities that you see emerging from the pandemic that you can take advantage of?

All higher education is trying to understand this. Now, what are the aspects of the pandemic that, while initially unwanted, were disruptive enough and sparked enough creativity to teach us new things that are new opportunities? In the healthcare sector, telemedicine has of course received a huge boost. It’s gone from a tiny fraction of our patients with online visits to almost everyone for routine and follow-up care. And a lot of things will stay. … We have also learned that there is a lot of content that can be delivered online. But the online experience can’t really replace what you and I are doing now. Or if we had half a dozen people sitting around the table discussing a piece of literature or trying to solve a scientific puzzle or an engineering problem. Face to face is always the sweet spot of our part of higher education, no matter how good the technology is. …

Even think of such a large organization before COVID, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Well, you know, you think of one challenge that has been exacerbated by the pandemic is that we are very decentralized. We have 19 schools and colleges, and each has a dean. And within extended parameters, they each run their own “business”. Business school is therefore very different from musical theater. … So very independent, separate schools and colleges, big research institutes that had some autonomy, the massive health system, the athletics program. The pandemic has told us that we need better ways to make centralized decisions in the right circumstances, and that our culture must adapt to a higher degree of centralized decision-making than usual. … The academy gets teased or mocked and we study things to the death before making decisions. We set up committees and everyone wants to have a say, and that’s just the tradition. And that’s how we became a 200 year old company. Most entities do not last 200 years. So there is something about this culture that really serves us. … And decentralization and the lack of coordination of some of our business practices came back to eat away at us during the pandemic. We have therefore learned that we must strike a balance between local self-government and central organization and coordination.

Let’s talk about sport for a moment. … So $ 10 billion. What percentage of income comes from sports?

People think it’s a huge aspect of Michigan, and culturally it’s a huge aspect. But the sports budget in 2019, sort of the last normal year, was $ 193 million (out of $ 10 billion), and it’s one of the largest in the country, roughly 900 out of 46,000 inter-varsity student-athletes. students in total. … It is big in its impact and visibility but it is relatively modest in its finances. … They won and they spent $ 193 million that year.

On the new decision to allow student-athletes to earn money for the use of their image: how does this impact on these 900 students and their experience at the university?

My perspective on this has evolved. Before, I was much more purist and I thought that these young people were students and that they were good for a sport. And they came here and they got to play their sport, they had a fantastic education, great training, great visibility, but they graduated from Michigan at the end of it. And for 99% of them, that’s actually the most valuable part, as most of them don’t make a living as athletes, even in a place like Michigan. But I really came to the idea that (student-athletes) deserve opportunities based on their talents, just like any other student. In the old days, a music school student could get a concert at the president’s house, and I paid for it. … If a student-athlete did this, he would violate NCAA rules in the past. So the ability to use your name and image and likeness and enjoy that, you know, that’s good for them. We just need to make sure that it doesn’t corrupt the recruiting process, that it doesn’t distract from their studies, that it doesn’t diminish their commitments to their athletic program.

We are almost in the fall. We’re gonna be back on campus.

(As of July 28) approximately 80 percent of the students who will be on campus this fall have submitted and we have validated their vaccination status. … We would like the students to have a normal experience. We would like them to use the lounges and sit around the table for hours, maybe go to a party, have fun, throw a party and don’t care to know which is in their room. … You know, they spend countless hours together on campus. And our students come from all over the country and around the world. And if you think about it, you know, they sample the state of the virus in every state across the country, and they bring it to Ann Arbor. We therefore want to protect the community that hosts us also by vaccinating as much as possible.

We started this conversation by talking about the view out the window, a beautiful day in Detroit. Across the street is an empty parking lot over there that was part of a failed prison project. And everyone was very excited, including myself, that Stephen Ross and Dan Gilbert were going to create an innovation center, in partnership with you. What happened?

The inside part of baseball that I wasn’t really a part of. … We were to provide the academic content, we were going to provide higher level education and certificate, and then more community oriented education surrounding the site. Bedrock decided to go in a different direction with the property, which in fact they have some interesting ideas that I have heard of. I can’t really talk about them. But I wish them the best. And what I’m doing is in consultation with the board of directors, you know, to figure out how to pursue this ambition of using the M Block to help boost the Detroit economy and the Southeast economy. from Michigan. …

So it’s not dead.

Right now he’s in a state of flux. Steve Ross is working on identifying another site for the project. And I’m working with the regents to see if that’s really how we want to impact the city of Detroit. Because the world has changed too.

So we don’t have a location yet?

Not yet. But you know, the university remains committed to its role in the city of Detroit. This is both part of our mission and a great opportunity.


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