The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel Thursday to discuss the Bright Sheng controversy and University employees who remain unvaccinated. Read part one of the interview for Schlissel’s thoughts on the ongoing protest of former athletic doctor Robert Anderson survivors outside his house and the recent 40% growth of the University’s endowment. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: Holiday travel is coming up, and we’re still in the era of COVID. It’s fantastic that almost the entire student body is vaccinated, but many people who go home or go to visit elsewhere will be traveling in parts of the country with COVID that’s active. And as you know, there are breakthrough cases at a fair frequency. Fortunately, people don’t get very ill with breakthrough cases it seems, but you just have to continue to be cautious.
There’s a small number of folks in our community who are not vaccinated, who have exemptions. Folks that are not vaccinated, the CDC recommends that they get tested one to three days before they travel, and then within three to five days of coming back, and we have lots of options on campus to get tested. The easiest is the saliva test, the community testing program that everyone’s pretty familiar with.
Now, for vaccinated people, there’s no formal requirement that you get a test according to the CDC, but if folks want to be tested for reassurance — if you’re going to go home and be with grandma, for example, or someone who’s young and unvaccinated, or someone who’s older or someone who’s ill — certainly sign up for testing. Do it within a couple of days of leaving. If you’re concerned, do it when you come back. We’re also going to set up some pop-up testing the day or two before Thanksgiving where folks can do this antigen test — the rapid test — before you leave town or before you get in the car for a car ride. So please take advantage of those opportunities.
And then finally, a plug for the DEI survey — it’s in the field now. We’re trying to assess the progress or lack of progress in different areas that we’ve made over the last five years, and it’ll help inform our upcoming DEI 2.0 plan for what we want to do in the years ahead to improve diversity and inclusion across the campus. The more people we get to respond, the more accurate the results.
The Michigan Daily: Do you think that Bright Sheng’s stepping down from teaching his undergraduate composition course was the appropriate course of action?
MS: The bigger question is, how do we maintain both freedom of speech and academic freedom on a campus where we’re trying to build an inclusive environment for people from all different kinds of backgrounds? A subset of students who are sensitive to the showing of this movie and the blackface portrayal of a Black character in “Othello” were extremely offended and we all understood why. I don’t think there was confusion as to why. Professor Sheng showed a video to his class that was part of his teaching methodology. He failed to preview the potentially offensive content, and he recognized that that was an error.
As we see often when highly-charged episodes occur, our usual commitment to being able to talk through our differences is challenged. Ideally, I would have wished that the students and Professor Sheng had more of an opportunity to talk through how they were thinking about these opposing issues, the issues of climate on our campus, for an inclusive climate, for a diverse student community, and then the pedagogy that Professor Sheng was trying to implement. There is a way to do that with less hurt and harm. Both Professor Sheng and the students would have learned something.
As often happens when things blow up, everybody takes a step back, is a little bit defensive, starts communicating by email, and folks don’t give one another the benefit of the doubt, nobody thinks anyone else has good intentions, and everyone retreats to their corners. It’s really a learning experience about how better to deal with episodes where there’s this clash between our values around inclusivity and our adherence to free speech and academic freedom.
Professor Sheng has not been punished. He continues to teach students in one-on-one sessions, and he’ll have a regular teaching load in the spring. I think the reason why the school wanted a different professor — and Professor Sheng agreed to that — is that folks were so emotional that learning stopped. That was a decision made locally, and you can second-guess that decision. I want to learn from this experience. The fact that you’re covering it is good because that’s part of the learning process. These faculty letters lining up on one side or the other of the episode, that’s part of the learning. I think the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is committed to having facilitated discussions between its faculty or among its faculty and staff and students. Professor Shang looks forward to the opportunity. I’ve spoken to him recently about sitting down with his students that were in his class and just trying to learn from each other.
I started every episode believing that everyone’s well-intentioned, and everyone shares a common set of values. As humans, we make mistakes and our understanding of one another is never complete. That’s why we need to talk and even use episodes like this to make us a better university.
TMD: What was the University’s reasoning behind the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office office dropping the investigation into Professor Bright Sheng? What role did you play in the decision?
MS: The second part is easy. I play no role whatsoever in ECRT decisions. Those decisions are made by the professionals who are trained in their office and our Title IX Officer. ECRT, or our Title IX office, investigates every complaint so there’s no discretion. If someone brings forward a complaint, whether it’s incredibly substantive, or whether it doesn’t really match the rules and regulations, it still gets at least a preliminary investigation. In this case, a person brought forward a complaint, the professionals in ECRT looked at the nature of the complaint and the circumstances. They spoke to people and they dropped the investigation because there was nothing in the episode that aligned with either campus rules or our Title IX obligations.
