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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs held an online meeting on Monday afternoon with Interim Provost Susan M. Collins as a guest to discuss current operations at the University of Michigan in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Collins talked about faculty and student mental health efforts, considerations of evaluations of remote instruction and alternate plans for graduate students involved in research that has been halted.
The meeting began with introductions of SACUA’s three new members: Jennifer Caitlin Finlayson, associate professor of English literature at the U-M Dearborn; Allen Liu, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering; and Kentaro Toyama, professor of information and community information in the School of Information.
Collins then began speaking about the implications of the coronavirus pandemic along with the University’s response.
“We are committed to protecting health and safety while we proceed with the University’s core mission,” Collins said. “That includes instruction, maintaining academic continuity for our students and it also includes things like keeping on track the faculty promotions, which are so essential to the University’s long-term excellence.”
To accommodate the challenges of online instruction, specifically for faculty, Collins discussed changes to course evaluations for the winter semester.
“We are just about to roll out changes to the course evaluations for this semester … we’ve added new questions that will reflect the unusual circumstances and give lots more room for students to give qualitative feedback,” Collins said. “Evaluations will not in the traditional way be used to address promotion and tenure cases because the circumstances are just so unusual.”
Additionally, Collins emphasized the mental health resources that remain accessible for both students and faculty. The Faculty and Staff Counseling and Consultation Office is providing telehealth counseling sessions to faculty and staff and their dependents. Counseling and Psychological Services is still open for virtual appointments and has added a few more resources to their website as well.
Collins also said incoming graduate students may face uncertainty in enrolling at the University in light of the rapidly changing economy.
“There is more uncertainty about graduate and professional enrollments … in the short-run many students may choose to defer or forego their plans and we have certainly recognized that,” Collins said. “Or even considering the broader economy as a factor, sometimes when the economy is more challenged, more people go to graduate school.”
Collins then opened the floor to questions from SACUA members. Colleen Conway, professor of music education in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, asked about the consistency of messaging surrounding the new approach to course evaluations.
“What is the language that is going to go out to faculty about the use of course evaluations in tenure and promotions?” Conway said. “Is it at the unit level that those decisions will be made?”
Collins said her intent is that the message comes from both her and the deans of the schools and colleges to reiterate that it does not make sense for evaluations for this semester to be used as they traditionally would be.
Annalisa Manera, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences in the College of Engineering, asked about plans regarding pauses in research for Ph.D. and graduate students.
“In my department, this has already taken place, so I was wondering whether there are some plans of what to do with all the Ph.D. and postdoc students who are in these circumstances,” Manera said.
Collins said some units are further along in monitoring students’ progress, adding that, overall, plans were being made on a case-by-case basis.
Elena Gallo, an associate professor of astronomy in LSA, commented on the issue of stalled research.
“This is really a source of enormous stress for the graduate student population and students are extremely worried about funding continuity, so any approximate deadline (for plans moving forward) would be extremely helpful,” Gallo said.
Though there is not yet a clear timeline, Collins said she would make communication regarding research plans a priority going forward.
Collins emphasized her desire to utilize SACUA, especially in this unprecedented time, as the “eyes and ears” of campus in order to make future decisions.
“We’re now in a place where we can be thoughtful about what we need to prioritize so there aren’t major pockets in our community that are not being considered,” Collins said.
Contributor Celene Philip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.