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The Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss the University’s plans for the fall semester during the COVID-19 pandemic and the release of WilmerHale’s report on allegations of sexual misconduct against former Provost Martin Philbert.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: I wanted to start out if it’s OK with you by reiterating an apology that I’ve offered to a number of individuals, and then to a group as a whole that wrote me a letter — I want to get their name correct — the Queer Advocacy Coalition … I was making comments in one of the town halls around the logic behind our surveillance testing and the pluses and minuses of testing asymptomatic students in an effort to diminish transmission of the disease. And one of the things I said is a fear that if a student learns they’re negative, that might diminish their incentive to follow masking and distancing and the like. And I made what turned out to be a very bad and insensitive analogy with HIV disease — AIDS, and it was really hurtful to a lot of people. It was incorrect with the history. I feel very badly about it. So I just wanted another opportunity to say sorry, to promise to be more careful and to express my empathy with that group for any pain or discomfort that I caused with some remarks that just shouldn’t have been offered.
The Michigan Daily: Universities that originally planned for some forms of in-person classes, like University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reversed their decisions and went entirely online after only about a week of classes. Meanwhile, Michigan State announced an all online semester and Eastern Michigan delayed move-in. So why is the University of Michigan any different?
MS: Well, we may prove not to be, but I think that we are different. We’ve planned and worked very hard on getting things as optimal as we can. I have confidence in our students. But in reality, if you think about what the difference is between a remote semester and what we’re talking about now, as of now 77 percent of our student credit hours are being offered remotely.
… Every young person I talked to, well, they’re always being honest. They say that they’d rather be with their friends. They’d rather not live at home some more. So, going fully remote is a pretty incremental difference from where we are right now. And it wouldn’t have left people at home. We’d still have lots of students in Ann Arbor, and we’d still have the challenge of working with students to help everybody understand what it takes to be safe from being infected and from transmitting the disease … I’ve been in pretty close contact with other campuses around the country, including UNC and including Notre Dame and including many of my colleagues in the Big Ten, asking them what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked, what’s the most surprising. And so far, the campuses that have run into difficulty trace it to off-campus student life … So it could turn out that we prove to be like everybody else. I always try to be better.
TMD: On that note, Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani told The Daily that one big party could shut the whole semester down. So then, if that’s the case and we’re seeing students at other schools and the University of Michigan already starting to party, why bring everyone back to then potentially send them home?
MS: I don’t bring everyone back and I don’t send everybody home. Many of the students who are living here in Ann Arbor are gonna continue living in Ann Arbor in their private residences under their leases — not everybody of course, but many. I also think Dr. Malani was exercising a bit of hyperbole by saying one big party is all it’s gonna take. I hope we don’t have one big party with a super-spreader event, but there will be spreading events. There were spreading events when you all were living at home … so there will be spread of the disease. It’s not the students’ fault. It’s not the University’s fault. It’s the pandemic’s fault. So it’s up to us to protect ourselves as best we can and to protect one another. Although there is a chance that there’ll be too many episodes where folks let their guard down, and too many people become infected and there’s too much spread for us to keep up with with testing, contact tracing and quarantine, then we would have to go fully remote. But recognize that doesn’t mean people are going home … The students in the dormitories, we can certainly encourage them to leave. There are a fraction of students in our dorms that don’t have other safe places to live, so I wouldn’t want to throw them (out) … it’s not as simple as saying “let’s go remote,” and then there’s no more risk.
TMD: In a similar vein, schools like Tulane, for example, have banned gatherings of more than 15 people and threatened expulsion for students who did not follow the mandate. Will the University of Michigan consider similar academic repercussions for violating social distancing rules?
MS: Well, I think as a very last resort, the Student Statement of Rights and Responsibilities does give the University the opportunity to do things of the type that you’re mentioning. Those aren’t first resorts. They’re last resorts. But I think people do have to recognize — particularly on our campus in our classrooms, in our dormitories, but also with one another in town — that they have to live up to the Student Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and then be subject to the downstream consequences of behavior that doesn’t live up to our aspirations.
TMD: Some community members have called for more transparency with opening plans, models used and analysis done, and just more details about containment plans as we approach the beginning of the semester. Why has the University not provided such details to the members of the community who have to make important decisions about their safety and the safety of those around them, based on these plans?
