Schlissel on COVID-19 cases on campus: ‘Things are not heading in the right direction’
The Michigan Daily sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss the University’s COVID-19 response, increasing testing availability at UHS, why the University sought an injunction against GEO, the role of policing on campus, the Faculty Senate vote of no confidence and whether he’s still friends with Jim Harbaugh.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Schlissel: Obviously, (the election is) getting closer and closer. We’ve been working for years now trying to drive voter registration at the University, particularly among students, (and we’re) doing many things trying to make it easier. The county clerk and the Secretary of State here in Michigan have collaborated on letting us set up (a satellite office) in the art museum, a very convenient site where students can actually go vote today if they want to, there's early voting in the state of Michigan, they can register, or they can drop off their absentee ballots in person, removing any anxiety that somehow the post office will slow them down or lose them … You know I think everybody on campus who’s eligible to vote should vote. And that’s what we can do to make a difference.
The Michigan Daily: So, first on COVID-19. There have been mixed responses to the University’s protocols and resources for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic on campus. Students, parents and faculty have voiced concerns about quarantine housing, outbreaks on campus and a lack of testing to name a few. How do you think the University has handled the first few weeks of school, and do you think the reopening plan has been successful so far?
MS: I think COVID-19 is the biggest challenge that we face as a community, at least in this generation, and certainly in my career. There is a lot of uncertainty, so we make our best plans based on our knowledge and our judgments and our values. And then we modify them as we learn more and as the situation changes. The first couple of weeks of the semester went spectacularly well, the number of cases was exceedingly low, the pre-arrival screening for people in the residence halls (tested) 6000 people, we were able to identify 22 positive cases, a very low rate but those folks came to school later. So the year got off to an outstanding start. The last couple of weeks have been very difficult, and the number of cases have grown significantly. I don’t know whether it’s confidence, or misguided ideas, but more and more testing of students is being done off campus at local testing facilities, perhaps with the idea of not wanting the University to find out if somebody has the virus which, regardless of other thoughts is not a very good strategy amongst students. But things have gotten significantly more challenging the last two to two and a half weeks, probably part of it as things are getting colder, a little bit more socializing moving indoors. Another part is probably people getting tired of having to constrain the way they want to interact, so we’re sort of letting our guard down a little bit.
… Everyone should realize that COVID-19 is a reportable disease so that means the law says that any testing facility has to report all positive results to the relevant county and state health department — it’s the law. So what happens when someone gets tested off-campus, if they’re positive, the result goes to the county health department, and we work hand in glove with the Washtenaw County Health Department. We meet with them on a daily basis, we’re working together trying to deal with some outbreaks in town amongst Michigan students. So they send us those results, we collaborate, and then we do the investigation, case tracking, we provide quarantine. So all that it does when you get a positive test off campus, is it slows down by at least a day, how quickly we can intervene to try to keep a positive case from spreading amongst friends or contacts so it’s not a great strategy.
I do understand, though, that people have complained to me. For example, that one reason they’ll get tested off campus is the University Health Service won’t test them, or they’ll say, ‘Look, I’ve had a close contact,’ and the health service talks to them a little, and it really isn’t a close contact, it’s a casual contact and health service was saying ‘Look, you know we have to put our resources where the to close public health contacts are.’ But we’re telling (UHS) to ease up because we want students to use UHS. It’s free, it’s convenient, there’s a one-day turnaround time, and we can work with students immediately when they get a positive result to help assure their health and to make sure it doesn’t spread to others, so we’re going to have the UHS folks be a little more relaxed … You know, we want to test you. We’re ramping up our testing capacity, this coming week on Monday we switched to a saliva test … And that’s really in response to the community saying, ‘We don't feel safe because we don’t feel there’s enough testing.’ Up to now, we’ve been using testing to do a statistical surveillance of the campus so we can act on areas where the rates are increasing. But I do think it’s important to recognize that people’s sense of safety and well-being is very important, and if we can improve that by expanding testing and maybe even making it mandatory for people in dormitories –– we’re discussing that now –– it would reassure a lot of people, and help us better deal with the pandemic collectively.
TMD: So, given the sharp uptick in student COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks, are you still more confident than not, that students will be responsible and that we’ll make it through the fall semester in person?
