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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) held a virtual meeting Monday evening to hear from guest speakers about a recent resolution from the Committee for Fairness, Equity and Inclusion (CFEI) and to discuss the faculty petition calling for the choice to opt out of in-person teaching in the fall. SACUA also discussed prospective vaccine policies for athletes and the possibility of a campus-wide vaccination mandate for the upcoming fall semester.
SACUA Chair Allen Liu opened the meeting with updates from the last time SACUA met on May 3. Prior to Monday’s meeting, Liu said, he had attended an Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics (ABIA) meeting, during which ABIA discussed the vaccination policies that might be instituted for student athletes and those attending football games in the fall.
“(ABIA) talked about COVID testing among athletes, and I think one athlete has (tested) positive in the last few days,” Liu said. “ABIA also talked about (how) they don’t have a way to check whether people are (vaccinated for) football games … It’s really easy for people to fabricate documentation so it doesn’t look like (ABIA will recommend requiring vaccinations for attendees).”
Though Liu said it would logistically be too challenging to try to mandate vaccines for game attendees, he announced that ABIA has been discussing vaccine requirements for all athletes and the athletic department staff.
SACUA then invited CFEI member Dinesh Pal to the Zoom meeting so Pal could present a list of recommendations CFEI created concerning the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on faculty research and the tenure process for specific faculty demographics.
Pal said the impact of COVID-19 has disproportionately affected faculty members who identify as women, people of color and primary caregivers. Female-identifying faculty and faculty of color have historically had fewer opportunities for leadership and recognition at the University of Michigan, and Pal said challenges associated with COVID-19 may have augmented this existing pattern. In addition, faculty members who are also primary caregivers may have had less time to devote to their endeavors in academia this year.
“Those groups are also likely going for promotions and tenure,” Pal said. “(Promotions and tenure) don’t happen in a year or a month, it’s like years and years of work. If you stop (faculty) short for a year and a half, then (still) expect their level of productivity to match the pre-pandemic level, I think that would be a little unfair.”
Pal said U-M administration should find a meaningful way to explicitly acknowledge the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on different faculty members. Pal also pointed out that all of the SACUA members are already tenured, so they have an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the faculty members who have not yet reached tenure and to use CFEI’s findings and recommendations to assist disadvantaged faculty communities in the transition back from COVID-19 teaching.
SACUA member Sara L Ahbel-Rappe asked Pal what SACUA can do to actualize CFEI’s recommendations and increase equity among non-tenured faculty post-COVID-19.
“Ultimately, I think we’ll have to look back a year or two years from now to see whether (CFEI’s) recommendations have had any impact or not,” Pal said in response. “But I do think as a matter of principle it’s really important that we (attempt to increase equity).”
SACUA then discussed the May 5 faculty petition that urged U-M administration to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all students and faculty engaging in in-person learning this fall. The petition demands that if the University does not choose to implement a vaccine requirement, all faculty have the opportunity to opt out of in-person teaching for the entire academic year without consequence.
University President Schlissel issued a statement to U-M faculty on May 12 in response to the petition. In his statement, obtained by The Daily, Schlissel affirmed that he encourages universal vaccination, barring medical or religious exceptions. Schlissel wrote that the University is considering further incentivizing vaccination for students and will continue to monitor the situation, but additionally wrote that the University does not plan to issue a vaccine mandate beyond the existing one for those living on-campus next fall at this time.
“Our public health experts and infectious disease physicians are confident that classroom teaching is safe for vaccinated faculty members regardless of the vaccination status of their students with the continued use of face coverings and mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated students,” Schlissel wrote. “While we want as many faculty and staff as possible to be vaccinated, we are not certain that a mandate will result in better success achieving this goal than strong and repeated reminders, education and incentives.”
SACUA invited the petition’s author, art and design professor Rebekah Modrak into the committee meeting to further explain the purpose of the petition.
