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The Michigan Daily sat down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss the University of Michigan’s fall planning, well-being days and sexual misconduct processes. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: Things are actually going well now and the number of cases are coming down all across the country. The number of student cases are coming down, and staff and faculty (cases) have remained low. So, I just want to compliment and thank everybody for continuing to put up with the incredibly disrupted lifestyle for the sake of keeping as many people healthy until we can vaccinate everybody. I’m more optimistic now than I’ve been at any point in the last year.
We’re also getting good compliance with the mandatory testing. Basically all of the dormitory students are complying, and then many off-campus students. We’re up to about 21,000 tests a week, and the percentage positive is quite low — it’s below 1% positive. As it gets warmer, it’s going to be easier too, as we’ll be able to spend more time outdoors, and it’s safer outside.
TMD: It’s common nowadays in college classes for students to be asked by their professors or instructors to self-evaluate their performance. As U-M’s President, what grade would you give yourself, out of 10, for your response to the COVID-19 pandemic now a year into it — especially when compared to other institutions of higher education?
MS: What we’re talking about is actually a group project — it’s not an individual project. It involves the leadership of the campus, our medical and public health experts, our faculty, our staff and then all of you. It’s not a project where any one person can be responsible or do it alone.
We’ve had some successes, and other things haven’t gone as well. So, amongst the good news is students are progressing towards their degrees. Our enrollment is normal enrollment. Students whose families have run into difficulty, we’ve been able to help them stay in school by providing special financial aid. Our health system has done spectacularly well. We’re the largest public research university in the country that was shut down during the height of the epidemic, but we ramped up again. Our labs are at 75% capacity now, and we’ve published over 1,000 papers on COVID; so, a lot of things in that area are going well. Our public health experts are advising the state government — all of the government’s plans are based on our expertise — that feels good.
The challenge is there have been lots of student cases in particular. When we do the tracing of those cases, the overwhelming majority are due to contacts being made off campus, usually in social circumstances, too high density and not being as rigorous about masks. I wish we had fewer cases, but we’ve only had two (brief) hospitalizations, so I’m glad that no one’s taken more seriously ill amongst our student community.
So, I think when this is all over and behind us, I think we should really take stock and see how we did. It’s almost like the grading system that’s in effect now for students, right? You get to wait till you have your grades to know whether you should take a grade or a pass/fail, so maybe I’ll wait until we have a little bit more perspective, but it’s really a group project; and I appreciate everybody who’s been helping.
TMD: In a recent tweet, Regent Jordan Acker (D) said, “I hope Dr. Fauci is right that every American can get a vaccine by July … That would go a long way toward getting back to the Michigan experience we all love.” You’ve said that the University is looking at scenarios based on what fraction of the campus community is vaccinated. Can you walk us through some of those scenarios? What’s the difference between if, say, 60% and 90% are vaccinated?
MS: I think what’s most likely is that by the time the summer rolls around, all of the faculty and staff that want to be vaccinated will have that access to the vaccine. But, when the new school year rolls around, probably not more than half of students will be vaccinated. So we’ve got to figure out how to have as much in-person education and student life as possible. So it could be the semester will begin more constrained and become less constrained as time goes by, but those are the plans we’re working on now.
And what we’re doing in the last couple of weeks and then the next week or two is talking to faculty, staff and students and learning about what they’d like the fall semester to look like. The Regents are weighing in; parents are weighing in. The best of all possible worlds would be everybody, including all students, who want to be vaccinated to have been vaccinated by the fall semester.
And I think when we get to that stage, campus might be quite normal. For sure we’ll get to the stage eventually where there aren’t masks; you can have football games and big classes. I don’t think we’ll be quite there in the fall, but I think it’ll be a good part of the way there.
TMD: If much of the class instruction remains online, how does U-M plan to combat virtual fatigue from students, as the end of the fall semester would mark nearly two years of almost entirely online instruction?
MS: I think no matter what state we’re in, there’ll be more activities on campus for students to participate in, and not just virtual activities. If we have to continue to be conservative, we would still wear masks, but we do things together; we start to get people out of their rooms. I can’t predict yet what percentage of classes will be in person, but it’s very likely to be much more in person than it is now.
TMD: Rich Holcomb from U-M Human Resources shared poll results on Feb. 12 that said 87% of Ann Arbor staff would be interested in continuing to work remotely after the pandemic. Three days later, Public Affairs tweeted that U-M remains optimistic that the fall semester “will be more normal.” Given this juxtaposition, do you expect there to be conflict between staff/faculty and administrators if you choose to introduce a more in-person fall semester plan? If so, how will you handle it?
