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Update 10/7: The voting period for Faculty Senate has ended and all five motions were passed.
Tensions ran high at the Faculty Senate meeting Monday afternoon as University of Michigan administration and faculty members discussed five motions related to the University’s sexual misconduct response, the absence of options for remote instruction this semester and COVID-19 protocols on campus.
Discussion of the motions first started in September when faculty sent them to University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins. Schlissel responded to the motions in an email to Faculty Senate on Thursday, backing the University’s decision to return to large in-person classes and mentioning the new sexual misconduct policy introduced Sept. 23.
The first motion calls on the University to reinstate COVID-19 protections like social distancing and asks for greater flexibility for faculty to teach remotely. Currently, masks are required in all indoor University spaces. Though students must wear masks during classes, social distancing is not enforced.
Faculty are asking for greater teaching flexibility to be implemented through changing Work Connections, the University’s disability management program, to allow faculty with disabilities or health conditions to teach remotely.
LSA professor Silke-Maria Weineck spoke in favor of Motion 1, saying that Work Connections currently has too much power to decide whether faculty have to teach in-person or not. Weineck said the University should not make faculty go against their physician’s medical advice or force them to teach in-person if they have a pre-existing condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“A case management at Work Connections has the power to overrule your doctor and inform your dean that you must suck it up — there’s no appeal,” Weineck said. “Deans can, in theory, ignore the determinations, but in practice, they defer to them, so the most vulnerable amongst us have faced the choice to work and live in constant fear or to lose their livelihood. This includes LEO faculty — we don’t have a vote today and staff who don’t have a vote anywhere.”
In his email to the Faculty Senate, Schlissel said Work Connections has reviewed 28 “formal requests” to teach remotely “out of a total of 8,500 instructional faculty members across all three U-M campuses.”
According to Schlissel, of those 28, 20 were rejected, 4 were accepted as “needing some enhanced accommodations,” 2 are awaiting more information from the applicants, 1 was withdrawn and 1 was unrelated to COVID-19.
“Each request is carefully considered and individually assessed by medical personnel (nurses and physicians) against Michigan Medicine and CDC criteria,” Schlissel wrote. “It is not in Work Connections’ scope to review requests related to the health status of an instructor’s family members or others with whom they reside. Those requests should be submitted directly to the instructor’s department.”
The second motion relates to COVID-19 testing and close contact tracing. According to the motion, faculty are asking for mandatory testing once a week for vaccinated individuals and twice a week for those who are unvaccinated.
The University requires all students and staff to be vaccinated. Weekly testing is mandatory for unvaccinated students who were exempt from the requirement but not vaccinated students, and the University recently expanded its asymptomatic testing capacity. 96% of students, 96% of faculty and 88% of staff at the University are vaccinated as of Tuesday, and students make up 11% of cases in Washtenaw County, according to the campus COVID-19 dashboard.
Faculty are also requesting close contact notifications with more specific details. The University ended COVID-19 classroom notifications Sept. 14, citing concerns of the notifications being “confusing and of limited benefit” but have maintained close contact notifications.
Michael Atzmon, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences and a sponsor of the bill, said he feels lack of mandatory testing is putting the community at risk, specifically those who are medically vulnerable.
“What we need is to expand routine testing, we need to remove the automatic classification of the vaccinated as ‘not close contact’ and we need to establish meaningful notification,” Atzmon said.
University-associated COVID-19 cases have steadily decreased since students began arriving on campus; however, Washtenaw County’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention risk level has remained high since mid-August.
During the meeting, Schlissel asked the faculty for help in disseminating information about testing to the student population.
“We have a surplus of capacity at both University Health Service and at these testing facilities, we have the capacity to increase mandated levels of testing if the situation warrants,” Schlissel said. “Right now it doesn’t, but we have plenty of capacity to do that.”
Motion 3 focuses on the University’s in-person teaching policy, asking the University to incorporate faculty input into the policy.
According to the motion, it has long been University policy for instructors and departments to have primary responsibility for the content and structure of their courses. The motion references the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities and the University of Michigan Faculty Handbook, both of which place responsibility for determining “methods of instruction” with the faculty.
“The University’s current policy, which effectively coerces an in-person method of instruction, denies a fundamental prerogative of the faculty and flouts the stated views of the AAUP and the U-M Office of the Provost,” the motion claims.
If passed, the motion would require the University to “immediately re-evaluate and adjust its policy for in-person instruction, so as to better incorporate the legitimate input of the faculty.”
