Schlissel on ‘U’ COVID-19 response: 'We've adapted pretty darn fast'

Friday, March 27, 2020 - 9:29pm

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Allison Engkvist/Daily

Each month, The Michigan Daily sits down with the University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. This month, the interview was conducted virtually. Topics discussed in this month’s interview included COVID-19, sexual misconduct allegations against faculty and GEO bargaining. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

President Schlissel started off the interview by emphasizing the importance of the census and urged all University students to fill it out.

Mark Schlissel: You know, one is a reminder to students about the census. Every 10 years — and it happens to be this year — we’re doing this nationwide census. It’s in the constitution, it is important to determine the distribution of all kinds of federal benefits and also how many Congresspeople represent each part of each state. So it’s a really big deal. And if you live in the dorm, you’re automatically counted, but if you live off campus or no longer on or near campus, you should use your off campus address and go ahead and file for the census. 

COVID-19

The Michigan Daily: Have you or any other members of the University of Michigan administration been tested for COVID-19?

Mark Schlissel: I personally have not, I’m comfortable answering that. And I don’t have knowledge about other members of the administration, but that would be personal health information, so I wouldn’t talk about it anyway.

TMD: When did you realize the University would be impacted by COVID-19 and when did preparations begin — both in Michigan Medicine and for the general community?

MS: We’ve been tracking this obviously since back in December when it was on the news … I’d say in the month of January, we started tracking this very seriously as the numbers expanded dramatically… So at that point in time, it was clear that this was a serious illness and it was spreading globally, and we began to prepare. We’ve followed guidance all along from the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, and then the Michigan Department of Public Health and Washtenaw County’s health department. And then our own experts, my Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani, who's a professor at the medical school, and Dr. Rob Ernst, who’s in charge of the University Health Service, were tracking and advising. I think the very first thing we began to do concretely other than just plan was to bring students home who were doing study abroad … And then we began more intensive planning for what we would do if the numbers in the United States reached the levels where we had to change the way we were doing our work… 

I recall on a Wednesday, two weeks ago, a team I had put together to look at this rapidly evolving situation that would be and that’s when we decided to suspend classes on Thursday and Friday, two weeks ago, and then restart the following Monday with remote instruction, online or otherwise … it’s also very impressive, because if you think of how different things are, we’ve adapted pretty darn fast and I’m sure there’ve been glitches along the way and certainly loads of stress. So we’ve been dealing with issues as they arise one at a time… so it’s been challenging, but we’ve been moving pretty quickly and pretty effectively. 

TMD: The University employs thousands of people and is a large public institution. What do you think the University’s responsibility is economically to its employees, students and the state of Michigan as we enter into a recession and face a lot of uncertainty?

MS: I think that our responsibility is to try to keep the University as functional as possible, while at the same time prioritizing everybody’s health and safety. So we’re not stopping working, we’re finding a different way to work. And we’re changing the way we work to decrease the rate of transmission amongst, you know, the people that work here and our students and our faculty and staff, but also as part of our own contribution to the broader societal effort to flatten the curve is the expression, decrease the incidence and spread out this illness so our health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed. I feel a very strong obligation to our employees, our faculty, our staff, our student employees, recognizing that, you know, this is their livelihoods. So we’re doing everything that we can to continue our operations so that we continue to have the revenue we need to pay people.

TMD: For students that receive pay from work-study, will they still be allotted that sum for the rest of the semester? 

MS: So, you know, work-study is a work program, so if they’re not working I don't believe we can pay them at home for not working. But the students that are, we've endeavored to keep employed, because we've realized that many of the students rely on that income and a lot of it’s being done on a case-by-case basis. 

TMD: All classes for the spring and summer have been moved online. Will there be reduced tuition, given it is all online? 

MS: No, and there’ll be regular spring and summer courses. We probably won’t be teaching every single course we planned to teach, but the ones we teach are going to be at a University of Michigan level quality, we’ll have time to prepare. The students will get the same kind of full credit they’d be getting if they were taking the course entirely in person. It’ll just be delivered remotely, but the usual tuition will apply.

