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The Michigan Daily sat down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss fall plans, vaccination, carbon neutrality and disinvestment, Regent Ron Weiser (R), public records, ongoing collective bargaining with U-M lecturers and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: It is really important for as many students as possible to get vaccinated, and if they can’t get it done before they leave town, get it done over the summer. The supply of vaccines is getting better, the age limit has now gone down to 16 years old so all of our students can get vaccinated, and the greater fraction of people who are vaccinated, the more likely we are to have a semester in the fall that feels as close to normal as possible.
TMD: Since we last spoke, the University announced its intention for mostly in-person classes and mostly full residence halls in the fall. Can you give us your best and worst case scenarios for what campus life at the University might look like in the fall?
MS: The best case scenario is that 95 or 98% of students are vaccinated and an overwhelming majority of faculty and staff are vaccinated. And then what’s likely to happen, is we’ll begin the semester with the masks at least indoors, but with greatly relaxed restrictions around density. So student clubs will be able to meet in-person, we’ll have sporting events … a growing percentage of your classes will be in-person or more of their activities will be in-person. The campus will feel much more normal and, as the semester progresses, if our surveillance work on COVID indicates that things are safe, then we’ll start taking the mask off and getting back to our new normal. So that’s the optimistic view. Even though COVID is flaring all around the state, so is the rate of vaccination. The fall will feel like a transition, I think, between the really challenging year that we’ve had and then the calendar year ‘22, which should be pretty much a normal winter semester next year by all projections.
Worst case scenario, oh gosh. If I was being Dr. Doom and Gloom, I’d say that one of the variants of the virus that occurs learns how to escape the vaccines, the effectiveness of the vaccines may be lower in these mutant viruses and we may have to continue in a mode where we’re really, really careful to prevent the spread using all these other methods — distancing, density, masks and the like. That’s the worst case, but… I think it’s more probable that we’ll be closer to the best case.
TMD: Some colleges like Duke, Notre Dame and Rutgers have recently announced that they will require students to be vaccinated upon return to campus in the fall. How is the University evaluating whether the COVID-19 vaccine will be required for students and staff for the fall semester? When can the U-M community expect to know the University’s position?
MS: We are actually discussing whether encouraging and incentivizing will work better than requiring or the other way around. Or maybe requiring in the dormitories and incentivizing elsewhere. We’re still far enough away that I don’t feel tremendous time pressure to make it mandatory today. Vaccines aren’t quite widely available enough today anyway, and you can’t just walk down the street, roll up your sleeve and get vaccinated.
TMD: You’ve said the University’s public health experts have been instrumental in the state government’s pandemic response. Can you offer any insight into why state policy response to by far the most severe COVID-19 outbreak right now in the country has been limited to recommendations, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky says Michigan needs to “really close things down?”
MS: I’ve learned the hard way that it’s really difficult to second guess leaders with complicated jobs. So the governor has actually done quite well compared to many other governors. I don’t know the various pressures that she’s under. I can tell you that we’re still under a “work remotely if you can work remotely” rule. We’re still under a statewide masking mandate, and there’s still limits as to how many people can convene indoors and how many convene outdoors. I presume she’s striking a balance integrating all of the inputs that she’s getting from around our large and diverse state. So I won’t second guess her. I think it’s difficult for the director of the CDC to have that on-the-ground knowledge too, but I respect all their positions and the difficulty in making these decisions.
TMD: Is it possible that the current plans for commencement could change if circumstances change? For example, more in-person if vaccinations keep increasing, or less in-person if cases remain very high in the state?
MS: I think it’s very, very unlikely that it would become more in-person. I could almost say it won’t. The facts haven’t changed since we made the decision, and anything that’s changed has been the wrong direction. It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen two weeks from now, but the levels that we have around the state now are way higher than I predicted they would be the last time we spoke (in early March). I think it’s extremely unlikely that it would be safe to do more than we’re already planning on doing.
I’m reasonably optimistic that we can still have this viewing in the Big House for students that want to experience graduation together with their friends, and the reasons why are the ones that I’ve spoken about before — big venue, relatively small numbers of people.
TMD: The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released their final recommendations to you in March. How is the process going for you in terms of reading through the document and deciding what to implement, and how would you respond to student groups like the Climate Action Movement who questioned if the recommendations went far enough, fast enough?
MS: I think the commission did a great job. They satisfied the charge, they defined the scope of the issue, they defined a timeframe and they actually made 50 recommendations for how we can become carbon neutral. It’s very comprehensive. I’m really grateful. Another thing they did that I really appreciated is it was a very open and transparent process and involved lots of people.