LSA professor Lydia Kelow-Bennett spoke at the faculty senate meeting and said the quality of her teaching has suffered as she was denied her request to work remotely after testing positive for COVID-19.
“I tested positive for a breakthrough case of COVID the first week of class,” Kelow-Bennett said. “Despite still being quite ill and despite my physician’s recommendation for my own safety, Work Connections has denied my request to work remotely solely on the grounds that I’m not infectious. Work Connections has denied my professional autonomy.”
Benjamin Paloff, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature, presented motion five during the meeting. In the context of rising COVID-19 cases among children under the age of 12 who are unable to be vaccinated and intermittent school closures, the motion would allow professors the option to move their classes and/or office hours fully online.
If passed, the option to move classes online would be open to professors whose children cannot attend school in person, whether because they are unvaccinated or must quarantine or are receiving health care at home. The transition process would be handled at the departmental level.
To make this option more accessible, this motion calls for the University to devote significant resources to support parents of young children. An ad-hoc committee to determine recommendations as to the shape and extent of this support would also be created under this motion.
During the meeting’s Q&A, Schlissel and Collins said that updates to the COVID-19 policies would result in an open floodgate of requests for short-term online learning.
“If there were a relaxation of standards that basically said since there are so few (fully online classes), it’s ok, everybody just figure out what you want to do, then I imagine the number (of fully online classes) would grow exponentially,” Schlissel said.
Paloff began his statement to the Senate by rejecting this notion, saying that it is offensive in how it questions faculty dedication to education.
“The dedication to our shared pedagogical mission that I’ve seen among my colleagues is absolutely extraordinary and inspiring, without exception; this motion is about helping ourselves fulfill that mission,” Paloff said. “I will not be lectured by anyone on the importance of delivering on that mission … I launched an online course in COVID for the spring term within 36 hours of my father passing of COVID. No one lectures me about dedication to this mission.”
Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak presented an additional motion that would adopt recommendations made by survivors of former Provost Martin Philbert’s sexual misconduct. The motion calls for the formation of a committee composed of survivors and informed faculty and staff to recommend new sexual misconduct policies to the University.
“We need to develop survivor-centered policies to remove predators from campus, the first time an assault occurs,” Modrak said.
The University finalized a new sexual misconduct policy in September that replaced the interim umbrella policy that had been in effect since last August. The new policy, which took effect Oct. 1, clarifies ways to report misconduct, explicitly prohibits supervisor-employee relationships and creates common definitions for prohibited conduct.
However, Modrak said these new changes will not deter predatory behavior.
“None of the recent changes to sexual misconduct policies would have prevented Martin Philbert’s assaults,” Modrak said. “Clarifying ways to report misconduct also misses the mark, people reported misconduct by Philbert, Walter Lasecki, Bruce Conforth and Robert Anderson, administrators failed to investigate and to act on these reports.”
The Computer Science and Engineering department has also seen multiple cases of sexual misconduct in recent years, including Jason Mars, who is currently employed by the University despite student concerns, and Peter Chen, who will be facing trial in January for first degree criminal sexual misconduct.
Cases of sexual misconduct within the University have not been limited to CSE. Stephen Shipps and David Daniels, both former professors in the School of Music, Theater and Dance, were also accused of sexual misconduct by numerous people at the University. Daniels was fired by the University in March 2020.
The motion would require members of search committees for faculty and administrative positions to verify they have disclosed any knowledge of sexual misconduct allegations against potential appointees by signing a written statement.
Search committee members would also have department chairs and school deans document why discipline was or was not imposed following reports of sexual misconduct. The motion would mandate that the new Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office reference all prior reports of misconduct when investigating an individual to discover potential patterns of misconduct.
LSA professor Yi-Li Wu, co-sponsor of the motion, emphasized the importance of holding U-M administrators and faculty accountable and said they should not have “unilateral power” to minimize or ignore sexual misconduct allegations.
“Clearly we cannot depend on individual leaders to do the right thing,” Wu said. “The President’s core motivation seems to be to protect the people that he favors from scrutiny and the motivation of the regents seems to be to protect the president.”
Schlissel spoke on the new Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office’s increased focus on prevention education in addition to investigation into sexual misconduct. Schlissel said the administration is working on creating new and enhanced guidelines for vetting faculty and administrative appointees.
“We must do a better job and more thorough job of vetting appointees to leadership positions,” Schlissel said. “This work has to continue, I don’t think we’re where we need to be and we really need all your help to be successful.”
Voting for the five motions began after the meeting ended Monday and lasts for 48 hours.