TMD: And do you think the University should partially refund tuition for the winter semester?

MS: No, because the education is continuing. We certainly didn’t choose to have this pandemic, and huge numbers of people have worked extremely hard to help our students make sure that they don’t lose their academic progress and don’t delay their graduation because of this really tragic global infectious outbreak. So they’ll get regular credit for a regular semester, albeit delivered remotely the last third of it or so, and they’ve already paid and are responsible for their full tuition.

TMD: After the announcement about spring and summer classes, community members began to consider the possibility that the fall semester could be online as well. What would have to change for the University to feel comfortable returning to normal classes? 

MS: If you compare two weeks ago to today, it would have been hard to guess how many changes there would have been, it’s hard to forecast. So it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen in the fall. As of now, we’re planning the fall to be a regular in-person semester on the campus … We’re going to rely on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and the state health department and from our own experts, making sure that when we bring people back to campus, it’s at an acceptable level of safety. I hope, and you know, I’m optimistic about the fall. 

TMD: When would that decision have to be made?

MS: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Obviously we’d like to make it with as much lead time as possible, but we just continue to evaluate it. So I don’t want to pin us into a decision point. Yeah. We’ll just have to see. 

Sexual Misconduct

TMD: At the Regents meeting on Thursday, the board unanimously voted to fire David Daniels from his tenured position in light of the sexual assault allegations against him. You personally urged him to be fired without severance pay. It was the first time in 60 years the board has voted to fire a tenured professor. What was the point at which you determined Daniels should be fired? What crossed the line for you?

MS: For me, I am a huge believer in due process and allowing the accused to defend themselves, to see the evidence against themselves and allowing an investigation to be thorough and complete, and then going through each of the specified faculty policies and procedures when it comes to a disciplinary action that threatens the removal of tenure. So, I didn’t become convinced until I saw the totality of the case a number of weeks ago when all of the back and forth and appeals were completed and I took another look at the complete, you know, really many, many hundreds of pages dossier of the instance. And that’s when I decided to move it forward to the Regents with a recommendation to dismiss.

TMD: As president, one of your most responsibilities is to recommend a provost candidate to the Regents for hiring. In spring of 2017, you recommended Philbert for the role. Given this, how is it possible that you never became aware of any allegations against Philbert during the process of making this recommendation?

MS: All I can say is none of the people that we spoke to, no one on the research committee, none of the references that I personally called and asked for advice, as I always do with the higher senior officers of the University. None of his peers and fellow deans or any colleagues in the School of Public Health, or the previous provost, or the previous presidents had anything to offer that would have led me to suspect issues of misconduct.

And I want to be really careful here. Although I have removed the provost, the investigation really is still underway. Professor Philbert remains a member of the faculty and he’s going to remain on administrative leave. He will have the opportunity as part of an investigation to see the totality of the evidence and respond just as we spoke about in terms of Professor Daniels. He’ll have his own due process. And the reason he was removed as provost, as I spoke about before, is all of our executive officers have the responsibility to assure that their performance and their conduct lead to high standards at the University, and it’s my responsibility to define what those high standards are when it comes to the executives of the University. And during the course of this investigation, enough information was available to me for me to make the decision that the provost wasn’t satisfying my notions of performance and conduct, and that’s when I removed him a couple of weeks ago.

TMD: I’m curious how Philbert could not meet the standards that you set for being on the administration, but he does meet them for being a tenured professor and member of the faculty. Shouldn’t all members of the faculty be held to the same level of how they should act?

MS: I didn’t say what you just said. I said it didn’t meet my standards for the service of an executive officer. The question of whether his behavior is relevant to his tenured faculty position will relate to the completion of the investigation and the remaining due process that he's assured as a tenured member of the faculty.

