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The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on Friday to discuss COVID-19 on campus, the recent online shooter threat, new sexual misconduct policies, his favorite dining hall and more. Read part one of the interview to hear Schlissel talk about his plans to step down as president in 2023.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: How do you think the first month of school has gone so far?
Mark Schlissel: It’s complicated, but on balance I think it’s gone really well. I think it’s great having the campus feel alive again and being able to walk across the campus and see students going between classes, going to their activities, just enjoying being with each other. The weather has been good, so that helps a little bit. The number of cases we have have gone down every week — essentially we’ve sort of reached a low-level plateau. We have wonderful levels of vaccination. The student body and the faculty and the staff have responded really well to the vaccine mandate. Even the cases we’re seeing are pretty mild, so that’s good news. We still are not seeing the spread in the classroom, that’s good news.
But I think we have to approach this with humility. The pandemic has fooled us before, where it looked like things were under great control and all of a sudden a new variant pops up and we’re back wearing masks again indoors. So, so far so good, but we have to remain vigilant. There’ll be some travel coming up and students will have this fall study break, and there’ll be Thanksgiving, so we have to be cautious as people are traveling in and out of town. The level of COVID around the state of Michigan never got as high as some parts of the country, but it’s still on the high end, and we’re waiting for that to come down in the surrounding communities.
So I remain cautiously optimistic. We’ve had four weeks in a row of the Big House with football and that didn’t seem to have an adverse impact on campus. We had that wonderful concert about 10 days ago, and again no obvious adverse impact with disease on campus. All those things are really good indicators, and we have to remain vigilant for the rest of the semester.
TMD: The University decided to hold in-person classes on Monday following the online shooter threat on social media, which led to some criticism with over 2,300 students and faculty signing a petition calling on the University to move classes online. Can you speak to why the University made the decision for classes to remain in-person?
MS: It was the cooperation between DPSS and the FBI that was able to track down the person making the threat, interview them, examine their computer, their home and develop an assessment that the person involved neither had the opportunity or the capacity to do what was in the threat, nor did the person have connections to a network of others that would give us fear that something like that would happen. So we ended up with an assessment that it wasn’t going to be danger from a shooter.
Then we had to consider the fear and anxiety across our community of being threatened with an act of violence like that, particularly against women, where there have been other acts of violence around the country, and worry about people’s feelings of safety as well.
The way we struck the balance is not to close the campus, because there was no threat according to all the professional evaluators, but to ask folks to be a little kind and relaxed with one another and just have a consideration for the fact that it’s a challenging time and a moment of anxiety.
We’re a big and very visible place, and there are threats that come into the University all the time, and we’re not unique in that: it happens to all large institutions. And we have to treat each one seriously, investigate them thoroughly and then make a decision on how to respond.
TMD: The Faculty Senate this week passed several motions calling for stricter COVID-19 measures and more autonomy for faculty to choose whether to teach online or in person. Do you foresee changing any part of the University’s COVID-19 plan in response to this feedback?
MS: The resolutions contain interesting and important thoughts by faculty, and of course we’ll consider them. I think if the pandemic gets worse on campus, some of the things that were suggested will become more likely. If things continue to go well on campus, we’re more likely to hold steady. So for example, when we do surveillance testing, there are very low levels of COVID on campus, and we’re doing sewage testing. The engineers and the public health folks are examining effluent from buildings looking for traces of virus, and those numbers are way down. But if things were to head upward again, we do have the ability to spread a wider mandate around testing and to change modalities of teaching. And all those are things we would consider if things take a turn for the worse.
TMD: Do you foresee the University lifting the indoor mask requirement in campus buildings this academic year if Washtenaw County case numbers fall back below the ‘high’ or ‘substantial’ transmission markers that the CDC established?
MS: Earlier in the summer, things were looking really good all around the state and in Washtenaw County. We weren’t vaccinated as high as we are now, but we still did not require masking indoors because the disease incidence was quite low. Eventually, that’s going to happen again. I don’t know whether it’s going to be this semester or this academic year. But once levels on campus and levels in the community are very low, if you add that to our exceptionally high vaccination rate, eventually we will be able to get rid of the masks just for everyone’s comfort.
I don’t see that happening in the coming weeks. Things are going well and I want to sort of hold steady for a while. But once the disease incidence around our state and around the county, in particular, comes down to safer levels, then we’d consider it and we’ll see when that happens.
TMD: The University announced in September it would stop sending classroom and building COVID-19 notifications to students. Considering there have been concerns about possible exposure on campus, why not make these notifications more detailed instead of eliminating them?
MS: The limits to detail bump into privacy. So let’s say you were unfortunately infected with COVID-19, and you’re one of eight people in a class. And all of a sudden we sent a notice to those seven other people and you’re not there. Well, it becomes pretty obvious that you’ve got COVID. A lot of people don’t hide that and it’s not an embarrassing thing for them, but some people consider it really private health information, and it’s up to you who you tell about whether you have COVID. The way we were doing these announcements to protect privacy became so vague.
The notices weren’t adding enough specific information to do anything other than make people confused and scared. And then if we gave more information, we might out people that really don’t want to be outed, so it was a tough balance. As the pandemic evolves, we’re going to evolve how we deal with things. If we come up with smarter ways to keep people safe and to have people feel safe, we’ll implement them.
TMD: The Michigan State House Oversight Committee is considering two bills: one that would give victims of sexual assault up to a year to file a suit if they were abused under the guise of medical care, and another that would prevent government institutions and schools from claiming immunity against lawsuits if they knew or should have known about the abuse. Would you like to comment on this legislation?
