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The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss COVID-19 vaccinations, the University’s climate goals, racial equity on campus and the Jan. 6 events at the U.S. Capitol. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: First of all, welcome back and happy New Year. The inauguration’s tomorrow, and I know there’s some anxiety among many, or at least some people — students or faculty and staff — because of all the violence that occurred in D.C. and threats of violence in the statehouse, so I just wanted to reassure you and students that our public safety folks have been in communications with all the other security partners around the state and around the country, and we’ve increased staffing and set up contingencies. We don’t expect problems on campus, but we just encourage the community if they’re anxious to talk about it. Talk about it with one another and try to stay balanced as we watch this change in the administration.
The Michigan Daily: What is the biggest challenge facing the University of Michigan in 2021?
MS: The biggest challenge remains the pandemic, and it’s the challenge of, how do we continue to deliver on the mission of the University while keeping people healthy and safe, and having a good Michigan experience to the extent possible given the limitations of the disease, the virus.
TMD: So on that note, some health professionals are raising concerns over the more contagious coronavirus strain from the United Kingdom, which was discovered in Washtenaw County Saturday. What does this development mean for the University?
MS: I think it is of concern. If there’s any good news so far, there’s no indication that it produces a more severe disease, so it’s not more dangerous for your health. The other bit of good news is it still remains susceptible to the vaccine.
But the report of cases in Washtenaw County isn’t surprising. I think all of us have to presume that if it’s in Washtenaw County, it’ll be in our campus community. It’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t since we have so many people. We’re really one community, so I think we have to treat one another and presume as if the strain’s around.
And so far as best we know, the methods to prevent transmission are the same — social distancing, masks, avoiding large groups, spending time outdoors when the weather allows, washing hands more frequently, those kind of things, and I think if we can remain vigilant about those things a very high percentage of the time, I think the campus will do okay despite the presence of this more transmissible strain. If we let our guard down more people will get infected if the strain is around.
TMD: Can you talk about what the slower-than-anticipated vaccine distribution and administration means for U-M?
MS: The good news is, having a vaccine that works as well as these two existing vaccines is just remarkable. 95% effectiveness is about as good as it gets for a vaccine. The challenge is the supply, you know, can we make enough of it and how quickly can we make it? It’s a novel kind of vaccine … and so it’s complicated, and ramping up the production to the level of hundreds of millions of doses has never been done before, and it’s challenging.
Michigan Medicine has gotten our campus to the stage where we can deliver between 12,000 to 25,000 doses a week. So, if we had enough vaccines now, it would take us two weeks to vaccinate the entire student community in Ann Arbor. So, that’s great. The problem is we don’t have enough vaccines.
We put in a request each week for how many doses we want, and in the last couple of weeks, we haven’t gotten nearly the number of doses. And it’s not the state’s fault — they don’t have the supply. So, we’re ready to very aggressively vaccinate everyone in the order of their eligibility as soon as we have the supply.
TMD: We know you don’t gamble — you’ve told us that before — but what do you think the chances are that the University will be administering vaccines to the general student population this semester?
MS: I think it’s rather unlikely that we will get to have enough supply and work our way through all the other priority groups to be able to begin vaccinating students before the end of the semester. I would love to be proven wrong. So the priority is to give the vaccine to people for whom the disease is even more dangerous. And because the students are in an age group that is least likely to have a lethal outcome, on average, your priority is the lowest.
However, amongst the student body there are people that have high risk. People with certain underlying diseases that put them in a high-risk group, they might get vaccinated before the end of the semester. But healthy students that are typical — no unusual health issues — I would hope that vaccine becomes available by the summer.
My hope for next fall is that we can have a high enough fraction of everybody in our community vaccinated that we can have a semester that looks a lot more like a normal semester. I don’t think it’ll look like a completely normal semester — we’ll still have to be careful. If you want to be realistically optimistic, I think next fall we’ve got a shot at a much higher sort of quality of experience with much more stuff in person.
TMD: The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released its draft recommendations in December, and after opportunity for public comment it will deliver its final recommendations to you in February. We’re wondering what’s the process you’ll use to evaluate the final recommendations and decide which parts to act on?
MS: The University has been continuing to work on its carbon neutrality goals and its other sustainability goals while we wait for this commission to tell us a timeline and a prioritized set of things we can do to get to neutrality, so I’m pretty excited that it’s coming up to its stage of making recommendations. All along, I’ve been meeting with the co-chairs of the process, Professor Forrest and Jennifer Haverkamp.
What I can guarantee is the report won’t be taken and put on a shelf. The report, we’re going to address the things that are straightforward and simple to address immediately. And then, we’re going to spend enough time to really understand the bigger and more complicated things and then focus on those as well. The response is meant to be an action-oriented response.
