Schlissel addresses Senate Assembly on pandemic response, OIE update

Monday, April 20, 2020 - 7:42pm

U-M President Mark Schlissel speaks to the Senate Assembly at the weekly meeting, held via Zoom, Monday afternoon.

U-M President Mark Schlissel speaks to the Senate Assembly at the weekly meeting, held via Zoom, Monday afternoon. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Rebecca Hirsh

More than 100 members of the Senate Assembly met informally over Zoom Monday afternoon for the final meeting of the academic year. Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan, joined the call to update the Assembly members on the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This discussion followed a statement released about the University’s financial status and changes they are implementing to address the financial gap and other challenges arising from COVID-19. 

Schlissel thanked the faculty and staff on behalf of himself and the Regents for adapting after classes were moved to online platforms in March. He also noted how Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order titled Stay Home, Stay Safe has had a positive effect on the health care system. Schlissel said the number of patients at Michigan Medicine has been decreasing and COVID-19 patient numbers peaked in the low 200s, well below the hospital’s capacity.

“The health care system completely reorganized itself and really has very successfully addressed the patient care components of this pandemic,” Schlissel said. “I can express my gratitude — our gratitude, collectively — to our health care colleagues for stepping up, taking on the personal risk of working in an infectious pandemic and also delivering outstanding health care.”

Schlissel then switched to “difficult news”: until a vaccine, the infection won’t go away. He said he’s hopeful there will be short-term immunity and medicines to help address the disease and decrease the lethality, but he does not foresee a vaccine for at least a year, emphasizing the need to protect the immunocompromised and high-risk people in the University community through behavioral changes, such as public health interventions, remote learning and working.

Schlissel addressed the University’s financial crisis and the downturn of the country’s economy. Schlissel said the University’s diminished revenue stream comes from the loss of revenue from non-urgent medical procedures, refunds and rebates for faculty parking and student housing in residence halls, decreased enrollment for spring and summer terms and being unable to rent out facilities in the summer. 

There are also anticipated losses in revenue due to an expected increase in financial aid needs from students and an expected decrease in state funding due to a loss in tax revenue in Michigan from surging unemployment. Schlissel added that the endowment, while invested to hedge against risks, may be down significantly, and needs to preserve the endowment for the future of the University. 

Schlissel said projected losses will amount to $400 million to $1 billion by the end of the calendar year.

“There’s been a profound effect (on the University’s finances),” Schlissel said in the Zoom meeting. “We don’t know the magnitude of the effect with certainty, we don’t know the permanence of the effect … but it’s a multi-hundred-million-dollar shortfall between now and December that we’re going to have to figure out how to mitigate.”

Schlissel said he anticipates a tiered return to work based on employees’ risk analyses as well as the ability for work to be conducted remotely. He added that he’s worked with Whitmer to discuss restarting research on campus and mitigating risk in labs as part of the first tier to return to in-person work. 

Schlissel announced his process for a “public health informed in-residence semester.” He hopes to have students return to campus for the fall semester with some public health controls for safety, such as limiting lecture sizes and possibly introducing a hybrid of online lecture learning with in-person discussions and office hours.

“I am hopeful, but I can say only hopeful, that we will be able to have an in-person fall semester,” Schlissel said. “I don’t think any of the online modalities replace a University of Michigan education. When you can’t come together because of health reasons or government orders, then you can deliver a credible curriculum online but I don’t think anyone would argue, I certainly wouldn’t, that it’s ideal. Our goal is to restart an in-residence Michigan educational experience.”

Schlissel has formed a committee of public health experts on interventions to prevent the spread of disease to advise the administration through this decision for the fall semester and he added that there are also plans for a completely remote semester if it is necessary. He also announced a committee of faculty to advise administration on ethics and privacy issues related to user testing to guide activity in terms of returning to campus.

Schlissel announced the administration’s plan to combat this uncertainty, echoing the email from earlier that morning. In addition to the executive team taking a voluntary pay cut of 10 percent through the end of the calendar year, the plan includes hiring and salary freezes through the next fiscal year except in cases of scheduled promotions, postponement of some construction projects and stringent controls on discretionary spending. 

