President Schlissel, Provost Collins discuss testing, policing on live call

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 11:52pm

President Schlissel and Provost Collins address questions from campus community.

President Schlissel and Provost Collins address questions from campus community. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Alec Cohen

Amid multiple strikes impacting the University of Michigan, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins held a 45-minute town hall Tuesday afternoon. Questions were submitted in advance to Scott Page, Business and LSA professor, who moderated the town hall.

The event comes during the middle of strikes by both the Graduate Employees’ Organization, who are in their second week of striking, and the residential advisers, who have been striking for almost a week. GEO’s complete demands include the right to teach remotely without repercussions, removing funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security and more transparency from the administration about their opening plans. The University filed an injunction against GEO to stop their strike and require Graduate Student Instructors return to teaching. 

Page asked about the faculty being able to work remotely, referencing a survey that was sent out to faculty members at the beginning of the summer about their preference for fall plans. Collins said while 78 percent of U-M credits are currently online or hybrid this semester, the in-person classes were carefully evaluated and faculty who wanted to switch their instruction to be completely remote after the August deadline were able to do so. 

Collins said department chairs should find ways to accommodate GSIs and lecturers teaching preferences. 

“If there are instructors who strongly prefer not to teach remotely, we will accommodate them,” Collins said. “That has been what we’re doing. To accomplish that by saying up front, ‘just everybody opt-out,’ I think doesn’t focus the attention on us working together on our educational mission.”

Page brought up a concern from the community about the strategy of virus surveillance at the University. Schilssel said preventive mechanisms like surveillance testing are more effective than testing students, faculty and staff multiple times. Public health experts have publicly criticized the University’s testing plan, saying the plan is problematic and the University should not be reopening if it is unable to test regularly.

“The strategy was developed by our public health advisers,” Schlissel said. “The same people who are working with the governor and the same folks that run influenza surveillance for the state of Michigan are doing our program. It’s absolutely evolved with time as our capacities (have) grown.” 

Schlissel mentioned the University of Illinois as an example of problems with mass testing, saying having a system where everyone is tested regularly will not change anything. He said even Illinois — with what he called the “best in class” testing system — still could not get parties under control and now have residential life on lockdown as a result.

Collins apologized to the students who shared complaints about quarantine housing on behalf of Martino Harmon, vice president of Student Life, and his team. Collins said the situation was a result of “learning on the fly” and she acknowledges the University “certainly didn’t get it right along the way.”

Collins also said Martino and his team have been working to ensure every room has what it needs and students who are in this housing are supported.

“It’s not excusable that any of our students who are in quarantine or isolation aren’t well supported with all of the supplies that they need,” Collins said. “It’s a stressful, difficult situation in context and that just shouldn’t have happened.”

The Michigan Ambassadors program has received student criticism, with multiple student cultural organizations calling for its removal. In response to this criticism, the University declared on Aug. 30 that armed police were no longer part of the program. Collins said while the intention of containing large gatherings was the main purpose of the program, she admitted the impact this has towards students of color was overlooked by the administration. 

“We didn’t listen enough in terms of what some of the implications were, but the intent was there and we’ll fix the problems with it,” Collins said.

Collins also announced the formation of a task force to address policing at the University through community engagement. More information will be announced in the next few days.

Schlissel said he needs to communicate with different groups to understand what people are feeling. He said he wants to ensure he is hearing a diverse mix of voices before implementing changes at the University.

“There are many perspectives across the campus,” Schlissel said. “A lot of them are screaming so loudly that you can’t hear them. But I need to do more communicating with different types of people to understand the collective vision. I appreciate our grad students' voices, but I want to hear our faculty’s voice, our community members’ voices and I want to hear our neighbors in Ann Arbor’s voice and I want to hear our staff’s voices.”

Graduate students displeased with town hall

GEO spokesperson Leah Bernardo-Ciddio said though she knew of many graduate students who anonymously submitted GEO-related questions to be answered in the town hall, not many were picked to be answered by the moderator. 

“I think that we felt that our concerns were not adequately addressed during the town hall,” Bernardo-Ciddio said. “We were characterized as screaming grad students which was quite frankly, condescending … and also to say that a day after filing for injunction is a choice, because people are reacting to that.”

Rackham student Leanne Su, who watched the town hall, said she felt the administration’s responses contradicted their actions.

“It feels two faced to know that Schlissel is filing an injunction against GEO, and then to hear him and Susan Collins claim that they appreciate GEO bringing up these issues,” Su said. “If they appreciated them, why are they suing us?”

Rackham student Julia Smith said a lot of the questions brought up in the town hall were met with “non-answers” and that the administration danced around directly addressing the questions raised.

“I think a lot of students are really passionate about what’s happening at our school,” Smith said. “I do think it is an opportunity for Michigan to live up to its Leaders and Best name, but that will only happen if we institute actual policy changes, rather than just promising further conversation.”

Though Rackham student Jeff Lockhart said he found it “frustrating and disappointing” the town hall didn’t include a member from GEO on the panel, he still saw the meeting as progress.

“I’m still hopeful that they will change course and start making substantive improvement,” Lockhart said. “I think we got a lot of interesting rhetoric where they sort of began to make promises or progress a little bit on the things that we’ve been asking for but wouldn’t really commit to actually doing things.”

Daily Staff Reporters Iulia Dobrin and Varsha Vedipudi contributed reporting to this article.

Daily Staff Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu.