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The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel for the last time this year to discuss how his mindset and leadership style have changed over the course of the semester, the cancellation of the Ohio State University game, COVID-19 vaccines, the future of the pandemic and potential budget cuts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: This is such an unusual semester, and I thank the student body for hanging in there with all the changes in the slightly early switch to fully online, and then the long Thanksgiving break, but then coming back to hard work again, and these unusual finals formats you were telling me about … we recognize how challenging they are.
We also know it’s really stressful during finals time, so CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) is available to students, no matter where you are, you can reach out to them online. They’ve organized themselves to provide particular short-term help to students that are undergoing particular challenges as we take finals.
The Michigan Daily: In an interview with the New York Times in November, you said one thing you learned this semester is that “every decision you make that makes one subset of people happy will make a different subset of people unhappy.” How have you been balancing the interests of different stakeholders and community members, and who takes priority?
MS: It’s been very challenging — we are balancing the interests of many different people. You know, of course, there are both faculty and students that would feel more comfortable taking class-in person, and there are others that feel very uncomfortable taking class in-person. So we’re balancing those interests. So we’re juggling lots of decisions. And in every instance, we’re trying to ask what serves the dual goals of maintaining as much of the mission of the University as we can and as high a quality as we can, while still preserving people’s health and safety. And that’s the prism that every decision goes through. And some people will criticize one decision, some will criticize the next. So we try to learn from what’s happening and just move forward.
TMD: And so, ultimately, would you say that your priority is keeping community members safe and healthy, rather than keeping people happy?
MS: Part of people getting as much as possible out of the semester does have to do with their state of mind. So I think that keeping people feeling positive, even though the times are difficult, is part of achieving our mission and helping people learn and do their research. So I don’t dismiss all the importance of people feeling positive, to the extent possible. But I think health and safety is really the most important thing in the context of continuing our work towards educating and doing our research and patient care.
TMD: You initially voted against Big Ten sports, but then voted to reinstate it after you learned more about the safety precautions, and after notable protests from players, coaches, parents and even President Donald Trump. There have been COVID outbreaks on numerous Big Ten football teams this season, and now Michigan has halted its practices and canceled the OSU game due to COVID. As an immunologist, how did you balance the interest of stakeholders and the safety of the players in this decision, and do you stand by your decision given recent events?
MS: So it was focused on the safety of players. So there are obviously lots of other interests — there are thousands, if not millions of people that love watching Michigan student athletes play on television or in the Big House. There are parents that are anxious to see their kids be able to play so that they can display their talents and potentially have a professional career.
The reason we stopped athletics at the time is the doctors and trainers advising the (Big Ten) presidents said that they were uncomfortable as to whether the safety protocols that were in place at the time could prevent spread of the illness inside of our training facilities and our playing fields … Several weeks later the working group that the Big Ten put together to look for ways to increase safety amongst our players and our staff came back with a plan. So we came up with a very detailed set of testing the players would have to go through in order to return to competition.
The fact that student athletes have had infections during the course of the semester isn’t surprising, because they’re not in a bubble … 2,300 students became COVID-19 infected this semester, approximately. Football players and student athletes, they’re no different, they do all the things students do. And if they’re not careful, they too can get infected … We don’t have evidence of spread among students inside our facilities. There’s no evidence of spread on the playing field. And when we track down where these infections came from, when the students test positive, they came from the same place as the other students –– interactions during daily living, social interactions that transmit disease. And so I think we’ve done the right thing, and we continue to.
TMD: Are you involved in any talks between Warde Manuel and Jim Harbaugh, and based on Harbaugh’s performance as head coach, do you believe an extension of his contract is deserved?
MS: Fortunately for me, the athletic director has the expertise and the responsibility to make decisions like that, to decide … whether they’ve performed up to expectations and whether they should be renewed. It’s an important decision, it involves a lot of money for the University. So he’ll explain to me what he wants to do, and I’ll sign off on it eventually, but I’m not directly involved in the decision making.
TMD: What can you tell us about plans to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the University community and student body?