MS: The survey that vice president Holton was talking about was for a significant number of back-office staff at the University that aren’t face-to-face with students. Our staff that deals with students, such as student affairs people, the Student Life folks and the faculty of course — we’re a residential, in-person higher-ed institution — and they’re going to do their jobs.
That said, I do think there are going to be reentry challenges for people as they come back to work. Just like you’ve been studying remotely a lot and you’ve got Zoom fatigue, a lot of our faculty and staff have been working remotely for a long time. We have to do everything we can to convince people that they’re safe on campus.
TMD: Given that classes are entirely asynchronous for many students and that we live in an unprecedented time where the 9-to-5 work week has been completely disturbed, do you feel that “well-being breaks” make a real improvement to students’ mental health? If you were a student, would you feel like this is enough to make a difference?
MS: I think for many people it was a welcomed day not to have to take class and not to have to Zoom. By itself, no, it doesn’t solve the problem. But it recognizes that there are little things we can do to make things marginally better, at least for a little while.
One thing that I learned relatively early in the pandemic which surprised me is students said that many of their classes are actually harder than they are when you’re doing regular classes in person. The workload seems greater, there seems to be more tests and more quizzes. I talked to faculty about this, and they said they needed to be sure students were keeping up and paying attention when they couldn’t see you. So we’ve tried to give feedback to the faculty to get them to better adjust the workload to reduce stress. The well-being days (are) just a day to give time. We’re not under the illusion that the well-being days solve all our problems at all.
TMD: When can we expect a more detailed plan for the fall?
MS: In the coming couple of weeks. We’re working on the details right now, but in the grand scheme, we’re expecting to have a significantly more in-person fall semester with much more residential life and more of our classes in person. Hopefully we’ll be able to get it to you by the middle of the month.
TMD: In late January, the Office for Institutional Equity released two annual reports on sexual and gender-based misconduct, one looking at students and one looking at University employees. The student report included breakdowns of reported allegations and investigative and appellate outcomes (if any), whereas the employee report did not include an appendix or distinguish between assault and harassment in its data. Both employee and student misconduct affect the University community, and cases like Philbert’s and Anderson’s have brought attention to alleged sexual misconduct from employees in particular. Do you have any thoughts on the University’s attitude toward these two sources of sexual and gender-based misconduct on campus and/or an explanation of the difference in detail between the two public reports?
MS: I think you’re pointing out something that’s important that many of us have noticed: The nature of the reporting is quite different when it comes to student events as compared to faculty and staff events. One of the recommendations we got in an earlier review of our policies is that we should have a single umbrella policy that uses the same definitions and provides the same information for everybody. That’s what we’re in the process of doing; we’ll be ready to push that out hopefully by the summertime.
TMD: Especially following the WilmerHale investigation of Philbert, which detailed several instances where allegations were brought forward to OIE and University officials but not thoroughly investigated, can you comment on this single-digit rate of investigation for reports against students and the approximate 12% rate of investigation for employee reports reflected in the two reports from this year?
MS: When I first started reading these things, shortly after I got here, recognizing that sexual misconduct and sexual harassment are incredibly serious problems, I was surprised how few full investigations were done compared to the total number of reports. What I’ve learned is OIE reports every single report of misconduct or harassment. We report everything.
The other thing that I learned is that investigation is only one way forward. There’s another pathway forward that involves more of a discussion or mediation between individuals where a person has made a complaint against another person. There are many people that just want to be heard and undergo some kind of process of accountability, and that sort of more restorative justice approach is being used and offered as an option.
Sometimes we’ll get complaints that actually aren’t illegal or disallowed by our rules. In order for something to be sexual harassment, it has to be severe and pervasive. So sometimes we get a complaint of moderate severity, and we don’t ignore it. We feed back the information to a local leadership, and we try to address it. It doesn’t become an investigation because it doesn’t fall under something that’s disallowed by Title IX.
When it comes to Philbert, one of the things that we’re trying to learn from the report and from the help that Guidepost is giving us, is how we can do a better job fully investigating reports of misconduct to prevent multi-year serial misbehavior. We have to look at and revise our procedures and make sure we’re not missing things. We have to get better at this.