I like the fact that it actually went beyond simply thinking about how to reduce the campus’ release of greenhouse gases. It talked about creating a culture of sustainability, promoting research and teaching around carbon neutrality and sustainability, and it had a very powerful focus on environmental justice. What I’ve been doing in the week since the report went final, and for the next several weeks, is working with various subgroups of executives and the folks actually responsible for the nuts-and-bolts of running our facilities and organizing the campus and trying to figure out what we can do. My aim is to talk about the game plan at the regents meeting in May. And by then the team will have digested and analyzed, and I’ll be able to talk about my initial response.
I can easily see accepting a majority of the recommendations. There are some that we may need to do some more work or study, but overall I’m really pleased with the results and I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to do a lot of this really starting now. In terms of various groups being happy or unhappy with the report, I think environmental sustainability, global climate change, greenhouse gases are amongst the most important targets of advocacy, all around the world, and certainly among student groups, and certainly here on campus. I predict the advocacy will continue, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just part of how change happens.
TMD: The Board of Regents also recently voted in favor of disinvesting from fossil fuel companies and committing to a net-zero investment portfolio by 2050. In previous interviews, you’ve said changing investment policy is solely a financial decision. Regents Mark Bernstein (D) and Jordan Acker (D) thanked students and community members for their input when the new policy was approved. Was this disinvestment decision solely for financial reasons, or did activism and community input also influence the decision?
MS: For sure the activism focused our attention on this … and I give really a lot of credit to the folks who are the powerful advocates on this issue, it’s an important issue. You know my own positions evolved as I understand things better.
The basis of the board moving forward is actually fiduciary. So what I mean by that is we came to understand that it’s inevitable that our society moves away from fossil fuels. We have to, and we think we have to do it quickly. It’s not going quickly enough, but the fact that we know that we’re going to end up not using oil and gas like we use it now means that investments in those assets are bad long-term investments — they’re going to go down in value. And we’re responsible not just for this year and next year for the endowment, but we’re responsible for your grandchildren if they get into Michigan, there’s still an endowment here to help subsidize their education. So companies that don’t come up with good plans to become carbon neutral, they’re going to become bad investments over time. Either the government’s going to start taxing carbon, or there’ll be other changes in society that make them bad investments.
TMD: At the special Regents meeting April 2, several regents made statements condemning Regent Weiser’s recent remarks about women and allusions to assassination at the North Oakland Republic Club, with Regent Acker going so far as to call Regent Weiser’s comments “a betrayal” of the board’s work and “everything the University of Michigan stands for.” Regardless of the future of Regent Weiser’s relationship with the University, how do you and the board plan to rebuild the trust of the campus community as a collective decision-making body for the University and as an institution that purports to strive for DEI?
MS: I hope that the board is able to rebuild some of the lost trust by focusing on our highest priorities and showing the public that this is what they work on. We work on access and affordability of a Michigan education, we work on academic excellence, we just spoke about work we’re doing in carbon neutrality and climate change, we work supporting our health system and life-saving research on many other topics. So I think the way to maintain trust and to grow trust is to focus on the things that are important to our community and do a really good job.
TMD: At this time, do you agree with the Board of Regents that Regent Weiser should resign? If he doesn’t — and he’s repeatedly said he won’t — how do you think the board will be able to work with him over the next four years? Regent Mike Behm (D) has said Weiser has been a “Regent in name only” since January.
MS: So as I mentioned a moment ago, the board works by majority vote. On the vast majority of issues that the board addresses, there’s unanimity of opinion. We all share the same set of goals. I presume that the board will have to work its way past our entire community’s unhappiness with the events from a few weeks ago and figure out how to work together for the sake of the University. As I said, one regent has one vote and there are eight regents on the board. This process has served us well for 200 years. Although I don’t know of another instance where there was a vote of the type that took place a couple weeks ago at a special meeting, there have been arguments amongst regents, disagreements of opinion. So it’ll be challenging, but I’m confident that the same mechanisms that have served the University for a couple hundred years will continue.
TMD: To ask you directly, do you agree with the Board of Regents’ vote that Regent Weiser should resign?
MS: I’m not a voting member of the board. I convene their meetings and I organize the discussions, but I don’t vote.
TMD: The Washington Post reported that you wrote to Wisconsin’s chancellor last summer: “If you simply delete emails after sending, does that relieve you of FOIA obligations?” When she responded that permanently deleting them violates state law, you said, “that’s really interesting and difficult. Thanks for explaining.” Do you ever permanently delete your emails? And if so, in what circumstances?
MS: Yeah, I say on a typical day, I get between 100 and several hundred emails. Every day. Maybe on Sundays a few less. So I’m always curating my emails, and I’m always discarding emails, and I think most people do. It’s to keep yourself organized, and not everything needs to be kept.
