‘I don’t regret trying,’ Schlissel says of fall semester after announcing stricter approach for winter
The Michigan Daily Administration Beat sat down with University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to discuss the plan for the winter semester, why the University changed its approach on testing and enforcement policies, regulating Fraternity & Sorority Life and the impact of the election on campus.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TMD: In the announcement about winter semester plans, you said the University had an “unacceptable level” of COVID-19 cases. In your opinion, how did that happen?
MS: Well, I would say the vast majority of students have been following, as strictly as they can, the guidance we put out about masks and distancing and small groups and hand washing. But when we investigate the cases, we find that people let their guard down and the cases are being transmitted in social circumstances where too many people are getting together, they’re not wearing their masks and they’re causing clusters of infection. And when that happens at a high enough rate of many, many new cases a day, it runs the risk of exceeding our capacity to do case investigations and to quickly isolate people who are infected and to track down their contacts to keep it from spreading even further. And that’s actually what resulted in the public health order that we cooperated with on the campus as a whole, first on Mary Markley Residence Hall, but then more broadly on the undergraduate students.
TMD: So do you regret opening the dorms and everything for the semester, given the “unacceptable level?”
MS: I think that we deserved, as a community, a chance to try our very best to have a good mix of remote, in-person and hybrid classes, and to have as many people as possible remain healthy and make it through the end of the semester. So I don’t regret trying. We’ve never been through this before as a university. Although the basic principles are clear about how to prevent transmission, we didn’t know until we tried to figure out how our community would respond, how much compliance we would get, where the weak points turned out to be. I also think people are suffering a little bit from (what) someone termed COVID fatigue, the sign of relentlessness of having to always have your mask on and always being in small groups and always washing your hands. It just wears on people, so I think it’s gotten tougher as the semester’s gone along, and all of those things have led, I think, to more cases.
TMD: Many colleges pursued a strategy similar to U-M’s 2021 winter semester in the fall, and many elements of the new plan for winter semester, like the right to work remotely and more testing, are things the Graduate Employees’ Organization asked for during their strike in September. Why didn’t you agree to these provisions then?
MS: Back in September, we started out the school year with 80% of our classes remote, and the rest were either hybrid or in person. As the semester’s gone on, we’ve become more remote and less in person. We worked with the GEOs and basically got to the stage where any graduate instructor that didn’t feel comfortable working in person, we were able to accommodate. And the good news is there have been few, if any, infections amongst our graduate students. It’s largely undergrads, and it’s largely freshmen and sophomore undergrads, which is where most of the transmission has been. In terms of testing, we’ve ramped up our capacity through the semester. We’re at the highest point now we’ve been. In hindsight, you know, there are some schools that made a big early investment in testing. They’ve had some good success and some less good success … So testing is one component that’s important to place a lid on the number of cases and to prevent their spread.
But if you don’t wear masks, stay in small groups, keep distance from others, you can test all you want, and there’ll still be lots of disease. You know, back in the very beginning of the semester, there was an option to purchase large amounts of testing from commercial companies. But at the time, the turnaround time on those tests was between three days and seven days. If it takes you that long to get a result, the testing doesn’t prevent the spread of disease because all the people who have the disease didn’t find out about it for almost a week So commercial testing in the early days of the semester would not have helped us, but through the semester, working with a local startup, we’ve made the investments that have ramped up the level of testing, and we’re now at a capacity around 9,000 or 10,000 tests a week. And by the time the new semester begins, we’ll be up to 12,000 to 15,000, and if we need to, we can go further than that. So we’ve built the capacity.
TMD: Can you explain more about how mandatory weekly testing will be administered and enforced for those who live off campus but use on-campus facilities next semester?
MS: We’re working on the technical details, but the concept is it will be linked to Mcards. Other schools have tried this successfully. So if you have a period of time that goes by and you haven’t had a test, your Mcard will become inactivated and you’ll begin getting messages from the University explaining that you have to do this. It’s not a request any longer ... So we’ve learned that a pure opt-in system works for most people, but won’t work for everybody. And we need to drive this to very high levels. So if you live in the residence hall, or if you come to campus for an in-person class, to work for pay, to work in a research lab, to use our facilities, starting in the new semester, you’ll have to have a COVID test once a week. And if you don’t do it we’ll inactivate your access to the campus.