MS: With respect to those raising the question or the criticism, it’s always possible to provide more information. But if you look back on the number of communications that have come from me and other campus leaders in the last several months, it’s actually been an overwhelming number in very long and great detail — multiple town halls with different groups, dedicated and regularly updated Maize and Blueprint website, data on COVID-19 on campus that’s now up there and live. So there’s been a lot of communication. In particular, when we talk about what we would have to see in order to change our plans, everyone’s looking for a magic formula that if you have a certain number — like Dr. Malani said “one big party,” — we’d all go home. That’s not a complete statement. We’re tracking things like the rate of infection on campus, how many new cases per day. We’re looking at the distribution of where those cases are. Are they in clusters of events? Can we contact trace and quarantine downstream of those or does it exceed our capacity? … The difficulty for most folks is understanding that there’s not a magic formula. What there is is judgment in looking at the numbers and trends of a bunch of markers and taking advantage of our public health experts that are doing the same thing on behalf of the governor of the state.
TMD: Students and administrators across the country have publicly battled over who’s responsible for COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. For example, a Syracuse official called students attending large gatherings “selfish and reckless.” On the other hand, an editorial from UNC’s student newspaper argued “it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.” So who takes responsibility if there are large outbreaks on campus at the University of Michigan this fall?
MS: I put responsibility squarely on the virus. So this is a pandemic. The virus isn’t prejudiced. It infects people when they’re susceptible and available for infection. I don’t think any of us wants to get sick. I don’t think anybody, no matter what their behavior is, wants to get sick. My job as a campus leader, working with our Student Life people and our academic leaders and our safety people, is to try to create an environment that allows students to be educated about the virus, to take responsibility for themselves, to make their own decisions as adults — as young adults, but adults — in how to keep themselves, their friends and their families safe. And my job is to provide the education and the environment, and then the backup and support for you to be able to do this, all the while making sure that this pandemic doesn’t trash your ability to have college … I don’t hold students responsible, I don’t hold Student Life responsible, I don’t hold myself — in that sense — responsible. It’s the virus. We’re all humans. We’re all capable of outstanding behavior. We’re all very obviously capable of momentary lapses in behavior…
TMD: So then you feel like the University is as prepared as it possibly could be?
MS: I think every day we become better at what we do. So I would of course not say that we’re optimally prepared, because none of us have ever been through this before … We’re all trying to make our way through a complicated and completely novel set of circumstances. For example, there’s been a lot of attention focused on this issue of testing. And there’s a notion that if we could simply test everybody all the time, nobody would get sick. And that’s an exaggerated statement, so I don’t want to get in trouble making more exaggerated statements, but testing detects if you’re already sick. It doesn’t prevent you from being sick. The whole state of Michigan right now is averaging around 25,000 tests a day — the whole state … If we were to test everybody twice a week, we would dramatically exceed the testing done in our 10 million person state. What we are doing is we’re recognizing that surveillance testing is an important part of keeping the community safe. … The way you work on these problems is you do as much sort of theoretical thinking in advance as you can, and then you have the flexibility to modify and change as you actually implement and try to make things better every day. So I don’t feel optimally prepared. I argue that nobody in the country probably feels globally prepared. Our nation was not optimally prepared and it’s struggling to get to that level, but we’ll get better at this every day.
TMD: Tuition from students is a substantial part of the University’s revenue, and according to a survey conducted by Central Student Government over the summer, a majority of students surveyed said they would consider changing their plans and not enrolling full time if courses were fully online. If more funding were available from the state of Michigan and the federal government, would you have been more comfortable with a fully remote semester?
MS: More funding is always welcome … But I think what we would have endeavored to do, regardless of resources, is provide the courses in person that students can only take in person, that they need for their programs, they need for licensure, they need to progress to graduation, which is, you know, pretty much, pretty similar to what we’re doing now. But the additional funding would have allowed us to do this, passing less of the burden onto students and their families.
TMD: So the reason that we’re staying in person is to maintain the level of education, not for financial reasons?
MS: We’re trying to strike a balance to make sure that your Michigan degree is worth the same as a person who was here two years ago and a person that will be here five years from now. So we’re trying to give you the highest quality education, limited by the health and safety aspects of the pandemic. And what that seems to call for is a mix of online and as needed, in-person education … As you could imagine, our finances are way out of whack because of the pandemic. I’ve spoken about this before. It’s not entirely clear to me that if we were fully remote, as compared to the way we are right now, that costs would be dramatically different on our campus. Because the amount of money that we’re spending that we don’t normally do with these interventions to provide a healthier and safer environment — that’s not for free, that’s a lot of money too. So we don’t know how it’s all going to balance out … So there’s so many unknowns, but this isn’t being driven by a calculation about which way do we end up financially better. It’s being driven by how do we deliver the highest quality education we can to students at all different levels in the setting of a pandemic.
TMD: Last month, WilmerHale released their report on their investigation into former Provost Martin Philbert’s sexual misconduct. The report found, and I quote, “there is significant evidence that Philbert engaged in a wide range of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, for at least 15 years.” Were you familiar with any of the allegations described in the WilmerHale report prior to its publication?
