Courtesy of Riley Hodder

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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs met both virtually and in-person Monday at the Fleming Administration Building to hear from University President Mark Schlissel about plans for the winter semester and discuss the University’s standard practice guide for faculty disclosure on criminal records. 

Schlissel attended SACUA and gave a summary of the current state of the University concerning COVID-19. Schlissel said while cases were higher than he liked, the University’s contact tracing and quarantine services were not overwhelmed.

Schlissel then spoke about the vaccine and the booster shot, which was endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration for all adults on Nov. 19. While the University is actively discussing mandating a booster shot, Schlissel said administration is not ready to institute a mandate yet.

“If the CDC were to change its recommendation to say that in order to be considered fully vaccinated you must have had a third dose or a second dose depending on which vaccine, we would probably adopt that” Schlissel said. 

Schlissel said plans for Winter 2022 would be similar to Fall 2021 — masks will still be required indoors, and the majority of events and classes would be conducted in-person.

“Students have done their registering, and we’ve done our planning for the semester,” Schlissel said. “So we’ll be significantly in-person.” 

In October, SACUA passed five resolutions calling on the University to implement stronger COVID-19 protocols and to give faculty more leeway in deciding if they conducted their class in-person or online. 

Michael Atzmon, Senate Assembly member and professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, expressed concerns about the management of COVID-19 at the University. Atzmon said the University was falling short in terms  of contact tracing, which he said was necessary to ensure safety of faculty and students.  

“Since we don’t have seating information in the classroom, it’s obvious that we do not do contact tracing,” Atzmon said. 

Schlissel said faculty and staff can implement these changes by establishing assigned seating charts in classrooms to institute more rigorous contact tracing. With the Delta variant, Schlissel said there are less asymptomatic victims and that this would also help with contact tracing.

Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Senate Assembly member and Classics professor, said her students do not feel safe with the large number of people in her class. 

“A lot of (students) just felt terrified being in a classroom with 50 other people in a small space with no ventilation, with no social distancing possible,” Ahbel-Rappe said. “Next semester I’ll have even more students in a small space, discussing and talking and spitting.”

Elena Gallo, Senate Assembly member and associate professor of Astronomy, also said faculty are also experiencing a lack of student attendance. She said she has seen less participation in lectures or other large classes with lower attendance standards and the availability of an online option.

Schlissel suggested surveying staff on attendance in their classes to determine whether or not Gallo’s experiences are seen throughout the University. 

“I know it’s extremely difficult to teach effectively when you have some students present and some students not present,” Schlissel said. “Depending upon the nature of the class, that’s a (huge) burden on the faculty and I think it decreases average learning.”

Ahbel-Rappe asked to invite the COVID-19 Council to discuss the potential plans for the Omicron variant as well as plans for the vaccine booster. In the end, the committee agreed to add COVID-19 discussions to the agenda, as well as to invite the COVID-19 Council to attend the Senate Assembly meeting.

SACUA also discussed the Felony Disclosure Policy. The standard practice guide, enacted in 2019, requires any professor, employee or member of staff affiliated with the University to disclose a felony charge or conviction that occurs while they are employed by the University.

Earlier this month, the University announced they would be removing two questions — if an applicant has been convicted of a felony or if there are any pending felony charges against them — from University job applications. In August 2020, the University also removed questions asking about misdemeanor charges from student admission applications.  

Timothy Wood, senior director of Staff Human Resources Services, said the data is collected through a form linked in the policy that prompts the individual to identify the charges and to include any circumstances they deem relevant.

Ashley Lucas, Music, Theatre and Dance associate professor and co-founder of the Carceral State Project, said this policy fails to protect students and instead scrutinizes those vulnerable at the University.

“The academic research shows that these kinds of policies cause a lot more damage to the most vulnerable people already on our campus,” Lucas said. “To people who have already been over-policed and scrutinized.”

Lucas, and her associates at the Carceral State Project have called for the removal of this policy and others like it. Lucas said she believes Academic Human Resources has failed to communicate how the data of charges and convictions are stored and whether or not they are kept confidential. 

Wood said the data collected through this policy is kept confidential and that Human Resources Services only maintain it for analysis of patterns and trends. 

Sascha Matish, associate vice provost and senior director of Academic Human Resources, said the policy is focused on safety. If a crime doesn’t require action to be taken then action will not be taken, Matish said. 

“I think there have been cases that have come in from the felony disclosure form, and the decision was made not to share with the individual unit,” Matish said. “Because during the assessment it was determined that that shouldn’t move forward.”

J. Caitlin Finlayson, Senate Assembly vice chair and associate professor of English Literature at U-M Dearborn, expressed further concerns about the issue of racism in the implementation of the policy.

“We all know that the justice system is not color blind, and that it has disproportionately negative effects on POC populations,” Finlayson said. “So I want to know what you are doing to track, assess, and ensure that this policy doesn’t have a disproportionately negative effect on BIPOC faculty, staff and graduate students at this institution.”

Wood said the people at Academic Human Resources are actively tracking demographic data, including both race and gender. He said that they have only nine data points and that this presents an issue with making conclusions about how the policy is affecting people across demographics.

Atzmon also said there might be a problem with punishments that come as a result of this policy.

“With rules like these, there’s always the potential for selective (punishment) for reasons that have little to do with the stated reasons,” Atzmon said. “What we hear is ‘always trust us,’ but it’s difficult to do that when the rules allow abuse.”

Ahbel-Rappe also pointed out that the policy was created in reaction to former Music, Theater and Dance professor David Daniels, and that the policy fails to address the issues it reacted to. Daniels and his husband, Scott Walters, were charged with sexual assault in 2019. It wasn’t until 2020 that Daniels was fired from the University for allegations of sexual misconduct.

“This entire policy was created around reactivity to one person,” Ahbel-Rappe said. “The University went on fine before that, and even since that has had plenty of serial rapists in its midst. So why do this? Why discriminate?”

Former Music, Theater and Dance professor Stephen Shipps, who retired in 2019 after being accused of sexual misconduct, pled guilty to transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes in November 2021. Additionally, Computer Science and Engineering professors Walter Lasecki, Jason Mars, and Peter Chen have all been accused of sexual misconduct. Lasecki resigned effective Aug. 30  and Chen is currently awaiting trial for first degree sexual misconduct at the end of January 2022. Former Provost Martin Philbert was fired in 2020 after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.  

The University is also in ongoing mediation with more than 950 victims of the late Athletic Doctor Robert Anderson for sexual misconduct and abuse. In October 2021, former University football players Jonathan Vaughn and Chuck Christain began camping outside Schlissel’s house to bring attention to Anderson’s abuse and sexual misconduct on campus. Christain and Vaughn plan to continue camping out for 100 days or until Schlissel or the Board of Regents meets with them. 

Gallo said she supported the policy in cases of charging. She said she believes the policy could be used to put employees on leave until they are proven guilty or innocent to ensure the safety of students and other members of the campus community.

“The policy can fulfill a noble cause, that is protecting the community,” Gallo said. “I think it can go a long way if one can articulate how a given felony may or may not put the University community in danger.”

Daily Staff Reporter Riley Hodder can be reached at rehodder@umich.edu.