TMD: Can you provide more details on the criteria the University will be using to decide whether students can remain in University Housing in the winter?
MS: We’re very sensitive to the fact that we need to decrease the density of students in housing. This semester we had 6,400 or so undergraduates in housing. That’s about two-thirds of normal so it was lower to begin with but of those, over 500 became COVID infected. That’s a lot of people and we had over 100 roommate groups become infected. So our public health experts, as well as the county health department, recommended we go to all single rooms. But being sensitive to the fact that there are people that don’t have another place to live. People that have health or wellness or safety concerns could still make an application to stay in the dorm. If they have financial need and don’t have a way to live somewhere other than the dorms. If there’s a specific academic need, if their curriculum requires a certain class that’s in person in order for them to be a nursing student or be a dental hygiene student or be a student that has a required in-person component, we’ll be able to find room we hope for those folks in the dorms. If you’re an international student and can’t get out of the country and then come back again, we’re going to try to make special provisions for international students. We made a promise to all of our ResStaff that if we had to pull back on housing, we wouldn’t take away their housing … we urge anybody that falls into one of these categories or has an extenuating circumstance, to please get in touch with us. We can accommodate several thousand students safely. We just can’t go up to the numbers that we had in the current semester.
TMD: In the past, this fall, the University has frequently said it’s taking an education over punishment approach to COVID-19 enforcement in terms of guidelines. But then in the announcement on Friday, you said the University will take a “strict no tolerance approach” to enforcing COVID-19 rules. So why have you changed your approach?
MS: Well the change is meant to adapt to the circumstances … Many students who were complying and being very careful were upset that other students weren’t, and that they weren’t getting enough support to enforce these guidelines. So we’ve gotten complaints from students, complaints from parents, complaints from neighbors of the University. All sending us pictures or observations that, for some people, compliance wasn’t good enough. We also learned that the warnings were being ignored … So the idea is to drive a higher level of compliance to keep people safe so that we can continue to have some people in the dorms and continue to have activities on campus.
TMD: Then can you talk a little bit more about what these enforcement mechanisms will look like and how they’ll be implemented or imposed on people who are on versus off campus.
MS: For people who are on campus, the decision is the initial violation of a non-trivial nature. And by trivial, I mean if someone’s wearing their mask on their chin and we say, “Please put your mask on,” I can live with that. As long as it’s 90% of people that are wearing their masks and doing the right thing. But if we find eight people in a room, listening to music and not wearing masks, that initial violation is first probation. That allows us the second time to actually terminate contracts. So the warning is actually the last one, so the first warning and the last warning for a significant violation of health-related guidance will also be much more in tune with notifying parents … The idea isn’t to punish people, it’s to get the safe behavior off campus. Similarly, we’ll use OSCR (Office of Student Conflict and Resolution) and the enforcement of the Student Code, as well as the sorts of things we do when affiliated organizations don’t comply with the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities
… The fraternities and sororities that are affiliated with us, it hasn’t been problem-free but we’re increasingly getting good faith and cooperation from the leaders of many of the fraternities and sororities. We’ve had a few problems during the semester, but we’re getting more cooperation. What we’re working on now is finding a way to actually provide weekly testing to fraternities and sororities, regardless of whether their students are on campus or not. When they’re here living in town and these larger houses, we’d like to help them stay safe by knowing their virus status so we’re trying to figure out now how to implement that during the semester when we’ve had multiple cases and some of the fraternities or sororities we’ve actually done pop up testing at them, so we bring the capacity to collect samples right there — they only have to come to campus to take a test and that’s helpful as well.
TMD: Many students, including CSG (Central Student Government), have been advocating for a pass/fail option for this semester and the winter semester due to the additional challenges posed by the pandemic. Will the University implement this grading option for fall and/or winter?
