Beyond the Dome: Mark Schlissel

President, University of Michigan

Published in Aequanimitas - Fall 2015

Though Mark Schlissel never envisioned that he would one day serve as head of a major university, in some ways, he says, the appointment feels natural because throughout his career, the common denominator has been a commitment to research and teaching—and “as a physician who recognizes the importance of the health care components of the university and how it touches a community.”

A Brooklyn, New York native, Schlissel earned his M.D. and Ph.D. (in physiological chemistry) at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1986. After finishing his Osler residency in internal medicine, he conducted postdoctoral research as a Bristol-Myers Cancer Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute. He then joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1991, earning awards and fellowships for his research and teaching on the developmental biology of B lymphocytes. In 1999, he moved to the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California–Berkeley, where he advanced to full professor in 2002. Concurrently, he served as member and chair of the Immunobiology Study Section at the National Institutes of Health and on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Scientific Review Board.

Before signing on as University of Michigan president in 2014, Schlissel was provost of Brown University, where he oversaw all academic programmatic and budgetary functions, libraries, research institutes and centers.

What’s it been like moving from medicine and medical research to academic and administrative oversight of a prestigious university?

The move into administration happened gradually, first as a department co-chair, then as dean, then provost and finally president. So I gradually decreased the amount of teaching and research I was doing as the bulk of my effort shifted toward academic leadership. Like medicine, leadership is about helping others achieve their potential. You work with a team of colleagues, just as in the care of patients.

Is this how you envisioned your career path?

I had no intention of ending up my career as a university president. I wanted to teach, run a research lab and find a niche within clinical medicine where I could care for patients with illnesses that related to my lab research agenda.

How has your experience as an Osler trainee informed your work throughout your career?

Being an Osler house officer taught me organization, attention to detail, responsibility and commitment. Presenting patients to an attending on morning rounds taught me how to be focused and concise in my professional talks, providing information needed to make a decision in a logical fashion.

What are some of your top goals now?

Support research that matters to and benefits the public that the University of Michigan was established to serve, regardless of discipline. Organize the budget so that higher education remains accessible and affordable to students from all income strata. Create a diverse educational community, where all members are free to express themselves and are treated with respect.

What keeps you up at night?

The social aspects of being responsible for a community of 43,000 young people. Public safety, alcohol overuse, sexual misconduct. Also, building a campus culture that respects civil discourse and embraces inclusiveness.

Do you stay in touch with your Osler colleagues?

With some, especially those who have had academic careers involving basic research.

Do you have any favorite memories from your training?

A handful of patients whom I connected with at a personal level and believe that I helped overcome a major health issue. The camaraderie of my fellow residents.

Are any of your children interested in medicine?

One of our four children is a physician, currently a third-year resident in pediatrics at Yale. Another is a basic biology researcher at Berkeley.