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The University of Michigan’s Board of Regents met virtually Thursday afternoon to discuss the state of campus, the endowment and to hear from public commenters.
On Tuesday, the Washtenaw County Health Department placed a two-week stay-in-place order on all University undergraduate students. At Thursday’s meeting, University President Mark Schlissel said the order leaves most of campus “unchanged,” as most courses are already online. The graduate students and medical campus are unaffected by the order.
Denise Ilitch (D) shared that the board has identified multiple outside firms to potentially hire based on the WilmerHale recommendation report on the sexual misconduct of former Provost Martin Philbert. These outside firms would provide external oversight of reports of misconduct submitted to the University.
“Since that time, we have identified multiple qualified firms, and we are now in the process of interviewing them with a goal of selecting a firm in the coming weeks,” Ilitch said. “This remains one of our top priorities, and we are moving quickly, but carefully.”
The state of Michigan has had several single-day records for new COVID-19 cases over the last week as experts warn of a potential “second wave” of the virus that could dwarf the spring and summer case numbers. Medical School Dean Marschall Runge said Michigan Medicine has a “comprehensive plan” for a potential increase in hospitalizations across the region.
“We need to be prepared for what could be a significant increase in COVID cases,” Runge said. “Potentially from our own campus, although as President Schlissel has said before, the rate of infection in students has gone up and the rate of hospitalization is still very low in that population.”
After the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic upended the winter 2020 semester, the University temporarily switched to a default Pass/No Record Covid grading scale. Due to the current disruption from the stay-in-place order and the hundreds of students in quarantine and isolation housing, Central Student Government Vice President Saveri Nandigama said this semester should have a similar opt-in grading scale.
She also advocated for a week without exams or major assignments in the winter 2021 semester in place of the canceled spring break.
“We’re incredibly stressed and overwhelmed with the effects of this pandemic, as I’m sure you all have been,” Nandigama said.
Erik Lundberg, the chief investment officer of the University, presented on the state of the University’s endowment. Despite the ups and downs of the financial market during the pandemic, he said the endowment has largely stayed the same.
Lundberg showed the regents a chart of the endowment’s growth over the last 25 years, which was valued at $1.6 billion in 1996 and is now valued at $12.5 billion.
“It looks like a very large amount of money, but as I said, it’s really just keeping up with inflation over time,” Lundberg said.
However, the endowment has risen much higher than can be accounted for by inflation. The consumer price index, a common measure of inflation, has risen by about 65 percent since 1996, while the endowment rose 680 percent in the same span.
The University has the third-largest endowment for public school systems. Lundberg said the endowment per student, which is the amount of the University’s endowment divided by the total number of students, typically ranks around 100th in the country.
Regent Mark Bernstein (D) said the board is reviewing their policy on fossil fuel investments and plans on providing an update in following meetings. This comes after the Climate Action Movement and other student organizations have been pushing for the divestment of fossil fuels, leading the board to freeze any future investments on fossil fuels.
“With regard to fossil fuels, we have discussed this at virtually every meeting, and we continue to do so,” Bernstein said. “In the next few weeks, we intend to meet with subject matter experts in this area to help inform and advance our deliberations. … We know how urgent and important this is for our University and our planet, and this issue remains a high priority of ours and the administration.”
Provost Susan Collins announced several measures to combat racism. She said the University will hire 20 new faculty members with expertise in social inequality and structural racism. This is in spite of a hiring freeze for the 2020-21 fiscal year due to the pandemic.
According to Collins, the University is also working to diversify the names on campus spaces, reevaluate the race and ethnicity requirement and put together a task force on campus safety. The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike in September demanding a divestment of campus police funds, and ultimately agreed to the University’s proposal to create the campus safety task force after legal pressure.
In addition, a new George Floyd Memorial scholarship fund will offer aid to students from Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti.
“These and other initiatives will help us carry out our search, teaching and service missions in ways that champion our values of diversity, equity, inclusion and excellence,” Collins said.
During the public comments section, Ann Arbor Councilmember Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, and University alum, spoke to the board about the University’s response to the city’s carbon neutrality plan. According to Smith, the University’s President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality has shown a lack of collaboration with city officials by extending its deadline for recommendations on how to achieve net-zero emissions on campus until February 2021. The original deadline for the Commission’s recommendations was Fall 2020.
“I fully expect that this delay is so that the recommendations are robust, transformative and demonstrative of being the leaders and the best,” Smith said.
While the University managed half a semester of partially in-person classes, Ann Arbor Public Schools have been fully virtual since the beginning of the year. Smith said the outbreaks on campus have driven COVID-19 numbers well above targets set by the local district to resume in-person instruction.
“We need your help to bring these numbers down so that our children can go back to school,” Smith said. “This fall has demonstrated that the University’s approach to testing and enforcement isn’t working. Ann Arbor’s children need in-person instruction more than the undergraduate students do.”
Other public commentators included student athletes from U-M Dearborn’s men’s basketball team who were speaking out against the decision to cancel the winter sports season. U-M Dearborn’s music department spoke out against the dismantling of pianos and music classrooms on Dearborn’s campus.
Music, Theatre & Dance professors advocated for the tenure of their colleague Somangshu Mukherji after Collins rejected his appointment. The professors said Mukherji doesn’t know why his appointment was rejected and called for more transparency from the provost.
Daily Staff Reporters Calder Lewis and Jasmin Lee can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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