The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel Wednesday to discuss preparations for the fall semester amid the ongoing pandemic. Check out part two of the interview, which discusses a potential lecturers’ strike, calls to rename campus buildings, Schlissel’s football season prediction and more, here. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: Students are coming back, we’re planning to have now 93% of our classes being taught in person and the residence halls are nearly full. We’ve had very good success and uptake on our vaccination requirements. We’re up to 91% of students on the Ann Arbor campus — and I think that continues to go up — and 87% of faculty and then looking at 72% of staff have already completed their vaccination requirement. Those rates are much higher than the surrounding community, and it really puts us in strong shape to have the kind of semester that we’re all trying to have.
That has to be balanced against concern around this Delta variant that certainly can infect vaccinated people. Thankfully it doesn’t make them ill enough to require hospitalization, and you almost never see severe illness in a vaccinated person, but we have to continue to be vigilant. Overall, the message is it’s a pretty exciting time of the year at the University, and it’s a very different feel.
The Michigan Daily: At the end of last semester, you said that the best case scenario for fall was having a vast majority of campus vaccinated, and the worst case a variant forcing more mitigation measures. Considering both played out to some extent, what should students expect campus life to be like this semester? For example, should student organizations or individual students host large meetings, shows, tailgates or parties?
MS: I think life on campus is going to be much closer to 2019 than it will be to 2020 in the fall. We are having the residence halls running at essentially full occupancy; we put aside some rooms in case we need to do quarantine, but basically the residence halls are up and running again. You don’t have to mask inside the residence halls. Everyone has to be vaccinated in the residence halls, and the very tiny number of students that aren’t for medical or religious reasons will be masked. All of the lounges in the residence halls will be open, the dining halls will be open, so that part of the student experience — the lived experience — will be much closer to normal.
Student orgs will be free to meet. We’ll have at least in the beginning of the year a masking requirement regardless of your vaccination status if you’re operating indoors. Outdoors, it’s up to you, though I would still advise people in big crowds outdoors to wear a mask, to be prudent regardless of whether they’re vaccinated, but it won’t be a requirement at this stage. So life will be much more like what you recall, what brings joy to students.
TMD: Given some of the Delta variant concerns, the fact that cases are still rising, how optimistic are you that classes will stay in person, that athletic events will have full fan capacity and that students in residence halls will be housed there the entire school year?
MS: My crystal ball has a big crack in it. The ability to predict a novel once-in-a-lifetime event is tough. I think we’re very well-positioned to make it all the way through this semester without the kinds of interventions that we had to impose last year, but we have to continue to be vigilant.
For example, we’ll still require folks who are unvaccinated to be tested weekly for COVID, and if the levels of COVID increase, we’ll test more frequently than that. We’re doing sewage monitoring in all our buildings, looking for signs that there’s breakthrough on campus. Right now things are under pretty good control, but that may change as things get more crowded, so we’ll be vigilant and adapt as needed.
But the real key is vaccination, and I am very appreciative to the response in the student community. It was actually the student government that was the first to really step up and say, “Look, you really have to mandate this.” SACUA, the faculty government, stepped up and did the same thing shortly thereafter, and that really gave us the energy to go ahead and put this in place, recognizing it would have strong support.
I don’t think we’re going to be in a circumstance where there’s no infection. I think there’s always going to be risk of COVID. It’s not going to be different in six months. The nature of the disease is it’s not one of these diseases we’re going to be able to eradicate. It’s going to become lower in frequency and less severe as time goes by, and as more and more people get vaccinated. And we have to adapt, while providing the most robust education and doing our research and just having the campus culture that makes being a Michigan student fantastic.
TMD: Last year, many were frustrated with the University’s sometimes lax enforcement against pandemic safety violations. Going forward this year, what will the University do to enforce its COVID-19 policies that lead to the safest possible campus reopening for both students and the Ann Arbor community, such as the mandatory vaccination requirement and indoor mask wearing?
