President Schlissel on fall 2020 classes: 'It’s unlikely to be a normal semester'

Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 6:32pm

.

Courtesy of Calder Lewis

Each month, The Michigan Daily sits down with 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, the University’s response to sexual misconduct allegations against former sports doctor Robert Anderson and University finances.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

COVID-19 Academics

The Michigan Daily: You wrote in an email yesterday that you are “cautiously optimistic that we will be able to deliver a public health-informed fall semester on our three campuses.” What public health scenarios are you evaluating and what plans is the University looking at to accommodate these scenarios in the fall? 

Mark Schlissel: Well, it depends on what the status of the pandemic is in the fall. If you just think back six or seven weeks or two months ago, life was completely different. The fall semester doesn’t start for another four months. The number of cases in Michigan, fortunately, is on the decline. Our health system and other health systems have been able to keep up with the demand and now they’re going to get back to taking care of more regular healthcare needs. So I think we’re heading in the right direction. It’s unlikely to be a normal semester. I can imagine things like taking very large classes that would require large numbers of people to be in one place and maybe putting those lectures online, and then using our smaller group experiences for face-to-face discussions. We can mitigate risk wearing masks and making sure that people, if they’re not well, stay home. So there’s a lot of planning and thinking to be done, but we’re going to take advantage of the best public health advice, follow directions that come from our state government and try to deliver a safe and high-value semester on campus.

TMD: Some colleges and universities have put out dates for a decision on fall semester. Logistically, when is the latest that the University community could be informed of a decision?

MS: We’re aiming to let everybody know within the next couple of months...We’re also preparing for the possibility that we won't be able to have an in-person semester, so we’re doing a lot of planning and organizing. And as soon as we have enough information, we'll let everybody know. 

TMD: Some students and community members worry about repercussions from having “pass” grades on their transcript when other students will unmask grades, particularly those applying to competitive upper-level schools or graduate programs. Was a mandatory Pass/No Record COVID considered and why did the University decide on an unmask option?

MS: Well, what we try to do, especially under these exceptional circumstances, is to balance the best interests of as many people as we can. The notion of providing this pass/no credit option was in recognition of how darn challenging it is, in the middle of a semester or in the latter third of a semester, to uproot –– usually move home or move away from campus –– and learn through different modalities. It’s hard and we didn’t want students to add to that the stress of worrying how it was going to impact their grade point average or their transcript. However, we had to balance that against students who are applying to medical school or to law school or to schools where specific grades and specific classes are required. 

Allegations against Dr. Robert Anderson

TMD: Yesterday, you and Board of Regents Chair Ron Weiser (R) announced a process outside the court system to address claims of sexual misconduct brought forward by former patients of the late Robert E. Anderson, a physician who worked at the University from the mid-1960s through 2003. What will this process look like and how will it give “more certain, faster relief” to his former patients?

MS: Our overall goal is always to create an environment for our community and all its members to be as safe as they possibly can be and free from misconduct, sexual or otherwise, that impacts their ability to teach and learn…We absolutely take them at their word and we want to try to figure out how to treat them fairly for what they went through and to do so in a fashion that allows them to maintain their privacy and have a sense of closure as quickly as possible. The board and myself thought that the best way to do that is a process outside the courts. Inside the courts, processes can take literally years and may not be as sensitive to privacy concerns as we are. We would like to have people feel as if the University is recognized and understood what they went through, learnt from it so it doesn't happen again and that the individuals themselves have been appropriately compensated for what happened to them decades ago…We don’t have details of that process now other than it will be outside the court system. Hopefully it’ll be fast, it’ll be fair and it’ll maintain privacy.

TMD: In addition to those things, do you think that this process will hold Anderson’s estate and those at the University who allegedly knew of Anderson’s abuse accountable?

MS: Well, one of the important things of our own independent investigation by a national law firm is working directly for the board, but independent of the University. WilmerHale, is to ask just that question: what did University officials know? And what did or didn’t they act upon? And then to advise us what we should be doing now. We've changed a lot as a university, but we want to understand if there were breakdowns in procedures or in the ethics and integrity of the folks that work for us; we’d like to understand them fully so we can devise methodologies to prevent them from happening and to reinforce that with all the responsible parties at the University. 

TMD: University policy states, “Responsible employees must immediately report any information they learn about suspected Prohibited Conduct to the Office of Institutional Equity or the Title IX Coordinator. Failure by a responsible employee to timely report a suspected Prohibited Conduct may subject them to appropriate discipline, up to and including removal from their position.” According to a police report obtained by the Detroit Free Press, Athletic Director Warde Manuel first forwarded former University wrestler Tad Deluca’s letter detailing how he was sexually assaulted by Anderson to the General Counsel Office before OIE or the Title IX office. Do you believe Manuel made an error and if so will he be held accountable for violating the policy?