The biggest thing in that report that I’m most interested in and then we’re going to need to study is to convert how we heat and cool all the buildings on campus. To go from steam heat generated by fossil fuels to geothermal and electric heat pumping, which would require literally tearing up every pipe and replacing every pipe that goes through every building on campus and digging these boreholes into the ground, tens of thousands of them, to do this geothermal heat exchange.
Other things they’re going to propose are likely to be shorter-term, more straightforward and well-justified and we’ll just do them. So those are the extremes, a decades-long, multi-billion dollar project. And you can imagine with a multi-billion dollar project, we’re a university that has lots of resources, we surely do, but everything we do has an opportunity cost. So the question would be if we spent billions of dollars on one thing, what are the things we’re not going to do to balance that out. And that’s the discussion we need to have with the faculty, with the students, with the deans and with the regents.
TMD: Carbon offsetting, according to the draft recommendations, is when an organization counterbalances its direct emissions by investing in or purchasing credits associated with verifiable emissions reductions or sequestration efforts somewhere else on the planet. Proponents argue that because climate change is a global problem, it makes sense to reduce emissions wherever it’s cheapest and easiest. But opponents argue that carbon offsetting allows wealthy institutions to externalize emission reduction while continuing to burn fossil fuels. What is your view on the proper role of carbon offsetting in carbon neutrality efforts?
MS: You’ve laid out the problem. So, the leadership team and I and the regents need to understand it better. So it really is a dilemma. I understand where the advocates are coming from, it is a global problem. Of course, everyone in the world can’t buy offsets, because at the end of the day, what everyone in the world has to do is stop emitting so much carbon. We’ll run out of offsets. I also don’t want the purchase of offsets to compete financially with the investments it’s going to take for us to reduce our own carbon release.
So, if we buy offsets for X number of millions of dollars a year, I don’t think that relieves us of the obligation to diminish our own carbon output. But, it gets rid of a lot of the resources that we would be using to invest in things like the geothermal system for example. So we have to study, that’s going to be a hard one. And from what I’ve heard, the committee itself is not of one mind about offsets, and then they’ve been getting comments back from the broader community of experts and advocates. So I think it’s something we’re going to have to look hard at, but I’m willing to consider anything that gets recommended.
TMD: We wanted to follow up about the MLK symposium yesterday. In light of nationwide protests for racial justice, you said in June that “The important movements and calls for action we are seeing emphasize the need for us to do more to end systemic racism in our society and on our campuses.” What has the University done to address systemic racism on its campuses since then?
MS: To put it in context — and this came up yesterday at the symposium — this is a marathon, racism. It’s been around almost forever in various forms — certainly throughout the history of our own country. And as hard as we work at it, I think we have to have a commitment to work on it basically forever. However, in the context of the awful events of the last year, particularly the multitude of police killings of Black people, most of whom were unarmed, it has focused societal attention on the issue in a way that gives us an opportunity to push harder.
So amongst the things we’ve been doing on campus, most recently, we launched the task force that the provost and I set up around public safety at the University. I’ve spoken with many people of color, not just African Americans, but many people who don’t feel safe around the police. We need to understand how we do policing on our campus and how people feel about how we do policing, and try to make ourselves best in class. That effort just launched within the last couple of weeks. There will be preliminary reports during the semester, and then a final report at the end of the semester.
The provost has also made an investment in what we call a “cluster hire” — the hiring of a large number of faculty in a common research area. So she’s committed to hiring 20 new full-time faculty members here in Ann Arbor over the next three years with expertise on racial inequality and structural racism. We’re looking again at the race and ethnicity requirement. Those of you that are in LSA have to satisfy that requirement. Some other schools have required it, but I really think it should be required across the whole campus, and it should be in the context of what the school is teaching. But, every activity humans engage in involves people interacting with one another. And the goal of this race and ethnicity requirement is to help each of us as individuals, think about those interactions and think about them through an equity and justice lens. So I think everybody should be required at least once during their Michigan experience to have some formal, didactic component.
Another thing that we’re going to begin is to put together a group to help us diversify the naming of buildings and structures around the campus. We already have things in place, if people think that one of our prior namings should be reconsidered we have a history committee and a whole process to look at that. But what we’d like to do is get ready for future naming opportunities by sussing out potential people that diversify those that we name things after. We also started a new scholarship called the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship. It’s targeted to give preference to students that have participated in Wolverine Pathways or any of our other college readiness programs to promote socioeconomic diversity in honor of George Floyd.
And then, finally, we’re in the fifth year of our (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) plan — a five-year DEI plan. And I’ve already announced to the community that there will be a DEI 2.0. So we’re going to spend some time in the year ahead evaluating the progress we’ve made, looking at all the programs we’ve done, trying to figure out what’s worked well, figure out what to double down on and what to get rid of. So I’m quite sure that efforts around antiracism will be an ever more prominent part of our broader DEI efforts moving forward.
