Regents urged to reopen for fall semester, discuss Capitol insurrection, update on fossil fuel divestment

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 10:12pm

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Courtesy of Jared Dougall

The University of Michigan Board of Regents met virtually Thursday afternoon for the first time during the 2021 calendar year. During the meeting, board members gave updates about the current state of the University and heard from public commenters regarding concerns over lecturer status, fund allocations to the satellite campuses and the University’s COVID-19 response.

Regents Ron Weiser (R) and Katherine White (D) were not in attendance at the meeting, and the reasons for their absence were not clarified at the meeting. U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald later confirmed to The Michigan Daily that while U-M officials do not know why the regents were not in attendance, scheduling conflicts are not uncommon.

U-M President Mark Schlissel began the meeting by providing an update on the status of returning to more in-person instruction for the Fall 2021 semester, which will heavily depend on vaccine availability. 

“We’re optimistic that fall will look and feel much more like a normal academic and residential term at U of M,” Schlissel said. “We’re looking at various scenarios based on what fraction of our faculty, staff and students are able to be vaccinated … We’re hopeful that unlike present circumstances, COVID-19 vaccine supplies will outpace demand in the coming months.” 

Regent Jordan Acker (D) then addressed the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. 

“We must live in the same basic truth: the election of 2020 was not stolen, the insurrection was not a hoax and our government can only endure when the losers of election accept the legitimacy of defeat,” Acker said. “There was, in fact, no steal to stop.” 

Acker’s speech comes after calls for the resignation of his fellow Regent Weiser from some U-M community members. In recent weeks, Weiser has come under fire from those who think he did not adequately denounce the riots in the U.S. Capitol and has been accused of making undisclosed payments to further his campaign for Michigan GOP Chair. Inappropriate emails from Weiser to the other Regents have also surfaced in the last few weeks.

In February 2020, the Board of Regents announced the University would not bring forward any new direct investments in fossil fuel companies after sustained student activism to divest entirely from fossil fuels. At Thursday’s meeting, Regent Mark Bernstein (D) said he and the board have been collaborating with activists, peer universities and other climate experts to find a way to sustainably invest the University’s assets, but did not otherwise specify the University’s next steps.

“We aim to make our investments in a way that contributes to the essential transition to a low-carbon economy, and we expect to share concrete next steps at our next board meeting,” Regent Bernstein said.

Regent Sarah Hubbard (R), the newest member of the board, then outlined some of her priorities that she plans to pursue during her tenure, including safely returning to in-person instruction and promoting freedom of speech on campus. The latter goal comes from her campaign, which claimed conservative voices are disregarded at the University.

“I view getting back to school as the highest priority, and we hope to be seeing you on campus soon, but certainly have to do it safely,” Hubbard said. “And then, of course, balance of speech on campus and free speech, and making sure all voices are heard is incredibly important to me.”

Following Regent Hubbard’s remarks, Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research, presented on the current state of research and innovation at the University. Last year, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the University to temporarily slow down all non-critical laboratory research.

“The National Science Foundation has just recently released its higher education research and development survey,” Cunningham said. “I’m excited to announce that for the 10th consecutive year, the University of Michigan ranks number one in research value across all U.S. public universities.”

The Medical School led in research expenditures at $670 million, while the College of Engineering reported $266 million and the College of LSA reported $201 million, Cunningham further noted. U-M research has also spurred a record of 31 start-ups and 522 inventions this year.   

Marschall Runge, executive vice president for medical affairs, also gave a brief update on Michigan Medicine’s vaccination program, stating that they have made “great strides” in developing vaccination clinics that can accommodate large volumes of patients. As of Wednesday, Michigan Medicine has distributed a total of 61,928 vaccines.

“However, in the past several weeks the state has reallocated vaccines so that the supply will be more effective at reaching at-risk populations, both in urban and rural access areas across the state,” Runge said. “This has resulted in a reduction and allocation of doses to large health systems including our own. And over the past three weeks, we have not been able to administer new first doses to individuals. We have been able to complete the second dose for individuals we previously vaccinated … we hope to receive more vaccines to resume our vaccination program.”

Central Student GovernmentPresident Amanda Kaplan, Public Policy senior, also spoke at the meeting, urging the board members to take action to address reports of sexual misconduct at the University, in particular noting the recommendations from the WilmerHale report. Kaplan stated there is a “large systemic problem” in the community and said the University must also prioritize supporting students’ mental health, especially for students of color.

“We ask that you likewise invest in resources to empower survivors, especially survivors of color,” Kaplan said. “Similarly, the University must meaningfully invest in mental health and wellness resources for students and all community members.”

During the public comments portion of the meeting, LSA lecturer Lisa Young, a member of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, appeared before the board to advocate for adding the title of “Teaching Professor” for LEO lecturers at the University, which is also part of the 2020-2021 LEO bargaining platform. Young said she believes the title would add a sense of credibility to lecturers and honor the work that they have contributed to their students’ educations and in their respective fields.

“As I wrote ‘lecturer’ for my title on the recommendation forms for these students, I wondered how the university they were applying to would perceive my role at the University of Michigan,” Young said. “Will the readers of these letters interpret my title to mean contingent faculty? Or will they see me as the long-serving and award-winning teacher that I am?”

Lecturer Tina O’Donnell also implored the board to consider LEO’s demands because of the lack of job security she and her colleagues often feel in between school years. O’Donnell said she herself was laid off from U-M Dearborn in August 2020, however, she was able to secure another position at the University’s Ann Arbor campus shortly thereafter. 

“The lack of job security and fair compensation impacts more than just individual lecturers,” O’Donnell said. “The University loses experienced, talented and inspiring instructors due to the uncertainty of this gamble every year.”

Afterward, parents of the Class of 2024 expressed disappointment with the way that the proverbial chips have fallen for the class. New York resident Carlos Carvajal, parent to a freshman daughter at the University who contracted COVID-19 while on campus, said he demands the University open in-person classes next semester. Carvajal said he felt that his daughter did not get the full college experience this fall. 

“As preeminent educators, you know there is no substitute for in-person education,” Carvajal said. “Other schools are planning for it, and the University of Michigan must make in-person learning the single most important goal as it relates to the handling of the pandemic.” 

Other parents echoed Carvajal, demanding that U-M administrators be more proactive for this year’s freshman class. Parents consistently denounced actions that “strung them along” and asked the regents to take action in a more substantive way.

Responding to the parent petitioners, Schlissel shared remorse for the experiences of the speakers’ children, while still maintaining the cautiously optimistic attitude seen from the University this past week.

“I hear this, and I feel really quite terrible,” Schlissel said. “We all want to see in-person education. It’s our goal and I'm confident we’ll be able to pull off a semester in the fall that looks much more like a normal semester.”

Daily Staff Reporters Christian Juliano and Jared Dougall can be reached at julianoc@umich.edu and jdougall@umich.edu

 

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