Schlissel addresses Senate Assembly on plans for the fall semester

Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 12:10am

Monday evening's virtual SACUA

Monday evening's virtual SACUA Buy this photo
Alexandra Greenberg

The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs met virtually Monday afternoon with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss the logistics of the upcoming fall semester, including information regarding the people and factors influencing these decisions. Following a brief introduction by Schlissel, a Question and Answer session was held to respond to some faculty inquiries and concerns regarding the possible return to campus. The Q&A section of the discussion was moderated by SACUA Chair Colleen Conway.

Schlissel began the meeting by stating the importance of engagement as a component of undergraduate and graduate education. Schlissel mentioned the benefit of co-curriculum, which includes the organized student activities that take place beyond the confines of the courses taught inside of the classroom.

“Everything from being a writer on The Michigan Daily to being in (recreational) sports to being the president of a sorority or fraternity,” Schlissel said. “These are all part of the university experience that many of us benefited from and that I think, optimally or ideally, we would like our students to benefit from as well, at least to the fullest extent possible. But, of course, we are living in unique times in terms of this global health crisis, where personal safety and the ability of society to continue to drive its economy to function and for us to be social, are all threatened by this pandemic and our response to it.” 

Schlissel discussed the two possible tracks in which the fall semester could function, one consisting of a fully online experience and another introduced as a hybrid of both virtual and in-person classes. 

“The first is the possibility of having to be fully remote,” Schlissel said. “I want to make sure that we are prepared to deliver a credible, high-quality, online curriculum if we have to. We are planning for what I'm calling a public health-informed in-residence or in-person semester. Taking account of public health and medical principles, but also of our values, our ethics, our sense of privacy and all of our personal concerns to see whether we can design a semester that's probably a hybrid where some things are delivered online and some things are done in person, but we offer the students an opportunity to come back to Ann Arbor.” 

Schlissel clarified the reasoning for two separate options for the arrangement of the 2020-2021 academic year, referencing his fear in a potential second wave of the pandemic. 

“Many states, including our own, recently have relaxed the stringency of their stay-at-home controls resulting in people getting together … and people behaving with all different levels of concern over spreading this infectious illness, which is still out there,” Schlissel said. “We will see in the coming weeks whether this relaxed behavior results in a second wave of infection or not. If there is a big second wave, we may be back where we started from. We may be back and doing most everything remotely. It is also possible that executive orders, orders from the governor, who has placed controls on different aspects of the economy and our activities for the sake of controlling the pandmeic. She may issue new ones that limit what we are allowed to do. ”

Schlissel then discussed the strategies employed in planning the return of students and faculty to campus, including the creation of numerous committees at different levels of administration. For example, there is the COVID Leadership group, which consists of an expanded group of leaders to work on the challenges across campus, and exists at the executive level. A committee of public health and medical experts and a committee focused on issues of ethics and privacy were also designed on the campus level. The addition of committees revolving around Student Life are tackling changes in housing, dining and recreational activities as well.

“It becomes a design problem,” Schlissel said. “We want to see if we can design a semester where the risk is similar to the risk of education remotely. If we can do that with a series of interventions, a stackable set of interventions, then we will recommend and discuss with the Regents that we bring students back and have a modified public health-aware fall semester. Otherwise, we are back in fully-remote mode.”

Schlissel stressed the seriousness of considering a completely remote fall semester, as the logistics for the fall semester will likely remain for the whole academic year. 

“The reason why is that the disease is not going to go away until we have an effective vaccine and it's been administered to everybody, or until there are drugs that make it way less threatening to many people than it is, or until everyone has had it,” Schlissel said. “It would be a remarkable thing. First of all, if there was a vaccine by the end of the year or the beginning of the new year. But, think of the logistical challenges of giving two doses of that vaccine to 300 million people. I am extremely doubtful that before the end of the academic year we will be free of this illness. We are trying to think through this hard because the decision we make will probably last the academic year.”

Shanna Kattari, assistant professor of social work and women’s studies, wondered about the handling of classroom size in terms of public health considerations. Schlissel responded with the basic guidelines the University is basing their decision on.

“There has been a lot of thought given, with the advice of public health folks with expertise in disease transmission,” Schlissel said. “There will be a size of class above that size, it will have to be online. There will be a type of class, like a lab course or a studio course, that would almost certainly have to be in person. Then, a big zone in between where it will be up to the instructor and the GSIs on how to deliver that course based on the room availability, numbers of enrollment and the right maximum number of people in a physical space for the type of instruction that is being offered.”

Schlissel also addressed how the University will prioritize issues of racism on campus in the midst of planning for the fall semester.

“I think what we have been gearing towards at the University, recognizing that we are on a pathway that is a long journey, is to have our work on diversity, equity and inclusion actually become part of who we are so that it isn’t something special, it is just what we do,” Schlissel said. “I just think it has to be an everyday component of everything that we do and you have to be particularly sensitive to it during times where we are going to be doing lots of novel things that might produce unintended consequences that we have to be smart and sensitive to and be wary of so that it doesn't make our campus challenges around equity and inclusion worse.”

Sami Malek, professor of internal medicine, offered Schlissel his advice on how the University should tackle the decision-making process in the next few months, focusing on the importance of the involvement of campus faculty.

“I’m left with the impression that the dynamics are almost too big for anybody to really judge,” Malek said. “I think the more you get the faculty involved at the local level to make decisions once the students and faculty come back … the better we may get out of what still looks like a very unpredictable next year to come.”

Schlissel concluded the meeting by responding to Malek’s statement, emphasizing the significance of collecting expertise from different areas of campus.

“I think there will be a large amount of local planning and local control of how we implement this toolbox,” Schlissel said. “I call it a public health toolbox. We need to allow each school and each component inside a school to take this overall guidance and then use their collective wisdom and shape it to provide a high integrity curriculum given the constraints. I think we have to, in effect, crowdsource the solution to this with the faculty and share lots of ideas.”

Daily Staff Reporter Alexandra Greenberg can be reached at aggreenb@umich.edu