Frustrated with fall reopening, faculty members consider vote of no confidence in administration

Friday, August 28, 2020 - 5:53pm

.

Alec Cohen/Daily

University of Michigan faculty members are considering a vote of no confidence in the administration due to the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and fall reopening plan, faculty members said at an emergency Faculty Senate meeting Friday.

The meeting came a few days after a July 31 memo to University President Mark Schlissel from the President’s Advisory COVID-19 Committee on Ethics and Privacy was inadvertently made public and began circulating online, sparking criticism toward University administration. The memo explicitly warned against the University’s reopening plan, and noted that the current plan would hit vulnerable populations the hardest.

A successful vote of no confidence would mean the Faculty Senate no longer believes in University leadership’s ability to execute its role, which in this case applies to the University’s fall reopening plan, according to a copy of the motion obtained by The Daily.

The virtual emergency meeting was held in response to an Aug. 23 petition signed by more than 200 University faculty members. All faculty hold membership in the senate. Faculty expressed frustration at the meeting over the University's plans for the fall semester, which begins Monday.  

According to Faculty Senate Rule 4(1), a meeting can be organized by means of a petition signed by 50 or more Senate members. The Faculty Senate Office told The Daily that they believe this is the first time such a meeting has been called since the rule was established in 2011. The Faculty Senate Office confirmed the meeting was the highest attended on record with more than 550 attendees.

A faculty member confirmed to The Daily that a motion of no confidence in the administration’s reopening plan was submitted to be considered. Other faculty members told The Daily there appeared to be support for holding a vote of no confidence during a portion of the meeting the press was not invited to attend.

Information Professor Kentaro Toyama, a SACUA Representative and organizer of recent demonstrations against reopening campus, asked SACUA to consider a vote on a motion of no confidence in either the University administration or its reopening plans.

“In my four years in faculty governance, I haven’t yet seen the administration give an inch on key issues, though they are very good at providing the impression that they care about our opinions. I don’t think this is governance, this is dictatorship,” Toyama said. “And, if that seems a little bit alarmist, it’s because I really believe we are in a moment in which we have to do something a little bit more than make polite requests.”

Faculty express concerns over fall semester

Physics professor Dante Amidei echoed Toyama’s sentiment that the administration hasn’t done a sufficient job of taking into account faculty input. Amidei recently sent two petitions to the University administration that called for a more robust universal testing program and to which he said received no response from the administration.

“What we have heard (from the University) is an ad-hoc argument to discredit the importance of universal testing,” Amidei said. “We have never seen a model or an analysis that predicts the risk levels for this U-M plan. Maybe there isn’t one and we are flying blind. Or maybe there is one and we wouldn’t like the answer.”

Amidei said he wished the University would follow the lead of other peer institutions in using the pandemic as an opportunity to pioneer containment of illness. He said the University has no strategy, only “downstream crisis control.” 

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen emphasized that the University plans on increasing testing efforts in an email to The Daily. 

“Surveillance testing asymptomatic students, faculty and staff will occur each week. We will launch registration for our program next week and anticipate ramping up testing to approximately 3,000 individuals weekly by the end of September,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Additional testing efforts include 1500 tests for students moving into affiliated fraternity and sorority houses.”

Broekhuizen also said that prior to arrival on campus, 91 percent of undergraduates in on-campus housing have been tested, while the remainder are currently being tested. This means that of approximately 8,300 students living in dorms, around 750 are waiting for their COVID-19 test results.

Engineering professor Michael Atzmon voiced his concern for compliance with University guidelines, after complaints of housing precautions going unenforced during dormitory move-in and reports of off-campus parties that potentially violate public health mandates. Atzmon criticized the University’s tweet to dismiss gatherings of 26, but approve those of 25, in accordance with Washtenaw County guidelines. 

“On Aug. 16, President Schlissel said he was a little insulted by the suggestion that our students will not act responsibly,” Atzmon said, referring to comments Schlissel made in an interview with The Daily. “So I guess President Schlissel finds reality offensive. Many of us have seen images of our students having a great time in recent days in large groups and without masks. Now there’s even a U of M tweet telling them to have parties with 25 people.”

Atzmon said even if students and faculty follow University guidelines, he still believes there is a high level of risk related to in-person classes.

Lisa Disch, the U-M political science professor who was recently elected to Ann Arbor City Council for Ward 1, said the risk of bringing students back to campus could impact the local community. Disch said the University’s plans impose a high level of risk on the community, so moving to an entirely remote format would be a better avenue to ensure public safety.

“We live in the most segregated county in Michigan, and the pandemic makes us one community in the worst way. It does cross neighborhood lines and it does cross economic strata,” Disch said. “It will have the most devastating impact on county residents who are the most vulnerable. They are essential workers whose paychecks do not reflect the magnitude of the risks they take for this community.”

Meeting comes on heels of leaked memo

At the meeting, comparative literature professor Silke-Maria Weineck brought up concerns about the COVID-19 Ethics and Privacy Committee’s July 31 memo to President Schlissel. She said the memo highlights how unconfident community members feel about the current plan for reopening campus.

“Our main point here is not to advocate for a specific solution, but rather to underscore, with urgency, our concern that current plans for Fall 2020 will not meet the reasonable standard for safety recommended by our report, that good alternatives exist, and that it is not too late to pursue them,” Weineck quoted from the memo during the meeting.

Gilbert Omenn, chair of the COVID-19 Ethics and Privacy Committee and public health professor, confirmed that the committee still stands by its statements in the memo in an email to The Daily. Omenn also mentioned that the committee did not receive a response from President Schlissel, though no response was expected.

Toyama said he is worried about the memo not having been made public by the University and that he hopes all of the final reports from COVID-19 committees in the provost’s and president’s offices should be made public. He highlighted that the memo states a coronavirus outbreak will be likely and will disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities.

In an email to The Daily, Amanda Kaplan and Saveri Nandigama, CSG president and vice president, said they believe constructive criticism can help improve the University’s decision-making processes. They also noted that the reopening plan was a University-wide effort and that criticism should not be solely directed at President Schlissel.

“We believe that, no matter what the decision is, the University needs to ensure that the needs of students, faculty, and staff are heard and addressed accordingly,” Kaplan, a Public Policy senior, and Nandigama, an LSA senior, wrote. “This report doesn’t change our opinion, but it does highlight and recognize the need to create an atmosphere that is conducive to the success of all students, especially those from communities of color and other vulnerable communities.”

Peter Railton, a member of the COVID-19 Ethics and Privacy Committee and philosophy professor, suggested that faculty should work within the hybrid teaching framework to declare that they will teach their courses online without waiting for permission or policy changes. Railton noted that he was not speaking on behalf of the committee, but as a faculty member.

“Some of the most dangerous steps in reopening universities such as bringing students back to the dorms have already been taken, and at this point it may be too late to stop the spread of the kind that we’ve seen at other large universities,” Railton said. “But we’re not powerless as a faculty to take steps that we think can materially increase safety for our students, faculty, staff and the wider communities.”

Daily Staff Reporter Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at sokotoff@michigandaily.com.