MS: That’s very important. It’s the most optimistic thing to happen in months.
Michigan Medicine has been designated as one of the initial sites to receive and distribute vaccines, but a lot of who gets it is going to be determined by rules established by the states with guidance from the federal government. The first people to get the vaccine are going to be frontline health care workers: doctors, nurses and other technical staff that are providing care face-to-face and, thus, are at a risk of being exposed to the disease. Then, my understanding is also people living in retirement facilities … will also be amongst the first wave of people to get it. Then after that it’ll be essential workers that have to work in-person, such as public safety people. Teachers are essential workers that have to work in-person and perhaps the faculty teaching in-person may fall into that category. Then other people who are in high risk groups, either because of their age or because of underlying diseases, so there’s a whole scheme of priorities … Eventually, there’ll be enough vaccines, and it’ll be free. Students will be able to receive the vaccine, and it’ll be administered here under the auspices of Michigan Medicine collaborating with the University Health Service.
TMD: Do resident advisers count as University essential workers and will they be vaccinated in phase 1 with transportation, utility and education workers?
MS: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I see a logic behind it and because of their work, they’d have to engage face-to-face with people just like teachers do, and I would probably put them in the same category as I’d put faculty teaching face-to-face, staff … and then Graduate Student Instructors teaching-face to-face.
TMD: When the vaccine becomes more widely available and the general population has access to it, will the University require students and faculty to get vaccinated?
MS: As of now, we don’t have plans to make this mandatory. I’m going to encourage it as strongly as possible. We really have to get the community as a whole to have a very high percentage of people vaccinated before we can pull back from some of these public health modifications to how we run the campus. So before we can stop wearing masks and get together in larger groups, we’ve got to get the percentage of vaccinated people up above some threshold –– probably 65 to 75%. I don’t feel comfortable with a mandate while there’s still an inadequate supply.
I’m going to roll up my sleeve the very first time I’m eligible to be vaccinated. As you mentioned, I’m an immunologist and a medical doctor, and I can tell you in the entire history of medicine and the whole history of doctors taking care of patients, the two most important things in all of medicine are vaccination and antibiotics.
TMD: Has your team begun planning for ramping up campus operations to pre-pandemic levels, and what criteria are you using to determine when it is safe to do so?
MS: Well, a lot of what we’re going to rely on is guidance that comes from the Centers for Disease Control and from the state of Michigan, but also from our public health experts on campus. Just like we relied on their advice to figure out how to balance the safety of everyone in our community with as much of our mission as we could deliver, we’ll be doing the same thing as we start to pull back some of our stringent controls and move into a more normal setting. I think the earliest we can start to be getting back towards normal would be next fall semester, and I’m an optimist.
TMD: The plan for the winter semester calls for extensive testing, available for all members of the University community and mandatory for anyone who’s interacting with the University’s campus. What will the testing capacity have to be in order to achieve this, and how confident are you that the University will reach that capacity?
MS: So testing will be available for all faculty and staff that are working on campus, but it won’t be mandatory for faculty and staff. It will be mandatory for students living in our residence halls, once-a-week testing, as well as for undergraduates that come to campus to use our facilities to work in a research lab, to use the Central Campus Recreation Building, to work for pay on campus. But for faculty and staff, once-a-week testing will be available, but not mandated. We would not have offered this game plan without the capacity to do it. We’re estimating that we’ll require between 12 and 15,000 tests per week for asymptomatic individuals. We actually almost tested it out because as people were getting ready to leave campus for Thanksgiving break, we did 12 or 13,000 tests the week before Thanksgiving.
TMD: Many publicly-funded institutions across the country have released really grave fiscal year 2022 budget projections replete with drastic cuts due to a decrease in government funding as well as a decrease in traditional revenues. Do you foresee U-M having to make similar cuts in FY22?