MS: You know, it’s an extremely difficult question, and I am very concerned. I think we’re holding our own, but things are not heading in the right direction now. It’s not an “all-or-none” kind of thing. In other words, when infections increase, the only option isn’t to send everybody home. There are lots of options short of that … What we do when there’s a case, or a cluster of cases, is we investigate them and we ask whether they’re spreading throughout the community, or whether they’re limited to a group of students, usually people that are socially interacting with each other. One of the places we’re running into trouble in the last couple of weeks is in the fraternities and sororities in town, both affiliated and some of the disaffiliated fraternities, where we haven’t gotten uniformly the level of cooperation that’s necessary to be able to investigate cases and try to protect people and prevent it from spreading. So that’s something we’re working very closely with the health department on, on literally an every single day basis.
TMD: The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike earlier this month. Among GEO’s demands was the universal right to work remotely. The University has extended that right to faculty, but even in the final offer made to GEO, the University did not offer that right to graduate employees. In communications to both the graduate employees and the student body at large, other demands have been addressed, but there has not been a clear explanation of why that right cannot be given to graduate employees. Why is that?
MS: Faculty do not have a universal right to decide whether they want to work in person or remotely. That may be something that you’ve been told, but that’s actually not true. The Graduate Student Instructors are actually treated the same as faculty in this regard. We try to accommodate every single person's sense of health and safety, preexisting or predisposing conditions, etc. And at the end, it’s very difficult to identify people that are willing to say they feel forced to teach in person … So as part of the resolution of the strike, we came up with a mechanism where any GSI who feels uncomfortable or unsafe in the class and doesn’t have their question immediately resolved, can step away and teach remotely while we investigate the situation and try to fix the problem … We have no interest in being anything other than collaborative with our own students.
Now what pushed us to, you know, go the route of an injunction and try to get some help, is I was very concerned that the integrity of the Michigan undergraduate curriculum was being threatened … when classes are getting canceled for a couple of weeks, and education of other people is being interfered with, why would someone want to come and be an undergraduate at the University of Michigan if I couldn’t assure that they’d actually get to take the classes they signed up for? And if it kept going on for weeks and weeks, what would happen to your semester? We would give you all incompletes. That’s it, you paid for it, but you’re not going to get any credit. So we had to come up with a way to help the GEO feel safe and be safe in the classroom and deal with their concerns around their academic progress as students in order to keep the undergraduate curriculum going. We had an agreement the very first week, and the leadership took it back to the members and the members voted it down. So we were very concerned that we weren’t going to be able to reach an agreement. And all the while, you know, of course we were continuing to pay our graduate students. We never stopped paying them, we never stopped covering their tuition, we never threatened anyone individually. The injunction was aimed at the union as opposed to individuals. We were going to sue the union if they didn’t live up to their word to go back to work.
TMD: In their demands, GEO included disarming DPSS and reallocating around 50 percent of its funding. Why did the University not really address GEO’s concerns over policing in the offers extended to them beyond the creation of a review commission, and has the strike made you reconsider policing on campus?
MS: I think what’s made us think hard about policing on campus is what’s been happening in the United States and, you know, not just the last few months but certainly the last few months, but in recent years, the greater and greater appreciation of disproportionate policing. The killing by police of unarmed people and very prominently Black people in recent months. The fear and anxiety that many people have simply seeing a police officer, all those things, lead us to the conclusion that, not only do we have to look at policing more broadly in society, but we have to make sure that we're doing it right here at the University. So, I have nothing but respect and gratitude to the GEOs for bringing this up, but it’s not just a GEO issue. It’s an undergraduate student issue, it’s a schools and colleges issue, it’s a city of Ann Arbor issue. So one group doesn’t get to demand the agenda on an issue that doesn’t uniquely affect that group, that affects all of us. So the provost did commit, and I do applaud or recognize that GEO, and many other voices calling out policing in our country and on our campus, led us to do the right thing, to step up and take a careful examination of how we do policing that involves everybody in the discussion.
TMD: You said you didn’t fully address (policing demands in the offer) because it’s not a problem specific to GEO, right? You want to get more perspectives? So does that mean that the University is looking into disarming DPSS and reallocating its funding?
MS: Well, what the University is looking into — and it’s not the University, it’s us, you, me and everybody — is we’re developing a mechanism to gather everybody’s thoughts, first to gather facts and data about policing at the University of Michigan to try to understand better our current practices, to ask what kind of complaints actually are there. Have there been instances and what type of instances of inappropriate action by our public safety folks? And not just look at policing, look at public safety as a whole, because there are many aspects to public safety that go beyond policing … What I do appreciate is there are many people in our community that the mere sight of a police officer that they think has a weapon is terrifying. And not because of anything that police officer did, but because of that person’s life experiences, and the experiences that people they know and identify with that have engaged with police. I’ve not had those experiences personally, but I’m privileged in many ways. I’m very sensitive to many people who do and have, and I’ve heard from them personally … we need to adjust our policing in the way they work to make everybody feel similarly safe around the folks that have to be there to protect us.