MS: I really can’t. As you know, we’re in the midst of litigation where large numbers of survivors of Dr. Anderson have come forward, making claims against the University, and there’s a federal judge that’s hearing the case, and the case is in mediation. So we’ve been asked not to comment to the media so the case doesn’t get tried in public, but rather a court and a mediation process can try to arrive at a good result.
TMD: On Oct. 1, the University’s new sexual misconduct policy went into effect. What do you think are some of the improvements made from the interim and old policies, and is there anything you were still unhappy with with the final policy?
MS: There are a number of new features in the policy, for example allowing appeals for decisions on staff misconduct is a new feature, defining who a mandatory reporter is with clarity was an important feature of the new policy, but the changes between the interim and now the current were a lot of tweaks to make sure we’re consistent with federal guidance.
Am I happy with it? I’m happy with it now, but we’re always trying to make it better. And obviously, until we’re in an environment where sexual misconduct is rare or doesn’t happen at all, then we have to continue to make our policies better, and not just focus on the investigation and adjudication, but focus on the education and the prevention piece. And that was the idea behind changing the Office of Institutional Equity into the office of Equity, Civil Rights & Title IX: to combine education and prevention with investigation and adjudication, along with very good mechanisms to support students or faculty or staff as they go through this process either as a respondent or a claimant, which is extremely difficult.
TMD: The Lecturers’ Employee Organization recently ratified a deal with the University agreeing to pay parity among starting salaries for lecturers across all three campuses. Do you see this as a stepping stone to more equity between the campuses in other areas?
MS: The fact that the starting salaries in Flint and Dearborn at the end of this contract end up similar to the starting salaries in Ann Arbor, that’s not an indication of us moving towards this One University approach. Each of the three campuses have different resources, they’re serving only partially overlapping populations, have related missions but not identical missions and get different budgets from the state. The tuitions are set differently — Flint and Dearborn are less expensive than Ann Arbor. Each of the three campuses operates within its financial capacities to serve its own unique mission as best it can, and that hasn’t changed. So I’m happy that this really important issue worked out well, but the resources to fulfill that really important issue were Flint and Dearborn resources. The parts of the contract that affect Ann Arbor, the resources to increase those parts of the agreement, were Ann Arbor resources.
TMD: Several landlords and companies that lease apartments to students recently sued the City of Ann Arbor over its recent ordinance that gives tenants more time to decide if they’d like to renew their lease. The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which lobbied along with Central Student Government to have the ordinance passed, is urging the University to prohibit these landlords from advertising on University platforms. GEO claims the University is responsible for protecting students’ interests, so is this something that the University would consider?
MS: I greatly respect the success that GEO and undergraduate students had lobbying the City Council to make changes in these leasing laws. But I consider the interactions between students trying to get leases and landlords trying to let apartments as a private interaction. The University is not involved in that directly. I think that the law that was passed was a good law – I like it and I agree with it — but I don’t think it’s really the University’s place to get in the middle of a commercial interaction between students and private businesses in town.
The way it sounds, though, is if the city is able to defend this law, then the landlords you’re talking about can’t go ahead and require signing a renewal so darn early after you start a lease. So the students are in the position they want to be, so long as this lawsuit is successfully defended.
The Dean of Students has a case management team that can serve as a third party to help off-campus students address their concerns and help navigate and negotiate with landlords. We have student legal services that can help if you think you’re being treated in ways that are illegal. And all those are things that we provide as a service to students, but at least now I hesitate to get in the middle of a commercial interaction.
For example, the next time there’s a cause that comes by or something that’s important, people will come to the University and say, ‘Don’t give access to this group or that group to the University because we don’t believe in what they’re doing.” It just doesn’t feel like the right place for the University to be, although in this instance I’m impressed and proud that the laws were changed through student advocacy.
TMD: The University just recently finished its first five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. How would you rate the effectiveness of that plan, and what are you looking for in the second plan?
MS: I think our efforts and challenges around DEI are not something that’s going to be solved by a five-year plan or the next five-year plan. It really requires continuous effort into the indefinite future to help us continue to get closer to our ideals, to have a campus that’s more representative of the broader public we serve and to have everybody on campus feel a similar opportunity to be successful here and similarly included in who we are as a community.
So although we’ve had significant successes in the five years of the first plan, there’s no illusion: there’s way more than five more years of work to do. But what we’re doing is we’re sort of rigorously taking stock of what worked well and what didn’t work and areas where we’ve had success and less success, and we’ll spend some thoughtful time developing a DEI 2.0 — a second five-year plan — we’ll figure out how to fund it, and we’ll get going on that. We’ll continue the things we’re doing that are working, we’ll double down on some things and we’ll look for new things to do. So I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished; I’m not satisfied with what we’ve accomplished.
TMD: We’ve got a little bit of extra time, so we’re just going to ask you about one of the most contentious issues throughout your whole presidency. What is the best dining hall on campus?
MS: Oh man, that’s really cool. So, the best one that I’ve been to for fun, shortly after it opened, was South Quad. I thought the range of different stations, the level of service there when I was there, just felt comfortable. It didn’t feel like you’re in a campus dining hall; it felt like you were at a place that people would actually come to — get in the car and go there to eat. I love the fact that there was a facility inside of South Quad where you can teach cooking, a little demo area. So I was really impressed. Nothing at all like what I experienced when I was in college. It’s way, way, way better than in my era.