“My involvement with the petition came about because there’s some conversations that we’ve had at my school, Stamps, which were prompted by lecturers,” Modrak said. “I think the lecturers were very concerned that they weren’t having a lot of choice in … the way that they could teach next year, whether they’re teaching hybrid or in-person.”
Modrak also said she spoke to faculty with young children who reported concerns that their children may not be eligible to be vaccinated before in-person learning begins in the fall at the University. Some faculty also have medical conditions that put them at higher risk for becoming seriously ill or are primary caregivers in their homes, Modrak said. If K-12 classes go online due to high infection rates in their children’s school districts, it would be difficult to direct their children’s virtual education and teach on campus.
Another one of the faculty petition’s demands is funding for better ventilation in instructional spaces. Liu asked Modrak if there were any lecture buildings on campus with known ventilation issues. He questioned whether air purifiers or HEPA filters — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists as possible tools to improve ventilation and mitigate COVID-19 exposure — could help prevent COVID-19 transmission during in-person classes.
“I know at the Stamps school we work really closely with students in buildings that have ventilation that was created to help with fumes from different (art) mediums that we work with, and we haven’t heard anything about how that ventilation (system) will handle transmission of the virus,” Modrak said in response to Liu’s question. “I’ve also heard that someone (in the psychology building) wrote a concern about ventilation, and faculty in other departments who are in small classrooms with 18 to 20 students are concerned.”
Associate professor Elena Gallo asked Modak whether a stringent vaccine mandate is the most efficient way to ensure the highest percentage of students and staff are vaccinated for the fall. Like Schlissel, Gallo suggested incentivization programs might be an alternative option.
“There was an article in The New York Times that said a more gentle approach that goes for incentives, rather than mandates, actually yields a better result,” Gallo said. “There are some (rights) that are constitutionally protected, such as religious exceptions. At the end of the day, there’s still a way out if someone is really truly against this vaccination. I’m not entirely convinced that this kind of approach (a hard mandate) is to be preferred to one where you incentivize people.”
Modrak said the University had attempted to use an incentivization approach to COVID-19 testing in the fall but without mandating testing there were an unacceptable number of positive cases. Weekly testing approximately quadrupled from Fall semester to the Winter semester, when student testing became required for campus building access. Modrakhe also pointed to several existing state K-12 vaccine mandates for other diseases — such as those for Polio and Meningococcal Conjugate — as proof that vaccine requirements are feasible.
SACUA Vice Chair Caitlin Finlayson said she is concerned about the possibility of the state cutting all funding to the University if the U-M administration were to enforce a campus-wide vaccination policy. H.B. 4400, introduced by House Republicans in April as part of their state budget recommendations for fiscal year 2022, would prevent public universities from receiving any state funding if they try to require proof of vaccination for enrollment or in-person instruction.
If the bill passes, it could be deemed unconstitutional, Modrak said. She said she thinks it would go against the Michigan State Constitution if the state government attempted to withhold funding from the University because public universities are autonomous with their own governing boards. Still, Modrak said, if the state legislature was somehow able to push through legislation that took away all funding for institutions with vaccine mandates in place, the impact could be disastrous.
“The possibility that we lose funding for a period of time could have devastating effects across the three campuses, particularly for Flint and Dearborn,” Finlayson said. “It’s not that I disagree with (a vaccine policy) — I understand the sensitivities there and I’m trying to think of strategically how we use (this petition) to leverage what we want.”
As Monday’s meeting concluded, Modrak suggested that if SACUA and the Senate Assembly support the petition’s general message, they should write and issue their own statement in support of a stronger vaccine policy.
“I don’t know that this petition is what I would recommend that SACUA and the Senate Assembly move forward with,” Modrak said. “I mean, I think that if SACUA and the Senate Assembly are behind and supportive of (a) mandate, which it sounds like many of you are, there should be another statement that’s prepared and circulated.”
Daily Staff Reporter Vanita Seed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.