TMD: GEO, of course, wasn’t the only group to go on strike or release demands. Both R.A.s and dining hall workers conducted work stoppages or slow downs as well. Why do you think all of these groups felt they needed to go on strike and that just voicing their concerns to the University wasn't enough?
MS: I don’t know, you really have to ask them, because from the beginning of them voicing their concerns, and being confrontational by calling them demands, the Student Life staff had to work with them, and similar to eventually how we dealt with each of the issues that GEO has brought forward, we had iterative meetings with the
R.A.s. It was a little harder with the R.A.s because, you know, they’re not a labor union, they don’t have an elected organizing structure… they have a contract but it’s as individuals, it’s not as a union, so it’s a very different beast … So it was really a matter of doing the retail work of meeting with all of the R.A.s in small groups, asking them what their concerns are, explaining the things we were trying to do, taking their best ideas and trying to move forward.
TMD: On Sept. 18, it was confirmed that a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence in your leadership ability passed. What is your reaction to the Faculty Senate’s vote of no confidence in your leadership and have you considered stepping down?
MS: So, the faculty votes across a whole series of referenda, I think, boiled down to a growing distrust amongst many faculty, of myself and my leadership group’s plans for how to help us make it through the semester, and then other troubling issues the University is working on as well. I think it’s the sum of a really challenging period of time, concerns around personal safety, not knowing when the darn pandemic is going to end — not being able to see the horizon — and just a growing shared level of anxiety. And I think what I’ve done, which has made the situation worse, is I haven’t engaged broadly enough across the faculty. I’ve been relying on a relatively small group of faculty experts and deans and executives to help design what we hope are the best solutions to how to help the campus conduct as much of its mission as possible throughout the course of the pandemic while keeping people safe … Whether the vote passed by four votes or lost by four votes didn’t matter. An unprecedented number of faculty cared enough about these issues to show up. Usually, the Academic Senate struggles to get a quorum — a quorum is 100 people, and they had 2,000 people show up. So that actually means that our community is incredibly engaged and concerned about the direction of the University, and that’s the strongest message I received, along with the fact that they want me to take more account of what the breadth of the faculty thinks and wants and capture more of their ideas, and then I’ll also be more transparent, explain more about what we’re doing and why and be more inclusive in the decision-making process. And I recognize that, and that’s on me. I take responsibility and I’ve heard that message and I'm trying to do things to sort of broaden the net of folks that are helping move the University forward. The good news is everybody wants the University to be successful … I did not consider it a request to resign, and I hadn’t considered resigning. Imagine the instability of the University if a president stepped away in the middle of a pandemic. I think what we have to do is figure out new and better ways to work together.
TMD: Jim Harbaugh said a few weeks ago that he hadn’t spoken to you about football resuming and he vocally opposed your vote in favor of postponing the fall sports season. How involved in the conversation was he, and how would you assess your relationship with him at the moment given he spoke out publicly against a decision you supported?
MS: If I stopped being friends with everybody who spoke out publicly about something and disagreed with me, I’d have no friends left at Michigan, so I don’t take it personally at all. The coach is zealously committed to student-athletes. He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met in my entire life, and, of course, he wants to go out there and play. He communicates with me from time to time, but in the instance of how to keep our student-athletes safe, that’s much more of a medical decision and it’s much more of a University responsibility than it is a football coach’s decision. I didn't play professional football and coach a college team and coach a pro team, and Jim didn’t go to medical school and do a residency and become a licensed physician. So we come at things in really different ways. I’m respectful of his thoughts and ideas, but ultimately I have the responsibility for the health and safety of all our students and our student-athletes….I actually think it was handled very prudently. I’m friends with Jim, you know, we get along fine.
TMD: This summer, you said if school’s fully online there’ll be no sports at the University. Earlier this interview, we talked about the uptick in cases and the possibility we won’t be in person for the whole semester, so would you stand by the statement if class circumstances change?
MS: I think if we send everybody home and there are no in-person classes, it’s hard to imagine having in-person athletics. However, that’s not what we’re thinking of — we’re not thinking of sending everybody home. There are some classes and some degrees that you literally cannot do. To be licensed as a nurse, for example, you have to have in-person instruction of a certain number of hours. Same with dental school, medical school and there are different undergraduate programs that also have attached certifications to them that have requirements. So I very much doubt that the pandemic will get bad enough that we literally have to send everybody home. I think there’s a long way between sending everybody home and where we are now where we can scale back prudently, and really truly limit things to things that can only happen face-to-face. I think there’s a long way to go before we get there.
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