TMD: On the website of Guidepost Solutions, the investigative firm hired to help implement the WilmerHale recommendations, they claim their goal is to “help you seize opportunities on the horizon, minimize disruption, or move on from difficulty.” What message do you think that sends to survivors of alleged sexual assault at U-M, and does U-M see the entire process as just another disruption? Are you committed to structural change when it comes to sexual misconduct?
MS: Well, the description you give is certainly not the reason we hired them. What they’re contracted to do is to help us implement the recommendations of the WilmerHale report. We’re absolutely committed to diminishing the frequency of misconduct and harassment to zero. It should never be tolerated. What we need their help with is establishing an environment where the people who are subjected to misconduct feel that their complaints are going to be taken seriously — that there won’t be retaliation against them. The fact that only a fraction of instances of misconduct ever gets reported is a huge problem. We really need to increase our community’s confidence that they’re going to be treated well and fairly.
The other thing they’re going to help us with is look(ing) at our procedures inside of OIE and how we do our investigations. They’re not here to reinvestigate the Philbert matter. They’re here to help us make the place better and stronger.
TMD: The Lecturers’ Employee Organization is in the midst of bargaining for a new contract with the Regents. Last year, Regent Ron Weiser (R) sent an email to the entire board that disparaged Graduate Employees’ Organization picketers as probably “hired union hacks” and one member as “an idiot.” With this type of discourse going on behind the scenes, how can organized labor on campus believe that the University and the Board are negotiating with them in good faith?
MS: All of our employees are important and essential for our mission. The institution respects and values the people that work with us. There’s no way we could be outstanding in research and teaching and service and patient care without the tens of thousands of people that work with us.
For example, in recent months, I’ve been down on South Campus at our transportation facility visiting with bus drivers and talked to them about their experience and thanked them for being frontline workers. In the Dow Building a couple months ago, I sat and visited with maintenance and custodial staff for the University and thanked them for working under difficult circumstances; you can’t do custodial work from home.
When it comes to our organized workers and our unionized workers, we always endeavor to bargain in good faith. It’s incredibly important for both sides to believe that the other side is bargaining in good faith, otherwise the whole system breaks down and the University suffers.
TMD: In that same email, Weiser wrote about a GEO member: “While he was cleanly dressed it was impossible to imagine him in a classroom. Janitor maybe from the mental content.” What kind of message does that send to the University’s custodial staff and other frontline workers, most of whom have risked their health to work in person and keep the University functioning throughout the pandemic?
MS: I can say the board, myself and the leadership of the University incredibly appreciate the work of those folks in particular. Think about when you come to campus the morning after snowfall. Those darn paths are all clear, and there’s rarely patches of ice. These folks do a spectacular job. They’re outside shoveling my driveway at five in the morning. I can’t even get any exercise; they’re out there before I would get out there. So, they have a huge amount of gratitude and respect from me.
TMD: February was marked by several virtual events around campus in honor of Black History Month. At the kickoff event Feb. 1, one student panelist, LSA Student Government Vice President Josiah Walker, said he wants the University to continue to highlight Black history beyond the month of February. What is or will the University do to elevate its commitment to Black students in the months and years to come?
MS: I think Josiah is 100% correct. You pick out a month just to draw people’s attention. But we should focus on issues around racism, equity, Blackness in America, Black Lives Matter — almost every day of the academic year. Also from a research perspective, the Institute for Social Research runs a very famous program called the Program for Research on Black Americans. We’ve got a Center for Research on Ethnicity and Culture and Public Health, the Center for the Study of Black Youth in LSA and the National Center for Institutional Diversity.
We’ve worked hard, and we’ve only been modestly successful increasing representation, not just of African Americans, but of many other underrepresented groups on campus. In terms of studying Black History, I don’t think we understand American history without understanding Black History. The Black experience is the American experience in many, many ways, and we have to understand it to live together and to be scholars.
TMD: We know that the men’s and women’s basketball teams are both having great seasons. When was the last time you got out on your driveway — on that hoop you have — and shot some baskets?
MS: It was last fall before the weather turned. It’s often on the weekends, sometime in the late afternoon when I just have to shake the cobwebs out. The embarrassing thing is I’m 63 now, and I can actually just shoot baskets by myself and pull muscles. So, I don’t get to do it as much as I’d like. One of my bucket list things is I’d like to invite some of our coaches or basketball players to come and play some pickup on the driveway. So, maybe after the season’s over or maybe when they bring home a national championship we can play some hoops here at the president’s house. That’d be great.
Daily News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporters Jared Dougall and Christian Juliano can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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