Faculty at the University of Michigan will vote on two motions of no confidence in the University administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic this week.

The vote will take place Wednesday at the second of two emergency Faculty Senate meetings that came out of a petition from faculty. More than 200 tenured or tenure-track faculty members signed the petition for the meeting, dwarfing the 50 needed to require SACUA Chair Colleen Conway to hold a meeting.

LSA senior Joshua Bates first heard about the vote on UMich Memes for Wolverteens, a Facebook meme page run by University students. He said this was the first time he had heard of the Faculty Senate and that he was unsure what impact a vote would have.

“I didn’t even know faculty governance was a thing until this was happening,” Bates said. “Is this for show? What is it for?”

Bates’s view mirrors those of many students for whom faculty governance is largely a mystery. Some students in private Facebook groups popular among students asked what the Faculty Senate was. Others wondered what power the body has.

Ahead of the votes, The Daily has consulted faculty governance leadership and a higher education expert to answer some of the most-asked questions about this action and what it means for the campus community.

What is a vote of no confidence?

A vote of no confidence signifies that a body does not have confidence in a person or institution’s ability to execute the duty of their job. 

German professor Silke-Maria Weineck submitted the motion for one of the votes. If passed, this vote would mean that the Faculty Senate — which is the representative body of all tenured and tenure-track faculty — has lost trust in administration’s ability to reopen campus safely.

Weineck’s motion pointed to public health experts’ criticism of the University’s testing plan. The motion also references previous activism highlighting the need for safety as the University prepared for the public health-informed semester, such as a faculty protest held in August. 

There is also another motion, submitted by Stephen Ward, associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies, that would signal the Faculty Senate has lost confidence specifically in Schlissel’s leadership if it passed.

A vote of no confidence from the Faculty Senate is symbolic, meaning neither Schlissel nor other University administrators will lose their jobs if the votes pass.

However, the votes of no confidence do have the power to influence or pressure the Board of Regents to take action, according to Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. Kelchen said some bodies will pass motions of no confidence against a college’s leadership or board to push back against their decisions.

“To some extent, it’s a cry for help and a cry to be heard, because faculty are unhappy with the way they’ve been treated this fall,” Kelchen said. “This is one of the few steps they can take to show how displeased they are.”

Kelchen said he has not seen votes of no confidence in relation to COVID-19 happen at other schools yet, but he could foresee other universities doing something similar in the near future. He said faculty governance bodies taking this step has become more common over the last five years.

What is the Faculty Senate and what authority does it have?

The motion will be voted on by the Faculty Senate, which represents all tenured and tenure-track faculty members at the University. Anyone who holds one of these positions is automatically a member of the Faculty Senate and able to vote.

There are approximately 4,500 members, according to Mary Jo Banasik, director of the Faculty Senate Office. The Faculty Senate usually meets once a year unless an additional meeting is called through a petition.

The Faculty Senate is different from the Senate Assembly because the Assembly consists of 74 members from across the University’s three campuses elected to represent their respective schools, while every faculty member can vote in the Faculty Senate. The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, a nine-member body, is the executive arm of the Faculty Senate and meets multiple times every month.

Conway said faculty governance at the University is set up similarly to other schools. Though faculty governance operates in an advisory capacity, Conway said these groups allow faculty to voice their opinions and to operate between faculty and administration. She called these votes of no confidence “unprecedented.”

In addition to the votes of no confidence, faculty will vote on four other motions at this meeting, including one to allow meetings to run online and one to ensure representative bodies such as SACUA and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization are engaged in discussions with administration on matters relating to faculty.

Voting on these motions will be kept open after the meeting for 24 hours to ensure faculty members who were not able to attend the meeting can still vote.

Is this vote official?

Conway sent an email to the Faculty Senate informing them that the Office of General Counsel — the office of the University’s lawyers — told her the upcoming meeting would be unofficial. This was a cause for alarm for some faculty members, drawing concern that the University administration was trying to prevent the votes of no confidence.

However, Banasik said the OGC’s comments about remote meetings not being official is not new or related to the potential votes of no confidence. Banasik said she reached out to OGC for advice about holding meetings during the winter semester before the votes of no confidence were on the table.

“It didn’t have anything to do or have any relationship with a vote of no confidence at that time,” Banasik said. “We do recognize that the Office of General Counsel does play a role in providing legal advice to the University community, so it was in that capacity that I requested some insights concerning electronic meetings during COVID.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald previously told The Daily that these remote meetings and votes are “low risk” and likely won’t be challenged in court, echoing Banasik’s sentiment that OGC was simply answering her question, not issuing a warning. 

Conway said that, despite the rules, the meeting will still happen virtually, and the vote can still take place. It will be symbolic, she noted, and will not be considered official until it can be ratified at a later meeting. 

“We’ve done everything we can to bring forth the voice of the most number of faculty in responding to these very important issues,” Conway said. “So, we have a September 16 meeting planned, where we have five motions where faculty will have the opportunity to vote. So, I think it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of all that, but the bottom line is motions were brought forth and a vote will happen.”

Daily News Editors Alex Harring and Emma Stein can be reached at harring@umich.edu and enstein@umich.edu. 

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