So far during this crisis, the University has prioritized employees, Schlissel said. These changes will hopefully balance out the long-term longevity of the University.

“We have to balance the long-term strength of our University,” Schlissel said. “We can’t do things today to solve our short-term problems that would make it so that the University is no longer an outstanding place to research and do our work and do our teaching after the crisis is over. We can’t sacrifice too much of our future potential for the sake of mitigating the current crisis.”

Schlissel concluded his thoughts with optimism and faith in the strength of the University community, as well as health officials across the country working toward a vaccine.

“The main message is that the challenges are serious. They are no different than those facing our peers (at other universities),” Sclissel said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. I’m an optimistic person in general and I’m a big believer in the ingenuity of society to come up with solutions that prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening. We’ll continue to face it together as a university, applying our values and sticking with our people. On the other end, this will be a great research and teaching institution.”

Assembly members were invited to ask Schlissel questions through the Zoom chat feature. Schlissel said it is unclear when the decision on fall semester will be made, as new information on the pandemic comes out each day, but that he will be open and clear with the process. He invites faculty to send their suggestions, advice and criticisms of the University’s approach. 

Tammy Strickman, associate vice president for institutional equity, joined the call after Schlissel left to discuss updates since January in the Office of Institutional Equity.

Strickman emphasized a growing need for OIE to increase and facilitate conversations with faculty at the university. 

“One of the big goals that I have is working to do a lot more outreach and collaboration across the campus community. I think that’s where our partnership (with the Assembly) can be very beneficial,” Strickman said. “At the end of the day, the OIE office is a resource for the campus and we want to ensure that we are doing what we can to help serve to ensure we have a safe, healthy, happy campus community.”

Strickman emphasized that these conversations would allow avenues to discuss the investigation process, what information is allowed versus not allowed to be shared and what preventative measures can be put in place to stop future misconduct.

Assembly members were invited to ask Strickman questions in the Zoom chatbox. Kenneth Adams, member of the Assembly and professor of Michigan Medicine, asked about the impartiality of OIE investigations, which are conducted in response to allegations involving staff or faculty of sexual misconduct or discrimination based on a protected status, such as race, ethnicity or sex.

“When we conduct an investigation, we are not advocating on behalf of any particular person involved in a particular investigation. We are gathering information to the extent we can,” Strickman said. “Our goal and responsibility are to ensure we are thorough, that we are impartial and that we are taking all of the information available, applying it to the applicable policy and making a determination on whether or not it meets our standard of proof to show a violation, which is preponderance of evidence.”

Before Strickman left, many members thanked her for her clarity and transparency with OIE.

“Thanks to (Tammy) for really wanting to open a clear channel of communication even when it is uncomfortable,” Adams wrote in the chat.

Outgoing Assembly Chair Joy Beatty concluded the meeting with an end of the year presentation on the Assembly’s accomplishments. The presentation mentioned groups the body worked with during the year, increased engagement among assembly members and higher attendance rates. The presentation also recognized the 27 members completing their three-year terms this year. 

Elections were held last week for leadership and membership for the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, a sub-body of the Assembly. Colleen Conway, professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, was elected as SACUA chair, replacing Beatty, and Engineering professor Annalisa Manera will be vice chair. 

Beatty, associate professor at U-M Dearborn, thanked everyone in the Assembly and SACUA for their participation and dedication to the group, noting that it is all volunteer work on top of other University commitments. To end the meeting, Beatty extended a thank you to the Faculty Senate and all the work of its members.

“To be involved as someone from one of the branch campuses has really been an honor for me, as well as for the campus,” Beatty said. “It’s important that we all stay involved. Because we are run by volunteers, we need strong, confident, engaged people to whom we can pass the baton. ... I’m so grateful for everyone’s time and energy and effort and good humor in participation. Thank you for everything that you’ve done.”

Reporter Rebecca Hirsh can be reached at hirshrm@umich.edu