Schlissel, ‘struggling’ with how to bring undergrads back to campus, sought advice from UNC

Friday, August 21, 2020 - 8:47pm

According to reports from The Daily Tar Heel, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel reached out to leadership at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in May for advice about reopening campus.

According to reports from The Daily Tar Heel, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel reached out to leadership at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in May for advice about reopening campus. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Before outbreaks of COVID-19 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill forced the school to backtrack on offering in-person classes, UNC’s leadership provided advice to University of Michigan administrators on how to reopen.

In a May 16 email, President Mark Schlissel asked Myron Cohen, UNC’s associate vice chancellor for Global Health and Medical Affairs and a professor of epidemiology, to set aside time to discuss how students could safely return to campus. Schlissel said he was “struggling” with devising a plan to do so.

“As you might imagine, I have a series of integrated groups working on these challenges. We begin reopening our lab enterprise on Monday in a phased way over a few weeks following guidelines in an executive order from our governor,” Schlissel wrote. “What I’m really struggling with is how to bring our 30,000 undergraduates back to Ann Arbor in late August.” 

In the email, which was first reported by The Daily Tar Heel and shared with The Daily, Schlissel also noted that Marschall Runge, the University of Michigan’s executive vice president for medical affairs, had had “a really interesting conversation about COVID-19 and how UNC is organizing itself for reopening in the months ahead” with Cohen.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in an email to Cohen he was OK with Cohen speaking to Schlissel. Guskiewicz said Schlissel is a “good person and in the same position” as he was. He also said that Schlissel “likely does not have the benefit of top tier” infectious disease and public health experts involved in his decision making.

The Daily Tar Heel’s reporting showed UNC’s administration did not heed warnings from medical professionals it received months prior to reopening campus. Cohen consulted UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz “regularly” throughout the planning process, acknowledging in a May 27 email to public health professors and members of UNC leadership that “I think we all assume we will SEE COVID this fall.”

According to UNC’s COVID-19 dashboard, 130 students tested positive for the virus last week. On Monday, UNC became one of the first major colleges to call it quits on face-to-face instruction and move to online classes. The pivot came one week after the start of the semester.

In a scathing editorial, The Daily Tar Heel criticized the school’s administration for bringing students back to campus, writing that “We all saw this coming.”

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said in an email to The Daily that communicating with the leadership of other universities was an expected part of the reopening process, but did not specify what other school leaders Schlissel had been in contact with.

“It is not at all unusual for university presidents to confer with each other when facing similar issues,” Broekhuizen wrote. “In this instance, President Schlissel and other U-M leaders have been having conversations with their counterparts at other institutions throughout the pandemic to share insights and expertise with the goal of making everyone safer.”

The University is still moving forward with its plans to bring students back to campus. In an email to faculty and staff sent Tuesday, Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins noted that the administration “will continue to evaluate circumstances and change our plans as necessary.”

Schlissel has repeatedly maintained an optimistic view of the University’s “public health-informed” hybrid semester. In an interview with The Daily last week, Schlissel said, “I think it’s more likely than not that we will make it through the semester.” 

He also pushed back on assumptions that students would behave irresponsibly.

“I get a little insulted when everybody says there’s no way that students are going to wear masks, and there’s no way that they’re not going to party in dangerous fashions, and there’s no way they’re mature enough to recognize the importance of the moment and behave like the adults that you all are,” Schlissel said. “And I disagree with that. I think you can and will step up as a community.”

However, not all members of the University community are convinced of the likelihood of successfully completing the semester in person. Some students said reports coming from UNC and other schools have felt like harbingers for what will happen when people begin flocking back to Ann Arbor in the next week.

“Seeing how people behave at other schools who are already back at school, I have no doubt students here will do the same,” LSA senior Claire Hubbell said. “We are all getting sent home before November, I’m sure.”

On Tuesday, Michigan State University announced that undergraduates courses would be entirely remote for the upcoming semester. The University of Notre Dame, one of the most prominent Catholic universities in the country, moved classes completely online for at least two weeks after the number of positive coronavirus cases began rising due to off-campus gatherings.

A group of faculty members wrote in a letter emailed to Regent Jordan Acker (D) that the University is putting residents of Ann Arbor at risk with the University’s reopening plan. 

The professors — Kate Barald, Kentaro Toyama, Stefan Szymanski, Silke-Maria Weineck and Annalisa Manera, who is the current vice chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs — wrote that neither the University’s plan for fall nor its communication with the school community inspired confidence. The group said that the University will “inevitably close far in advance of the official Thanksgiving date.”

“MSU has reversed or adjusted its plans. UNC has. Notre Dame has. The list goes on,” the group wrote. “And yet, UM acts as if we knew things our peers don’t. This is, to put it mildly, unlikely. It is far more likely that the university leadership committed far too early to a course of action that now emerges to be deeply unwise, possibly fatally so.”

The Ann Arbor Police Department announced Thursday it would step up its patrols with the help of “ambassadors” from the University to keep an eye on student behavior around campus.

Students living in dorms and residence halls are set to begin moving in on Monday. Classes start the following week. 

Managing News Editor Leah Graham can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu. Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu.