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The Michigan Daily sat down with Martino Harmon, vice president of student life, to discuss the new mask policy, the DEI plan and the impact of Schlissel’s removal. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

The first installment of this interview series can be found here

Pandemic lessons and policies

TMD: As of March 14, the University relaxed the mask policy such that masks are now optional in most indoor settings. What led the University to change the policy at this particular moment?

MH: As an institution, we’re moving from a response phase to a recovery phase which is where we hope to stay. The COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee (CHRC) — following CDC guidance — made a recommendation that mask-wearing would be optional. Part of the rationale for the decision was a high vaccination rate. We’re around 90% in terms of not just the first two series of vaccinations, but also the booster vaccinations for almost the entire campus. All signs so far since the omicron surge have been positive and hopefully it’ll stay that way. Anytime something changes, the CHRC is always monitoring and will make adjustments if need be.

TMD: Do you think the fall 2022 semester will be completely mask-free? What about the upcoming spring/summer semester?

MH: With COVID-19, we know that curveballs can come at any point. What I can say is that CHRC is in the early stages of planning for the fall. There’s a lot of different factors to look at such as what’s happening in the state, what’s happening across the nation and the effectiveness of the vaccines. I wish I could tell you exactly what the fall will look like, but as soon as I try to predict, COVID-19 will do something else. 

TMD: As COVID-19 cases are dropping, and it seems the pandemic is winding down, are there any key lessons that Student Life has learned from this past “transitional” year?

MH: First of all, I would say we have to be able to shift course if needed. Obviously, we always have to keep the safety of the community at the forefront of our mind. We didn’t know much about testing in the very beginning and vaccines weren’t even thought of, so using the tools that we have is really important. I’m very satisfied that we have a campus that has utilized the tools, whether it’s vaccine mandates or masking mandates. It’s definitely been a challenge, but I think overall, we’ve been improving as we go along.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives

TMD: The University of Michigan is reaching the end of its five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and will be launching the next one in Fall 2023. Are there any specific DEI goals Student Life has for the transition period?

MH: Currently, we’re ending the process of Evaluation and Assessment, and we’re evaluating what we’ve been doing for the past five years. So before we can develop the actual goals and plans, we need to understand the impact of what we’ve been doing. For example, we’ve been looking at how we approach social justice education. The Trotter Center opened in the past five years, so we’re evaluating the program offerings and support at the Trotter Center. 

Then next year is what the University deems as a planning year. We’ll be looking at the results of those evaluations, the campus Climate Survey results and our own strategic plan and connect that all together to develop plans for the future so that we can enhance DEI. It’s really not just looking at individual programs, but overall, what impact are we making? Where are the gaps that we need to fill? What are the initiatives that we need to strengthen in the future? We’re not at the point where I can say our three top goals because the process is still unfolding.

TMD: How is Student Life working with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) to ensure that the new strategic plan will reflect the needs of students of different identities?

MH: Everything that I mentioned is really the blueprint that’s laid out by ODEI and Student Lifecertainly follows that blueprint, but we put our own information into it. Yesterday and Wednesday, there’s a DEI Community Conversations program; I will be there with Dr. Sellers. We’ll be talking about our initiatives over the past five years, but also answering questions that students have about DEI because that’s part of the planning process: getting feedback from stakeholders so that we can utilize that in our planning stages.

Presidential selection process

TMD: As the University looks forward to the appointment of a new president, what characteristics or aspects do you hope to see in the chosen candidate?

MH: We will benefit from a president who understands the priority of building trust. Through engagement, being present and being as transparent as possible, the new president can rebuild the trust that is important in a university environment. From a Student Life perspective, I really hope that we have a president that will prioritize some of the key priorities that students feel are important. Whether it’s DEI, climate change and sustainability or mental health, my goal will be to make sure that the new president is aware of where students stand and what we need in terms of institutional support.

TMD: Beyond the listening sessions and inclusion of student representatives on the selection committee, how are the diverse views and perspectives of the campus community — students, faculty, staff — being considered in the selection process?

MH: From what I see — as a person that’s not in the process — the regents are taking all the information from the listening sessions and from public comments at the last regents meeting. That, along with input from the advisory committee, is how they’re making sure that diversity, equity and inclusion is an important part of the process. Beyond that, they may have other strategies that I am not aware of, but what I see is good in terms of being open and getting people involved in the process at different stages. 

TMD: The removal of former University President Mark Schlissel rocked campus on Jan. 15. What effect do you think Schlissel’s dismissal has had on campus culture?

MH: The situation can erode the trust of the community quite a bit — that’s been really challenging. At the same time, though, I’m optimistic because there are so many people who care about students, who care about other faculty and staff and who are moving forward to stay within the mission of the institution. We have to keep moving forward even despite that particular situation. It’s our job to really focus on placing integrity, engagement and trust at the forefront of what we’re doing. It’s not just up to the next president. We don’t want to wait for the next president to build trust. It’s up to everyone in the University community to rebuild and restore trust, and I believe that people are very committed to doing that.

TMD: For our last question, we were wondering when your birthday is and what your ideal birthday gift would be?

MH: I can answer the first part pretty easily: Dec. 1 is my birthday. I absolutely love to travel. So for me, it would be ideal if I could go off to a wonderful, warm, exotic place and enjoy my birthday with great food, a nice birthday cake and be able to just relax. COVID started taking that dream away from me, but I’m looking forward to getting back to traveling this summer.

Daily News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporters Carly Brechner and Sejal Patil can be reached at cbrech@umich.edu and sejpatil@umich.edu.