MS: So the report goes over all those questions in detail. I spent a fair amount of time with the investigators, you know, I answered as fully and truthfully as my recollection allowed me to. So, you know, there isn’t a whole lot more for me to say beyond what’s been written about. What I can say is, personally, I was shocked. I met Philbert my very first year here, he was a dean in public health. He was a leader amongst the deans, you know, well-known, well-liked, well-respected dean. I did share the search and hired him as provost. We worked together closely. We were work colleagues, we weren’t personal friends. I had met his spouse, I had no idea about his personal life. I did know about one old lawsuit that was actually an employment lawsuit that’s been written about a lot. It wasn’t a sexual misconduct lawsuit. It was an employee who thought they were dismissed unfairly. I was aware of that. I looked at it carefully. I think the lesson of this awful episode, is we have a lot of work to do as an institution to make sure that people feel safe and secure in reporting misconduct. That they don’t feel there’ll be retribution, that they feel that their reports will be taken seriously, that people in positions of authority will follow through. That information will be fed up the food chain, the hierarchy, and we won’t have institutional failures like the hiring of a sexual predator into leadership positions at a university, something I’m hurt, embarrassed, betrayed, really discouraged about … We’re committed to acting on the recommendations of the WilmerHale report. The Board wants to work closely with the administration. We’d like to hire an expert or consultant to come to work with us to make sure that we adhere to these recommendations as closely as possible, but even go beyond them, to look at the problems that were identified that might have led to different outcomes, and figure out how we can try strategies to mitigate this series of failures so that our whole community isn’t subject to this again.
TMD: I just want to ask you specifically about one piece in the report. How did you miss the Philbert comment on your performance evaluation after you wrote to other administrators that they should take the feedback received from their own evaluations seriously?
MS: Yeah, so that’s, you know, on me. That’s bad. I wish that I had the capacity to read every document and piece of paper that comes across my desk. Each year, leaders of the University are reviewed by the faculty. …And I get page after page of single spaced comments. And I should have read every line of every one of them. Had I done so a year earlier, I would have had a reason to suspect that maybe there was a problem. And I would have turned things over to OIE (Office of Institutional Equity) to move forward. And I really apologize for that … I’m certainly going to prioritize, and I’ve asked my colleagues to prioritize, looking carefully through these anonymous comments, looking for things that are messages people are trying to send. One of the lessons for me from this is that in an environment where not everybody feels comfortable making a complaint, especially a complaint about someone in power, people try to use different pathways that feel safe to them. And an anonymous comment that is in a review like this must have felt safe to an individual, so now the challenge for us is trying to find, as leaders, other vehicles to allow people to feel safe while giving us a heads up about areas we should really look at and be careful. That’s the sort of takeaway lesson for me: learning how to use anonymous information to do my job better.
TMD: One of the things in the report, or one of the reasons why the former director of OIE Anthony Walesby didn’t come forward with the allegations he received was because there wasn’t enough information, that people didn’t want to come forward. And you’re saying you want to use more anonymous comments and stuff like that. So are you looking at ways that people can keep their identity more protected and still come forward about University faculty, administrators, that kind of thing, to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
MS: So in the course of our working on the recommendations that came from this WilmerHale report, and then looking beyond those recommendations for things we can do to make the University environment safer for everybody, to make it more free of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, we’ll explore things like what you’re mentioning, Emma, but we really need to do this carefully and thoughtfully. It’s not a new problem. It’s a problem that I would like to be working on immediately and continuously, and a lot was said in the report and we’ll have a lot more to say in the weeks ahead.
TMD: The report also found that many high-level administrators knew at some point, and yet Philbert was continually promoted, first to dean and then to provost. These officials include then-Provost Phil Hanlon, former senior director of OIE Anthony Walesby and various members of different search and vetting committees. In your opinion as president of this University, how did this happen?
MS: I don’t have a lot more to say than what I’ve said. But, significantly, I think it was an institutional failure and we have to learn the answer to your question. But I can tell you that the folks that you just rattled off are all high integrity people. So the question then becomes how does an institution make a mistake if the people are people of integrity and information is out there somewhere? And that’s the answer. That’s the answer we’re looking for, is how does something like this happen? And I don’t know the answer. Not yet.
TMD: I mean, we’re seeing that it happened in the past, too, with Anderson and all these people in the athletic department knowing, so it’s not a one-off, right? This is a pattern.
MS: I’d say across our entire society, it’s certainly not a one-off. The Anderson investigation is ongoing. It’s being conducted by the same team that I think did a very good job on the investigation of the former provost. So, in that domain, I’d prefer to wait until we hear the breadth of information from the investigation, as opposed to, you know, public statements along the way.
Daily News Editor Emma Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.