MS: So that’s exactly the stats that I quote when I talk about the same issue. As a public university, since I believe there are no differences between the average talents of people based on their race and ethnicity and their ability to take advantage of an education, ultimately, the University should end up looking like the public it serves.
I think (in terms of) the challenges we face, one is Proposal 2, which doesn’t allow us to take any consideration of race and ethnicity in admission. The second is a challenge around how students are prepared to go to college in communities that are less wealthy communities or communities that may be suffering from structural racism. Students may not be getting prepared so that their full talents are developed and ready for college. So I think one of the things I’d like to do is look for or develop new ways to identify talented students coming out of less privileged schools and find kids who are smart but just aren’t going to the kind of high schools that I was able to send my kids to with all these AP classes and summer enrichment programs and travel to Europe and SAT prep courses and those things. We have to find ways to look beyond those to identify talent and to attract folks here to the University. So we have an ongoing commitment and it’ll keep going until we look more like the state.
TMD: Last week, The Daily published an investigation of allegations of sexual harassment, retaliation and intimidation against a former director of the MFA program and current tenured english professor. Part of the investigation involved a letter of reprimand from Dean Anne Curzan to the professor that The Daily obtained a copy of. One sanction contained in Curzan’s letter required he not conduct office hours with his door closed. Is this a common sanction for faculty investigated for sexual misconduct and/or retaliation, or do you have any other comment on that?
MS: I apologize, but I don’t know whether it’s common or uncommon. We have a code of conduct that sanctions sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. And then during the course of these investigations, often what will happen or sometimes what will happen is behaviors that will be identified that we think are not appropriate for our community but don’t rise to the level of sexual misconduct or sexual harassment that would allow us to put a faculty member through the process to remove tenure and fire them.
So, what do you do short of that? Those get referred to the individual dean’s offices, to the academic Human Resources folks, and they look at the information that came from the investigation or the complaint, and they decide how to mitigate and then try to remediate and make sure the problem doesn’t happen again. So, what Dean Curzan did was in that category of taking somebody whose offenses are things that we don’t want to have in our community, and finding ways to send that signal as clearly as possible to mitigate some of the risk that students should not have to put themselves to in dealing with a faculty member. So I imagine this idea of keeping the door open is there to mitigate risk, and then to keep a close watch on this particular faculty member to make sure that they’re going to live up to our standards of behavior. How frequently that particular thing of requiring a door — you’ll have to forgive me. I just don’t know. But it’s part of a package of things done to try to correct and monitor behavior that just is not appropriate.
TMD: In addition, hundreds of University community members, including over 150 professors, recently signed onto a letter to Regent Ron Weiser, saying that Weiser’s role as incoming co-chair of the Michigan GOP, an organization they write has “empowered factions and candidates that seek to impede or even overturn basic democratic principles” is incompatible with his serving on the Board of a university that “champions the pursuit of truth and a genuinely just society.” What do you think of that letter, if you’re familiar with it, or, if not, with that charge in general?
MS: So before answering, let me make sure you recall — and I’m guessing you do: While this insurrection in the capital was going on, I put out a statement on behalf of the University, very clearly saying that that represents an assault on our liberty and the fundamental values of American democracy and those that participate and those that instigated have to be condemned. It’s essentially intolerable.
I spent lots of years in the Baltimore-Washington areas. I’ve been walking down the hallways where those folks were, and I’ve been in the Senate and the House chamber, and it was, emotionally, a terrible thing to see. It really affected me along with many others.
I’ve known Regent Weiser practically since I arrived here. He has lived locally, and he’s a major donor to the University. I know for sure that his affections for the University run deep. He too has condemned this violence. His association, his political work with the Republican Party, his service to the party, his association with other members — those are questions for him to answer. It’s not up to the University to answer. Our regents are elected by statewide popular vote. They serve eight-year terms. Two of them are elected every two years. They are public officials. They’re accountable to the public.
So, I think that the many faculty and students in the community and others that have objections are raising those objections, they’re getting lots of coverage in the media, and those fall into the political process. It’ll have to be worked out, but I can say that the University itself, as well as all the regents, unambiguously condemn the violence and those that incited the violence. That’s not a matter of question.
TMD: Does that include President Trump among those who many say incited the violence?
MS: I chose my words very carefully on purpose, but I think it’s up to all of us to interpret what’s been going on publicly and figure out those who are responsible for inciting violence. And I actually think there are a pretty significant number of people that one could make that argument about.
TMD: Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County officials have met with the administration about sheltering the homeless population in unused University dorms and facilities. What is the current status of these discussions?
MS: My best understanding is it’s still under discussion. I was told that there were meetings taking place as recently as last week. And I think that the University, if it can do so and can do so safely and without risk or significant cost, we should try to help.
Daily News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporters Julianna Morano and Christian Juliano can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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