MS: The Regents vote in public on the budget in June, and we begin work on it basically now and through the early months of the new year. It’s really hard to predict what the budget is going to look like next year right now. I share the concern of many universities, because of the extra cost of the pandemic and the decreased revenues from the pandemic, that our budget will be challenged. We’re also operating in an era where because of the economic challenge overall throughout the country, the ability to raise tuition significantly doesn’t exist, so it’s going to be a challenging budget. This current year the state of Michigan gave us a flat budget, so no cut, which was very welcomed and a little bit surprising. They’ve warned us that next year might be tougher. Some of that depends on what the federal government does … I don’t predict a disaster but we’ll have to be very frugal and we’ll have to dip into our reserves extensively.
TMD: In the event you discover that drastic cuts are necessary, how will the University decide what programs and initiatives will lose funding?
MS: I do not anticipate having to make drastic cuts, I anticipate having to be frugal, very parsimonious, very careful how we spend our money, having to dip into some of our reserves. There’ll be fewer people employed at the University because we have natural attrition, people leave the University, and we’ve had a hiring freeze this year. So we’ll try to combine all those things to see us through this difficult period of time. I don’t anticipate major cuts to academic programs — that’s our lifeblood. We may slow down some new investments that we were contemplating. So, for example, we’ve begun a firearms injury prevention initiative. We’re gonna have to slow down the investment we’re making in that. We have an arts initiative that we’ve launched. We’re going to slow down that investment, but we’re not contemplating major academic cuts at the University.
TMD: Republican Sarah Hubbard defeated incumbent Democrat Shauna Ryder Diggs in last month’s Board of Regent elections. Have you spoken with Hubbard, and do you see her election changing any of the priorities of the board?
MS: First, I’ll note that Regent Diggs did a great job. She has served for eight years. This is an unpaid position, and she’s a medical doctor running a private practice and she devoted huge amounts of her time to serve the University. She was really involved in access and affordability of diversity and inclusion and on health care, having been trained here at Michigan Medicine herself, so she’ll be missed. I have spoken to our incoming Regent Hubbard … Every time the board changes, the things we pay attention to change, it’s really very interesting. It’s an evolving group.
TMD: I wanted to quickly ask if you know what graduation next semester will look like?
MS: We have not made an official decision. We are in discussions with a number of student groups trying to get some advice. To be honest, it’s really hard for me to imagine, even with the optimism of the vaccine, having a large, Michigan Stadium in-person, massive graduation. There are things we might do short of that, or differently. We’ll probably be ready to announce those things early in the new year.
TMD: I have a bit of a self-reflective question. So this has been a tumultuous semester, and community members have gone on strike, protested and passed a vote of no confidence in your leadership. What have you learned that will change how you lead this University for the rest of your tenure as president?
MS: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is I really have to devote more energy and effort to engaging more widely across the University, even in a time of crisis where basically everyone’s working flat out. I think one of the biggest challenges is too many of my faculty colleagues felt like their thoughts and opinions about what we should be doing in response to the pandemic weren’t factored in, and that I wasn’t listening to them. And that’s a fair criticism. So I’d have to say the biggest thing I’ve learned is to spend more time with more people understanding their concerns and explaining how we make decisions and what the logic is behind these decisions and trying to better incorporate broader wisdom into decision-making across the board.
TMD: And have you started implementing mechanisms to actually make that happen?
MS: Sure, I’m doing a bunch of those things, and one of those things is I’ve begun … a COVID-19 faculty council. They’re a group of about 15 or 18 faculties selected by SACUA, selected by faculty governance, from all across the institution that we meet and learn about how they’re experiencing the pandemic, capture their ideas, help me understand better the lived experience on campus as compared to my own personal experience. I’ve been visiting schools and colleges, so I’ve attended meetings of all faculty and staff in the School of Education. Earlier this week, I attended a faculty meeting at LSA. All different kinds of groups, some of which are random and ad hoc, just to get input. I had a now-notorious visit with Central Student Government. I continue to meet with CSG leaders, I meet with staff groups all the time, we have these (weekly) COVID briefings that get streamed across the campus. I’m putting out a weekly newsletter about what’s going on on campus. So again, more communication and a greater depth and breadth of engagement.
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