The reason I was having that conversation with Chancellor (Rebecca) Blank is that Michigan Freedom of Information Act laws say nothing about an obligation to retain emails. So, in Wisconsin, their law requires they be retained. In Michigan, our law doesn’t speak to retaining emails. So I delete all kinds of emails every single day. I save some, I delete some — it just depends on what I’m working on.
I should point out … since this has received a lot of attention, we were conducting a discussion amongst a group of presidents, batting around ideas about how we were planning on approaching the fall semester. I love getting advice from other people that are separate from us but in analogous conversations. There was nothing mysterious in the emails and they eventually responded to a FOIA in Wisconsin, (and now) they’re all out there. There was nothing nefarious in these emails — it’s just a matter of people wanting to know what people are talking about.
TMD: In a broader sense, do concerns about public record requests ever discourage you from communicating candidly on official channels?
MS: The most important thing to me is that I do my job 100% as best I can. And I communicate all different kinds of ways: sometimes by email, sometimes by telephone and now more and more this way, by Zoom. I do whatever suits the moment, and the idea is I’ve got to get the job done. I’ve got to talk to people, I’ve got to learn things, I have to compare notes. So we do what we’ve got to do.
TMD: The Lecturers’ Employee Organization gathered and marched outside of your house last Saturday in protest against the administration’s recent counterproposal in a closed bargaining session Friday, April 9. LEO has a history of voting to strike, and we’ve seen an even more recent strike from the Graduate Employees’ Organization at the beginning of the fall semester. With LEO’s contract set to expire in less than a week, what is the University prepared to do to prevent another strike from occurring?
MS: We are strong believers in collective bargaining. We do our bargaining at the table. We don’t do it in the newspaper or something.
But we’ve got multiple additional sessions scheduled with LEO. Our lecturers are very important to delivering our academic mission. They’re our colleagues. Many of them are neighbors or friends. And we’re committed to trying to find a mutually agreeable way to complete a contract negotiation.
This happens every three years with every union — every two to three years, depending upon the union.
TMD: Part of LEO’s platform emphasizes pay parity across the University’s campuses, but Public Affairs recently countered that the University does not have an obligation to bargain with LEO on where funds unrelated to lecturers’ contracts go. Where do you stand on this question of LEO’s demands regarding the Flint and Dearborn campuses? Do you think the bigger question of equitable funding truly lies outside the purview of a labor union’s collective action efforts?
MS: As I mentioned earlier, I don’t negotiate in public or talk publicly about an active negotiation.
I am comfortable saying that the three campuses of the University of Michigan are quite autonomous from one another. We share a Board of Regents and I supervise the chancellors on those campuses, but each campus gets a separate budget from the state — directly from the state, directly to that campus. Each campus makes its own decisions on admission (and) has its own standards. Each campus is accredited, independently of one another by a different accrediting agency. Each campus charges a different tuition. Flint and Dearborn are less (in tuition cost) than Ann Arbor. And the chancellors on each campus, or the president here in Ann Arbor, is responsible for making decisions and allocating resources on each campus. So, and that’s been the case since the 1960s, when Flint and Dearborn joined under the University of Michigan umbrella.
TMD: Have you considered extending the Go Blue Guarantee to Flint and Dearborn? Do you have any concrete plans in that area?
MS: Yeah, I know that Flint and Dearborn themselves are considering whether they’d like to begin a guarantee because it’s the responsibility of the chancellor and the leadership on each of those campuses to decide how best to spend their resources. At Flint and Dearborn, almost 80% of the students or more get financial aid, more than in Ann Arbor.
If they decided to do a Go Blue Guarantee, they would take money away from somewhere else. So they’re making the balancing act or values judgment about what is best needed on each of the campuses. Here in Ann Arbor, the reason why we began a guarantee approach to this financial aid is we have a campus where very few people came from the bottom 50% of the socioeconomic strata around our state. So we wanted to invest in making sure that Michigan in Ann Arbor was accessible to people throughout the economic spectrum.
TMD: What’s your favorite song from the rerecorded Taylor Swift album “Fearless” released Friday?
MS: Usually I try my very best to answer all your questions. I had no idea that Taylor Swift just rereleased an album, and although I’m sure I’d recognize Taylor Swift if I heard her on the radio, I’m not sure I can name any of her songs. I’m embarrassed. You know, my musical experiences stopped in the 1970s. If you want to talk a little Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney or something, I’m with you.
Daily News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporters Jared Dougall & Julianna Morano can be reached at email@example.com & firstname.lastname@example.org. Managing Podcast Editor Gerald Sill contributed reporting.