More than 3,000 people attended a virtual town hall Thursday morning held by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Interim Provost Susan M. Collins and Interim Vice President for Student Life Simone Himbeault Taylor on planning for the fall 2020 semester, University finances and the orderly return to in-person work.
While plans for the fall semester are expected to be implemented for the duration of the upcoming academic year, Schlissel said it’s time to begin a careful reopening of the University’s Ann Arbor campus in order to deliver a public health-informed fall semester.
“In reality, I think this pandemic is going to be with us at least through the coming academic year,” Schlissel said. “The disease is there until we can get a vaccine and can deploy it to 300 million people in our country, at least. The logistical challenges are huge. We’re planning for at least the coming full academic and budget year operating under the threat of COVID-19. But, things have improved enough to say that it’s time for us to begin to carefully reactivate the University and reactivate the state of Michigan.”
Schlissel said the vast economic impacts of COVID-19 will alter fall planning on the Ann Arbor campus for students and staff across the University. He said changes the University has already made in response to an expected $3 billion decreased budget apportioned from the state of Michigan are targeted towards students with financial uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re planning for some increased costs … particularly financial aid,” Schlissel said. “We’re very concerned that our students’ financial circumstances will be changing, that unemployment rate in the state of Michigan will affect many of the families of our students and we’re setting setting aside extra resources to help make sure that the continuity of education isn’t affected for financial reasons for as many of our students as possible.”
The University has already begun planning how to aid students affected most by the pandemic through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act fund, according to Schlissel. Half of the $25 million the University received will go directly to students and the other half will go to pandemic-related expenses.
Due to state budget and tuition uncertainties, Schlissel said he expects a loss of funding between $22 million and $192 million for the main campus, excluding Michigan Medicine. He said the University is minimizing losses by cutting many non-essential expenditures.
“Things like salary freezes and hiring freezes, essentially no travel, no non-essential expenditures, cutting back on contract expenses, stopping our capital projects and slowing down our pipeline of capital projects, voluntary furloughs … those things all sum up to basically stabilizing us at the lower range of these predicted losses,” Schlissel said.
University leaders said they remain optimistic about fall planning and the potential to deliver a top-notch semester to students and staff across campus.
Collins emphasized efforts by the University to conduct as much in-person learning as possible, but said large lecture classes will probably remain remote.
“Some types of instructions, such as large lecture classes, will almost surely continue to be taught remotely, enabling us to follow the public health guidelines and to use our spaces creatively, with the kind of prioritization that I’ve already mentioned,” Collins said.
Details for next semester’s operations included possible changes to the academic calendar, a toolkit of public health measures, and guidance from health and medical experts, according to Collins.
“We’re exploring possible changes to our academic calendar that, in particular, would minimize student travel from home to Ann Arbor,” Collins said. “We’re leveraging the very best expertise and wisdom of our public health medical experts from across campus and exploring the range of ways to mitigate the health risks that come from in-person engagements, using the full public health toolkit: personal distancing, density reductions, masks, hand washing, facility cleaning, testing, contact tracing and quarantines.”
Taylor said these plans should be announced in late June or early July.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion During COVID-19
Schlissel said several students expressed worry that the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will impact Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts on campus amid the already rising xenophobia towards the Asian/Pacific Islander American community.
Schlissel read a student comment concerning how these economic impacts may perpetuate the decrease in recruitment and retention of staff and faculty and students of color. He replied by speaking against xenophobic and racist notions towards the A/PIA community.
“To show prejudice against a particular group and blame them or demonize them for a global pandemic, it’s really the most abhorrent use of a strategy to express the worst of human instinct,” Schlissel said. “We don’t have tolerance for this and I look for opportunities to publicly speak out against it.”
Schlissel said DEI values have become ingrained in the University’s mission, and the University would not cast aside these initiatives before divesting in any other prominent curriculum.
“The goal all along with DEI has been to make it part of who we are and how we function,” Schlissel said. “There wouldn’t be a thought that DEI would be cast aside because of a crisis. We would no more likely cast aside advising students on careers or organizing a robust curriculum — it’s part of who we are. And the mission to provide access and affordability to higher education regardless of a person’s background remains on the front burner.”
While the University plans to implement as many public health measures as possible to promote the health and safety of students and faculty, Schlissel said it will come down to individual student responsibility, maturity and community consciousness in order to successfully conduct an in-person semester.
“I think it’s really going to be significantly up to our students whether we succeed in having an in-person, full semester,” Schlissel said. “I have great confidence in their seriousness and their maturity. I do think that they’ll rise to the moment and culturally reinforce with one another the necessity of thinking of this as something that we all share.”
LSA sophomore Dominic Coletti listened to the town hall from Cary, North Carolina. Coletti told The Daily he agrees that students must act responsibly and follow public health measures to successfully conduct an in-person semester, but University policies must be effective in order for students to assume responsibility.
“I think the reality is that, one way or another, every single person in the U of M community and really in the country at large has seen an effect one way or another of this pandemic,” Coletti said. “I think we are all going to be commonly aligned to have one goal which is keeping things open. I think the final responsibility does rest with students. I’m not sure if it will be as big of a challenge as it’s made to seem.”
Collins said she remains hopeful and confident in the University’s ability to conduct an engaging fall semester.
“The next academic year at the University of Michigan is going to be one of a kind,” Collins said. “Yes, it’s going to be challenging. Yes, we should expect that there’ll be problems to solve, there’ll be bumps along the way, we’ll still be grappling with the many consequences of COVID-19, but I have tremendous confidence in our faculty, our staff and our students. We can work together to make this the best year possible, as we move forward with our high impact research, academics and service missions.”
Contributor Megan Shohfi can be reached at email@example.com.