Schlissel on in-person classes: 'It's more likely than not we will make it through the semester'
The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor to discuss preparations for students’ return to campus for the fall semester. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: What we’re trying to accomplish is to preserve as much of the mission of the University as possible, given the constraints of doing this in a, really, once in a lifetime pandemic. I’m 62 years old and I’ve never lived through anything like this before, where the whole world was suffering from an infectious disease reality and threat, as well as a major economic downturn that might go from a recession to something more severe. So it’s a very, very challenging time.
But the mission of the University is very important. The research we do, the education we deliver, the patient care we provide, the service we provide to society. And the challenge is how to do it in the setting of the risk that we’re all living with. And nothing we can do will take that risk down to zero, short of completely shutting down the economy … And now the challenge is how do we get back to doing the things that are important to all of us while still keeping the virus under control? It won’t go away until there’s a vaccine. … It’s going to take a while to vaccinate everybody once we have a vaccine. So what I’m counting on is the full academic year at least, is going to be an unusual year. And the challenge is how do we make the best of that, get the best education, allow you to see your friends and get the other upsides of a college education, while at the same time not just keeping the students safe, but the faculty and staff and all of our neighbors in Ann Arbor, many of whom are our faculty and staff.
The Michigan Daily: How confident are you that the University campus will stay open for the entire semester?
MS: Um, I think we’ve got a very good chance of doing this. I’d be foolish to say that I was 100 percent confident because we’ve never done this before. To be honest, a big part of the reason we’re doing this, as I mentioned already, is out of a notion of the importance of education. The other things you get out of being on a college campus are the social aspects of learning that occur. But also out of respect to students, I get a little insulted when everybody says there’s no way that students are going to wear masks, and there’s no way that they’re not going to party in dangerous fashions, and there’s no way they’re mature enough to recognize the importance of the moment and behave like the adults that you all are. And I disagree with that. I think you can and will step up as a community. I’d like to give the community the chance to actually figure out together, with us, how we can coexist with a disease that none of us welcomes, that’s a real problem for everybody.
TMD: And is there a threshold of community spread that would threaten the campus and/or city and require campus to close again? A certain number of cases or deaths?
MS: There’s no single number. But this is exactly what we’re following, newly diagnosed cases, how they’re spreading, if there are many outbreaks that we can control by contact tracing and quarantin(ing) and (if) it doesn’t spread widely across the campus, then we can continue with the semester. If it turns out that the rate of increase in cases, the trajectory of this, is too high, then we’ll pull back. If it turns out that University Health Service can’t keep up with the demands for testing or people who are ill or we run out of quarantine space, then we’ll pull back. So there isn’t a single number, it’s really the status of the disease on campus, how it’s spreading and then what’s happening in town and around the state.
TMD: So, you said you’re not 100 percent confident in the semester staying somewhat in-person the whole time, and you said you’re confident in students and our ability to not mess it up. But if you could put a number on what percent confident you actually are, what would that number be, that we will stay with an in-residence, in-person semester?
MS: You know, I think it’s more likely than not that we will make it through the semester. So I’m not going to assign a number to it. Just like I don’t gamble. I’ve been to Atlantic City and Las Vegas and I haven’t lost any money.
TMD: Princeton University, your alma mater, last week reversed its decision on holding in-person classes, and Michigan State University’s president has encouraged students to consider staying home. Given that Washtenaw County is currently experiencing similar, if not higher, daily COVID-19 case counts than these two schools’ surrounding counties, what is the difference in the University of Michigan’s evaluation of the upcoming semester?
MS: Yeah, that’s a really important question. So, you know, with all due respect to Princeton and MSU, we’re actually not all that different from one another. So, Princeton has its graduate students around, it just won’t have its undergraduates around. It may have a very small smattering of undergrads. The incidence of COVID-19 in New Jersey has been terrible. You know, they’re one of the leading states in terms of folks that have passed away, particularly in the New York metro area … Things are not under as fantastic control as they are here in Southeast Michigan. MSU and us are not that different in that they are conducting a hybrid semester, I guess where we differ with myself and President Stanley and MSU is he very actively and has been quoted, at least, as saying, “please stay home.” What I’ve said is, if you’re at all concerned about your health, or if you don’t think you can follow the public health guidelines that we’ve pushed out there, which 70 percent of our credit hours are online, so you can stay home, get a full curriculum. And you should do that. But if you come back to Ann Arbor, we want you to take on the responsibility and the accountability of living up to the pledge we’re gonna ask you to sign, and the culture of care that student groups have helped us develop to diminish the likelihood of spreading the disease.