MS: I think this aspect of the Anderson case has really inappropriately been addressed in the media. So what I would have done had I gotten that letter addressed to me is actually the same thing that Warde Manuel did. This was not a usual instance where you receive a complaint and we send it directly to OIE. This was about a complaint against the person who was dead and has been dead for more than a decade and it discussed events from decades ago. Until the Anderson case, I didn’t really understand that the proper procedure is to send a complaint against someone who's no longer living, about events that happened in the 1970s or 80s, directly to OIE. What I would have done is called up my general counsel for advice…I call up my general counsel all the time. That’s their job, to inform me and to help educate me about my obligations under the law. I can’t possibly expect the tens of thousands of people that work here to be legal experts about their individual obligations, especially about very unusual episodes..The General Counsel's Office sent the accusatory letter to OIE the very same day, so I don’t get it. The important thing here is that the complaint was taken seriously immediately, it was eventually put into the pathway of appropriate investigation, first internally and then handed off to the police to make sure there weren't chargeable crimes involved.

University Finances

TMD: You wrote in an April 20 email that the University could lose between $400 million and $1 billion as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How is the University planning to adjust to the new financial reality on all three campuses?

MS: Let me give a little bit of perspective. If you include the health system, all three campuses, the athletic department, everything, our annual budget is $9.5 billion. So although the numbers are very big and I’m incredibly concerned about them, you have to put them in proportion to the overall organization…The principles underneath these financial decisions, I think, are important to at least think about. One is the fact that we’re going to try our best to deliver our mission to continue your education, continue our research, to continue our clinical care and our service the very best we can. We want to make adjustments that allow for our missions to proceed as vigorously as possible. The second thing is, we’re a people business. We prioritize, to the very greatest extent possible, maintaining the bond we have with our employees, be the faculty, staff or student employees, recognizing that after this pandemic is over, it’s our employees that will remain our most important capital, our most important components to be successful… And then finally, we have to balance short-term responses against the long-term health of the University.

TMD: Many community members anticipate lower enrollment numbers if the University ends up in an online or weird fall semester. What financial fallout could ensue with that lost tuition revenue and how would that impact faculty and staff layoffs?

MS: We’re very tuition dependent. The state of Michigan only provides maybe 15 percent of our general fund support. About 70 percent comes from you and your families and the tens of thousands of other students. So we’re dependent on tuition for everything. If there’s no tuition, then there are no faculty, there are no staff, there’s no one to keep the lights on. There’s no way around that. Enrollment for the fall remains uncertain. Right now we’re waiting to hear from students, the new incoming class that we put out offers to. The sub-population of our community that has been affected the most are our international students, where there’s great uncertainty about safety of travel, about visas, from some parts of the world. So we’re predicting that there’ll be a moderate to significant decrease, at least temporarily, in our international student population and they’re really important members of our community…We’re going to be living with this virus in society for a few years more, at least at different levels, so enrollment is uncertain. As to who’s actually going to show up from returning students? I think that working in our favor is that it might be more enjoyable to take a semester here on campus than to spend the semester in a basement back home. 

TMD: Central Michigan University and Michigan State University recently announced tuition freezes for the 2020-2021 academic year. Do you anticipate a similar policy at University of Michigan?

MS: You can imagine if we’re concerned about enrollment, we’re concerned about state funding. The last time there was a financial crisis, what did the state do? They cut our budget 20 percent. We’re also anticipating that more of our students are going to need need-based financial aid…All these things are going to cost money, so it’s up to the provost and myself and the Regents to work together to figure out how to deliver an affordable education, even under these circumstances. So we'll present that budget in a public session later this spring. I can’t make a commitment about tuition — it’s being worked on — but I can tell you for sure there are very serious costs and then very serious concerns about revenues.

TMD: Reverend Al Sharpton recently sent a letter urging the University to release a report detailing the diversity of its asset management teams and the asset management firms it works with. In response, Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, touted the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion plans. Do you believe the way the endowment is managed has any place in the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals?

MS: I think diversity, equity and inclusion is not a goal, it's part of who we are and it's part of how we live and it's part of how we run the University…It’s inseparable from Michigan. And of course, the way we try to develop an inclusive environment and treat people equitably, that’s who we are. That’s who we aspire to be. It’s no different in that sense in the Investment Office than it is the English department…They don’t use as a filter whether the investment person they’re talking to identifies as one race or another race, but they’re always looking for the opportunity to broaden the types of people and the types of thinking that go into placing investments with the University’s resources…When we hire a professor, we’re looking for an outstanding scholar and teacher and one that brings the values of diversity to our community and everybody does that in a different way and it's similar in the Investment Office.

“I was really pretty jazzed that somebody took a picture.”

TMD: Recently a picture of you sitting outside North Quad went viral. What were you doing? What was your mood? What were you thinking about that day? People just want to know what's going on in that picture.

MS: Yeah, I was really pretty jazzed that somebody took a picture. I didn’t know it was taken and when it was pointed out to me online, it was funny. Then watching the internet commentary and being turned into a bit of a meme and then an album cover, I thought that was really cool. It went way beyond my own social awareness…I was just a guy taking a walk, just trying to get some air. I'm still living here in the house on South University. My wife and I are working here and we’re practicing social distancing. I was on the way back from picking up some stuff at CVS…and I was just sitting there, taking a breath and looking at what's going on around me. The place really looked like the day after Christmas. It was almost a ghost town. I was just sort of soaking in what that all meant and somebody happened to tap a picture while I was in my contemplating mode. So it was kind of fun. I’m much more wary now of where I sit and think, I’ll tell you that. You never know when I'm gonna have somebody take a picture, so that was fun.

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.