TMD: A lawsuit filed on Thursday by an alleged survivor of (Robert) Anderson claims the University’s current Assistant Athletic Director Paul Schmidt knew about Anderson’s abuse. According to The Detroit News, the plaintiff said Schmidt laughed and said “get used to that” after the plaintiff described their experience. Does the University know of any other current employees who have been accused of knowing about this abuse?

MS: I don’t know. And the reason I don't know is it’s very important to the Regents, and I agree, that the investigation of the allegations of Anderson’s misconduct from decades ago… be independent of the leadership of the University and be responsible directly to the Board of Regents. The idea is for me not to be involved in the investigations, so there’s no inference any stone was left unturned, there’s no inference that anyone was being protected or sheltered and that the investigators can pursue the truth where it leads, and then make recommendations directly to the Board and then to me about what we might do to improve our policies and procedures to decrease the likelihood that such a thing would ever happen again. 

TMD: What protocols exist for dealing with current employees who allegedly know about sexual misconduct or abuse and didn’t do anything about it?

MS: Depending upon the circumstances, that’s a fireable offense. I think, all obligations become more and more serious when you're in leadership positions, to share responsibility for the safety of everyone who's in our community. There’s an obligation under our Title IX procedures to report misconduct that you become aware of as a supervisor, to the Title IX officer. 

TMD: The Detroit Free Press recently reported that the University wouldn’t invoke attorney-client privilege to block access to documents in lawsuits involving Dr. Anderson. Is this true?

MS: …Attorney-client privilege is a fundamental right. All individuals and organizations deserve confidential legal advice. So in general, it’s an extremely important thing. I can tell you for the Anderson investigation, the Regents have dictated, and I think they’re correct, that the investigators will have access to any materials they wish. Regardless of whether one might be able to claim the type of privilege, the contract, which has actually been posted up on our website, specified that WilmerHale will have access to any materials they wish. And I have instructed all of the people that work at the University to cooperate completely with the investigators.

GEO contract

TMD: Given the various sexual misconduct allegations against current and former University staff, why is the University administration not advocating for stronger protections against sexual harassment and misconduct to be added to the graduate student contract?

MS: We are not just advocating, but we’re revising and improving and tightening our misconduct policies all across the institution. And we’ve been working on that for several years. The policies around sexual misconduct and our programs to diminish the frequency of this conduct are not specific to members of one particular union, they’re there to protect everybody, you as a student and me as President, and all our faculty and staff. So, I’m not directly involved in the negotiations with GEO, but in general, issues that affect everybody don’t seem to be the kind of thing that you try to solve, with a negotiation with one union representing one set of employees, this is an issue that affects everybody where everybody needs to be treated optimally and safely. 

"I wish I had time to bake bread"

TMD: I only have 90 seconds left, so I’m going to end on a fun, positive note.

MS: Oh gosh, can you find one?

TMD: What’s your favorite thing to do when practicing social distancing at home?

MS: Oh, that’s easy. I have a baby granddaughter, Abby is her name, and she lives in Massachusetts. And she’s discovered FaceTime. She’s almost two years old, and almost every day, a couple hours ago, she’ll pick up her mom’s iPhone and say “Papa.” I’m Papa, that's what they’ve decided to call me instead of Grandpa. Grandpa’s the other grandfather. And then my daughter pushes the button and I get to talk to my baby granddaughter. There isn’t anything more fun than that. 

TMD: That’s cute. Have you hopped on the bread-baking trend?

MS: Bread baking? I’ll tell you Emma, this sounds like I don’t have a lot to do, but I’m working hard. Most anytime since I’ve been at the University, trying to develop ways to keep people safe, diminish the transmission of virus, but keep the University functioning to a level that serves everybody, that keeps your education moving, that keeps the negotiation with the GEO union moving, that keeps our staff employed getting salaries. There are a myriad of issues. So I wish I had time to bake bread. 

Daily News Editor Emma Stein can be reached at enstein@umich.edu.