TMD: At a town hall on Tuesday, Eddie Washington, executive director of Division of Public Safety and Security, introduced the addition of student ambassadors on campus to ensure the University community is following social distancing guidelines. How will the city and University work together to ensure social distancing takes place off and on campus? And how are you going to enforce that?
Christopher Taylor: Well, I guess, you know, you lead with enforcement in the question. And I guess I’d like to push a little bit on that … enforcement is really going to be our last resort … I mean, our goal throughout all of this is to communicate. Since we’re talking about students, to communicate to students whether this is your first time in Ann Arbor, or whether you’re looking at your eighth semester, our goal is to emphasize that you as a student, you’re here and you’re part of our community, right … but that also, in this context, it involves responsibility, there are going to be rules and norms that the University establishes for its campus that the governor and the county health department established for Washtenaw County, in the city of Ann Arbor. And, you know, we are going to make sure that the people understand those rules, that people understand the reasons behind them, that they are here and there to make you as an individual safer, to make your colleagues and school safer for your teachers, service staff, faculty and everyone, and members of the community, the greater Ann Arbor community at large safer.
MS: And you know, this ambassador program, it’s not really an extension of the police or something, it’s students, such as yourselves, that volunteer or student employees that already work for us in buildings around the campus, where we make sure they know the rules, and we make sure they feel empowered to remind somebody. So you’ll undoubtedly forget on some occasions to pull your mask over your face as you walk from some part that’s off campus onto campus, or as you rush out of your apartment or a student rushes out of their dorm room. So, these are people that are just going to remind you, and we’re hoping that a lot of enforcement really comes from changing norms, as the mayor said.
We’re also working with the health department to get them to help us lower the number of people, as I mentioned earlier, that could convene at one time, the governor’s limit is now 100, and I’d love to see that reduced down to maybe 25 people or something. And that’s plenty of folks to get together and have a good time. But it’s probably a group that's less likely to go out of control.
TMD: I want to push you both on that little bit, because yes, it’s good you’re trusting people to change the norms, but there are going to be outliers and this is a college campus, there is Greek Life, there are people who want to go to parties. So, if there are parties on or off campus, how will they be handled?
MS: The Greek fraternities and sororities have already pledged not to have organized, proper scheduled events. But of course, as you know, people will get together. They’ll congregate. If a group beyond a certain size gets together and they’re exhibiting the kind of behavior that we think is dangerous, the first thing that will happen is somebody will complain and notify either the city or the campus. Our Student Life people have the phone numbers of the leaders of Greek Life. They have individuals from group living circumstances, so we have many professional fraternities that share houses around town, we have members of the marching band that share houses around, so we have linkages to all those groups. The first thing we’re going to try is to get on the phone and have a dean call you up and say, “hey look, please tone it down. You’re having a good time, that’s great. Put your masks on, take it down a notch, everything’s fine.” If that doesn’t work, what really has happened is students have been involved with us in a modification of the student statement of rights and responsibilities that will last, at least initially, for one year. And what that says is that students are held responsible and accountable by all the different mechanisms available through the code of student behavior, through the conduct mechanism for living up to these public health guidelines. So ultimately, it can become a student disciplinary proceeding, which we hope it doesn’t very often. Students living in the dormitories, their dormitory contract says they can be evicted if they chronically violate our public health guidelines. Students who fail to come into compliance when they’re partying in town after multiple admonitions and many different tiered levels of reminders ultimately will be brought into the student code pathway or receive a citation that will be very expensive to them. But that’s the last resort.
CT: I guess I’d just like to piggyback on that. The goal is — and I think it will be the vastly more common experience — is to educate your way to compliance. The black helicopters don't come when someone lights a cigarette when they’re not supposed to, right? I analogize that in this context. The University has the primary point of contact still off campus. They're going to be taking the lead in all of this, and we’re going to be a partner with them. We’re going to be a partner with them on the engagement side during the course of a transgression, but also, I’d like to emphasize and reemphasize that pre-transgression is really where the wins are going to occur. We’re going to educate students, emphasize their importance to addressing the problem here in Ann Arbor, to being part of the public health solution. And I think that over time, that the norm will be created and the normal be complied with.