TMD: What do you say to faculty concerned that the pressure to remove Sheng from teaching the course, followed by his stepping down and the launching of an ECRT investigation, reflects a threat to their ability to teach subjects that may be seen as uncomfortable to students?
MS: I think that’s an important issue apart from Professor Sheng. I think we live in an era where we’re arguing about everything. We’re even arguing about our own history, who gets to tell the story, what perspective we’re presenting information from. There are so many controversial topics today that I think the challenge that Professor Shang faced shows up every day in our classrooms in lots of little and bigger ways. We have to confront it here on campus, but more broadly across higher education if we’re going to make any progress on these challenging issues. I agree that there’s a potential chilling effect when episodes like this happen. I’d like to think that the Michigan faculty, especially the tenured members of the Michigan faculty, and the administration will stand behind academic freedom even as we’re trying to maintain a sensitive, thoughtful environment where everybody feels included. That’s the challenge between academic freedom and inclusivity.
TMD: Nearly 1 in 10 University employees have still not submitted proof of COVID-19 vaccination, despite the mandate going into effect over two months ago, and the University Record previously stated that the majority of employees not in compliance are temporary staff. Which areas of campus are the least vaccinated, and how will the restrictions on work for unvaccinated employees, which went into effect Monday, affect the labor shortage seen across many departments on campus?
MS: I want to flip this around a little bit. The vaccine mandate’s been spectacularly successful. You’re going to school on a campus that’s probably the most vaccinated community in the state of Michigan. 98% of students are vaccinated, 92% of staff, 99% of faculty. My most recent information is out of our 50,000 students on campus, we’ve got 422 students that are out of compliance. So that’s 0.8%. Those students have their accounts locked with the registrar, and they won’t be able to register for winter term. So I’m really hopeful that they go ahead and get vaccinated so their education isn’t disrupted.
Excluding Michigan Medicine, which is a different environment, we’ve got a total of 30 regular staff who are not compliant and 11 faculty. These are very small numbers, and that’s a great thing. We work with every one of them as an individual trying to understand their lack of desire to be vaccinated or be compliant, but eventually out of respect for everybody’s health, and out of respect for the 10s of 1000s of people that have been compliant, there have to be consequences for those that aren’t. The staff that are out of compliance are put on a sort of leave without pay; hopefully, they’ll come into compliance, but otherwise, they’ll be dismissed. At the end of the semester faculty also who are out of compliance will be put on unpaid leave, and then there are different disciplinary procedures for faculty than staff that we have to follow our internal rules.
Compliance is pretty high everywhere. A fraction of our represented employees, the employees that are in labor unions, our mandate legally could not apply to represented employees, they have labor contracts. We entered into negotiations with our labor unions. For example, LEO (Lecturers’ Employee Organization) were quite willing because they recognize the importance and the risk of exposure. Our interns and residents and fellows in the hospital have accepted. So many groups have accepted the mandate, others haven’t.
And now the federal government is stepping in, imposing a vaccination mandate on everybody who works in the health care business, and then also in all businesses that have more than 100 employees, and then finally on people that work on or interact with government contracts. And you can imagine as the biggest public research university in the country, we’ve got lots of federal contracts. So the employees that are represented that haven’t been vaccinated will ultimately fall under these federal mandates, and we’re working on that now.
TMD: What has been the response from unvaccinated employees to the new sanctions for not getting vaccinated or not doing weekly testing, which include termination by Dec. 8?
MS: I haven’t been speaking with the small number, the 30 staff, excluding Michigan Medicine, I just haven’t been speaking with folks that are (non-compliant). And compliance also includes religious or medical exemptions. So we have an exemptions process. One percent or 2% of the folks that are unvaccinated are compliant because they had approved medical or religious exemptions, and they’re mandated to test and we’re enforcing the testing requirement on those folks. I have not personally spoken to individuals who refuse to be compliant and asked them why. I’m hopeful that down locally in the schools and colleges and all the administrative units, hopefully, those conversations are happening. We have a question line that people can call out if they’re anxious about vaccination and they want to anonymously get some education. We try to educate folks to help bring them comfortably into compliance.
TMD: If you could take any class at the University, what would it be?
MS: The Law School is actually running an interesting colloquium for graduate students that involve students in law and business and public policy and social work and education, and it’s focused on a societal problem. So it puts together a multidisciplinary group of students at the graduate level, to do real engaged learning on a real problem. That sounds incredibly fun to me. But there’s so many things that I would love to take, and one of the things I look forward to when I’m done with my job is actually starting to teach again, because I love to teach.
Daily News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporters Elissa Welle and Justin O’Beirne can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.