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Schlissel's emails about Trump weren't a big deal, but process could lead to good FOIA changes

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel at podium
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

We haven’t had a lot of what we used to call “slow news days” lately.

Something that once might have been a story for a week quickly gets overwhelmed by a new torrent of disasters, natural and man-made.

One story that was somewhat overlooked was an interesting Freedom of Information Act case involving the president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group whose ideology oscillates between libertarianism and thinly veiled support for the Republican Party.

Following the election, the Mackinac Center demanded the release of any e-mails in which President Schlissel mentioned Donald Trump before and immediately after last year’s presidential election. The University of Michigan initially released four, and withheld seven, and the Mackinac Center sued. Two days ago, the university announced a settlement in which it gave in, released the emails, and agreed to reimburse the Mackinac Center for almost $8,000 in legal fees. And in an unusual twist, it seems to have been a win for almost everyone.

By the way, I should say that while Michigan Radio is licensed by the University of Michigan, I am neither an employee of the university or this station, though I am reimbursed for these commentaries. I don’t know President Schlissel, and in a dozen years of doing these essays, nobody has censored me or suggested I not say anything.

But back to the emails – if the Mackinac Center was expecting any smoking gun in which Schlissel was outed as a fanatic Trump hater, they have to be terribly disappointed. Schlissel comes across as caring, sensible and statesman-like.

In fact, when told that a professor had ranted against Trump in class, he tells a trustee, “it is not inherently wrong for a faculty member to take a position on any issue, including an election. The key is that they are solicitous and tolerant of the views of students that disagree, and that those students do not feel persecuted in any way.”

The most negative things Schlissel said were “I would feel awful if Trump won the election,” last August, and right after the election, he told former U of M president Mary Sue Coleman that he “cannot imagine lending one’s name to a Trump administration.”

These comments were not, however, meant to be public. The first one was to a PR official, who has since left the university, who seemed nervous about Schlissel’s speech to incoming freshmen, a speech in which he just urged them to register and vote.

Following the election, much of Schlissel’s concern seems to be how the student body would react. In the email I found most striking, the president said “there is now even more important work for us to do in pushing back against the idea that facts don’t matter, that science isn’t relevant to decision making and that people without white skin don’t belong here.”

As a citizen, the only thing I found objectionable is that the university stonewalled the request for these emails. For me, the Mackinac suit’s most positive result was this: The U of M agreed to hire more staff to fulfill transparency requests without charging for most of them.

That’s a win for everybody. And it’s always nice to end a week on a positive note.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.