TMD: How will decisions made by the University this fall impact the city and its permanent residents?
CT: The challenges that the University is experiencing, the difference that a public health-informed, hybrid semester is going to be for students is going to have tremendous effect. It's going to have a tremendous effect economically, plainly and obviously. So many businesses rely upon the University as a direct driver — the ancillary businesses that are associated with the University, the students and so forth and that’s all going to be incredibly different. It’s going to be a different cultural place too. The students create and attract arts and culture and educational experiences for permanent Ann Arbor residents all the time. Those are going to be very different. And finally, the craziness of students, the vibrancy of students, their zest for living — that's infectious. It’s one part of the wonderful things about being a 53-year-old in a college town. The students here are incredibly energetic, and their energies and their optimism and their qualities — it's infectious.
MS: Don’t say infectious, Chris.
CT: Fair enough. It provides momentum and it’s inspirational. Let’s roll with that. It’s inspirational. To the extent that that’s somewhat damped by the restrictions, that’s gonna be a loss too. But you know in the end we’ll all together get through it.
MS: Let me piggyback on that. One of the most exciting times of the year for me is when students come back to town I’d love to create a new way for people to greet each other and blow off that emotion as opposed to giving them a big hug. Hugs are not necessarily great things, even if you’re wearing a mask maybe. I’d love to think creatively, and there’s never been a better example of us all being in this together. Your actions affect everybody else and my actions affect you.
TMD: How do you balance the potential public health impacts of students returning to the city with an economic boost that students provide to local businesses?
CT: I guess, with respect to how do I balance them, they’re both a feature of the return of the students. The economic impact of students returning will for many local businesses be considerable. People like restaurateurs, other service providers are certainly looking forward to it. At the same time, you’re increasing the number of people within the boundaries and students are coming in from other locations and that generates risk. As President Schlissel said, risk is unavoidable in the pandemic. Our goal is to reduce it as best we can. We reduce it by following what are, in the end, simple and direct and clear practices — wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, hand hygiene. Those things together, rigorously adhered to, will go a long way to keeping us safe.
TMD: Are the University’s and the city’s testing and contact tracing capacities independent? Or how are they working together?
MS: The county is responsible for receiving reports and for doing contact tracing. They delegate that authority for students and for workplace exposures of employees to the University, and the University Health Service and the EHS people on campus do the contact tracing and the follow through, all the while reporting back to the County Department of Health. Mr. Mayor, how’s it handled in town?
CT: In the city, it’s a pretty short answer. It is not a municipal function. It’s a county health function, so the health officer, her department, is the one that drives contact tracing and testing and so forth.
TMD: Students living in dorms are going to be tested, but what about students who live off campus? How will we ensure that we’re going to be tested?
MS: So we’ve asked all students before returning to town to do an enhanced version of social distancing. Now that’s not going to be 100 percent effective. I’ve already heard complaints from people that must work at their summer jobs for example in order to afford school, so we’re sensitive to that. But those who are not in that circumstance, we’re asking them basically to narrow down dramatically for two weeks. We’re sending everyone who lives in a dorm that will be arriving in this tight window of time of three days for move-in, we’re sending them all test kits from a national testing company. Anybody who tests positive will be asked to stay at home for ten days before they come back to campus to decrease the number of people that bring disease to Ann Arbor. The reason we haven’t done that for everybody is many people are already here, people come and go at different times and just the technical capacity to effectively screen people, there has to be a tight window of time between the screening and your being on campus. The test only means that you don’t have the disease at that moment you take the test. It doesn’t mean that three days later, you don’t develop the disease. So the dorms, where people are moving in all at the same time, where we feel a special responsibility because they’re living in our home or our buildings and there are large numbers of people living together, that’s where we’re focusing the testing efforts, where we think they’ll be most effective. But after people arrive, anybody with symptoms will be tested. You’ll have an app on your phone that will remind you every day to ask yourself if you’ve got a sore throat, if you have a headache, if you’ve got a cough, if you’re noticing differences in your taste sensations, if you have a fever. There is a list of simple questions, you check off a bunch of boxes, you get a green checkmark and you’re good to go for the day. If you’ve got any of this list of screening things, it pops up a phone number you’re supposed to call. You’ll talk to a human to get more details and we’ll bring you in for a test and we’ll put you on ice until we get the results back. We should get the results back within a day if you come up with symptoms because we'll use our health system to do the testing.