MS: Yeah, I don’t know the answer yet. The provost has had a committee of deans looking at this issue now that it’s been raised again. We appreciate the CSG resolution, and the leaders of SACUA (Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs) asked us to take a look, so it’s being considered. I can’t guarantee what the outcome will be, but it’s certainly being respectfully considered. None of you or us chose to have part of your college experience turned upside down by living through a pandemic. What we’re trying to do is minimize the adverse impact of that on your ability to go through school to learn what you need to, to develop a CV and transcript that will prove what you learned. This pandemic won’t last forever but I also can’t tell you it’s gonna be over in six months. So the challenge is how to help everybody continue to progress with their lives and into their future careers, while keeping as many people as we can as healthy as we can.
TMD: Great, thank you, we just want to go back to Fraternity & Sorority Life one more time. Many public state universities, including those that do not own their campus’s fraternity and sorority houses (University of Washington, UNC-Chapel Hill), publicly announce COVID-19 clusters within Fraternity and Sorority Life. With large parties and COVID-19 outbreaks happening in Fraternity and Sorority Life all semester, why doesn’t the University take more public action against these organizations that disobey public health guidelines?
MS: Well, it’s an interesting idea, I don’t know if we’re doing that. And if we’re not doing it, I don't know if it’s been discussed. So, I can check on that. In general, we're not going to release personal health information, we don’t treat diseases by shaming, it’s not going to happen. Although the kind of bad behavior of a big party in the front yard of any house, it doesn’t have to be a Greek life house, that’s a bad thing … our preferred response is to speak to the people who are in charge of the house and get it back under control. But citations have been given, very large numbers of citations. And as we continue to see things we do have to enforce, I’ll see whether we’ve discussed this issue of whether it would help or not, and whether it’s legal to publicly announce clusters of sick people.
TMD: Right, so um, there was obviously just an election.
MS: There was? Who won?
TMD: Ha, crazy.
MS: Only kidding.
TMD: You have spoken out publicly against many Trump administration policies, particularly immigration decisions that affect the University’s international students. What do you think a Biden administration will mean for higher education and the University of Michigan?
MS: I think some of the policies that are currently in place, particularly ones that diminish the ability of students from around the world to come and study here and be successful, and stay here for practical training, issues of that type, I think are extremely difficult. They’re bad for the University, they’re bad for higher ed., they’re bad for the United States. So that’s why I’ve spoken out against those kinds of policies. And I hope that as the government changes, those policies change, so not attaching it to a political figure or another, but really focusing on the policy itself and what I think is in the best interest of the University and of the country.
TMD: In 2016, there was controversy over emails you wrote about the results of the 2016 presidential election, writing you “can’t imagine lending one’s name to a Trump administration.” How do you expect to support students on all parts of the ideological spectrum in an election with extreme partisan division?
MS: I think what we’ve learned is that students on both sides of the spectrum often feel threatened by political discourse. Students that perceive themselves to be in a minority of opinion sometimes don’t feel safe expressing their opinions. Students on the other side of the spectrum become similarly concerned when we would have a speaker who comes to talk about something that they find offensive. I think that the main educational goal for us is to teach one another and to improve how we tolerate differences of ideas and ideology. You know, one thing I’ve always said is trying to marginalize or prevent someone from expressing their ideas doesn’t make those ideas go away, they just make it harder for us as a society to make progress on the areas where we are in a disagreement. And I think this very close election once again told us that we need to spend more time talking to one another and trying to understand our differences and work towards the things that we have in common.
TMD: We’ve got one fun question we got on an Instagram submission, if you want to answer. So, how do you groom your beard?
MS: I can’t imagine anybody worrying about that, but I have an electric set of shears and I do it every few days. And then when I get my hair cut, the guy who does my hair trims my beard as well. I’m getting my hair cut a lot less than normal these days like everybody else, you know, most of us are staying close to home.
TMD: Did you dress up for Halloween this year? Last year you said you didn’t.
MS: I did not dress up this year, nobody came. But if you’ve been on or near campus, South University is torn up. My front yard is a construction project and doing the big utility kind of work. And it’s been going on since April or something. So I don’t think you’d be able to get to my front door to go trick or treating even if you wanted to.
TMD: I mean, I didn’t leave my house, but I dressed up anyway.
MS: Did you? Oh I should have thought of that. It would have put me in the Halloween spirit. I was still mourning the football game at the time anyway.
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