MS: First of all, we’ve had very good compliance so far. I’d love (vaccination rates) to get up to 99% with only the religious and medical exemptions that we’re talking about. In the residence halls, we’re actually heading for that uniform compliance — almost everybody is vaccinated. There actually are a small number of students in the residence halls that have not complied, and we’re going to cancel their residence hall contracts. For the broader student community, we’re over 90%.
Very early in the semester, starting August 30 really when the mandate locks in, you’re going to get contacted and reminded of your obligations. If a week goes by and you really haven’t begun the process of getting vaccinated, the disciplinary processes will ramp up, ultimately including a freeze on student accounts. That’s a pretty serious enforcement paradigm. And there’ll be corresponding things for faculty and staff trying to drive compliance up as close to complete as possible.
TMD: Do you have any kind of explanation for why the staff numbers are so much lower than the student and faculty numbers? And what’s going to be done about that, considering still over a quarter of staff are not fully vaccinated with just a couple of days left before the semester?
MS: It’s a really interesting question, and all I can do is hypothesize. I don’t have answers. Our staff is very diverse. I think it’s more diverse than our faculty — people from different backgrounds, different subcultures, different socioeconomic levels. They’re parts of different communities. So it’s not surprising that the staff looks more like the population at large. In Washtenaw County, for example, the vaccination rate is about 66 or 68%. That’s good, but for a vaccine that’s been given to hundreds of millions of people already, whose safety has been tested again and again, that was just completely approved — at least the Pfizer vaccine, by the FDA — people should take this thing. It’s as safe as it gets, as it says effective as it gets.
It’s a little bit more complicated with our represented employees, or employees that are members of unions. We have to negotiate an agreement with each union about vaccination requirements and about consequences. We’re working hard to do that, making more progress in some places than others.
TMD: With no required testing for vaccinated individuals, which should be everybody except for those with exemptions, does the University have a plan for monitoring breakthrough infections?
MS: It’s very important that anybody who feels any of the symptoms of COVID go to the University Health Service and get tested. So we want to focus on symptoms — where the money is, sort of. The frequency of COVID right now in the vaccinated population on our campus is exceedingly low. If that were to change dramatically, if the frequency were to go up significantly, then we would consider beginning a broader set of screening tests.
TMD: About the football games — there’s going to be 100,000 people plus planning to come to Ann Arbor or back into the stadium. Ann Arbor City Council last week discussed the wisdom of hosting large city-wide events this fall, and Taste of Ann Arbor, a big annual event, was recently canceled. How will you keep hosting full-capacity football games safe for the city of Ann Arbor and its residents?
MS: We would certainly comply if the City of Ann Arbor imposed any kind of a rule on attendance at events that apply to us. Right now, the state has no limitation on outdoor spectator sports. The Detroit Tigers have been playing in front of crowds through much of the summer, as has other professional sports leagues around the country without lots of examples of COVID spread even in the setting of Delta, so that’s cause for optimism.
What we are doing, though, is we’re going to require our spectators to wear masks in the indoor parts of the stadium, like when you go to the restroom and you go to the inside concessions, things of that nature. All of our employees working the games are going to be masked. We’re going to encourage our spectators outdoors in the bowl to go ahead and be masked to promote their own safety, and we’ll see how it goes.
That remark I made about my crystal ball being broken, we can have our best thoughts about how things will go, but we have to remain flexible. We have to recognize when we need to pull back, and we also have to recognize the really positive and important effects of allowing people to have fun in their lives.
I personally don’t think the pandemic is going away. I think it’s gonna change with time, but COVID-19 is not the kind of disease we’re going to be able to eradicate from the Earth. It’s not like smallpox, the only viral disease I know of that’s been eradicated. We need to use vaccination and other smart mechanisms to get that balance right between the safety of people and then the psychological importance of living your life and having joy. And for an awful lot of people, football brings an awful lot of joy. I’ll be at the game. I’ll be in my box, I’ll be masked. I’ll have visitors with me at somewhat lower-than-normal capacity but not a lot, and I look forward to a great season.
Check out part two of the interview, discussing a potential lecturers’ strike, calls to rename campus buildings, Schlissel’s football season prediction and more, here.