Op-Ed: The University’s summer of lies

Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 12:53pm

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Correction: This piece has been corrected to indicate that while Regent Weiser himself would profit as he still receives payments from McKinley Associates Inc. — a national real estate investment company he founded that operates in Ann Arbor — the profit would not be tens of millions, but an unknown sum. Additionally, it is not confirmed that Weiser had significant influence on the University's decision to reopen. 

Editor’s Note: The author of this op-ed is a staff member at the University of Michigan. They have been kept anonymous due to their fear of retaliation.

Listening to the University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel for the last five months, I am shocked by the degree to which a Trump-like disregard for truth has overpowered our institution. In Donald Trump’s America, obvious lies are told without consequence, and unwelcome truths are silenced to avoid confronting inconvenient or unprofitable inevitabilities. Watching Schlissel mislead and lie to reopen the campus, I’ve asked myself: has truth become meaningless here, too? 

The answer is yes. For the past four years, I’ve held out hope that our institution could serve as a respite from the madness of Trumpian rule. I believe that despite its flaws, the university remains the most important institution in society for its contributions to freedom, democracy and reason. But I was wrong to believe we could avoid the deterioration and rot that has run through our country. Now Schlissel runs our college like Trump runs America: with dishonest impunity, at grave risk to us all.

President Schlissel often reminds us that he is a scientific authority. He told us we could reopen in-person “while maintaining the same level of safety we’d be experiencing if we were fully remote” and bragged that he has “the best research.” But he ignored requests from thousands of faculty, staff and students to see this “best research.” He refused to share the science behind his decision to call 30,000 students from all corners of the world back to campus in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic, even after admitting we lack sufficient testing capacity. 

President Schlissel said testing played a harmful role in the AIDS crisis, so we shouldn’t pursue more testing now. But a legendary AIDS activist called this the most egregious lie he’s heard this year.

President Schlissel demeaned worker demands for widespread testing as “science fiction” that was “not essential.” But a study out of Harvard and MIT said there was no way to prevent a near-total outbreak without testing everyone on campus every two days. Another Harvard expert said Schlissel showed “a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of testing.”

President Schlissel proclaimed the University’s efforts were informed by our top public health experts. But a U-M respiratory infectious disease expert told The Michigan Daily that none of the colleagues she’s spoken with believe the University’s reopening plan is safe, and top experts nationwide harshly criticized Schlissel’s “lack of commitment to keep[ing] everybody safe.”

President Schlissel blamed students for forgetting their ethical responsibility to our community. His office placed culpability for controlling the virus’s spread squarely on their shoulders — if they didn’t avoid hooking up altogether, the outbreak would be their fault. But in July, his office failed to release a report from its own COVID-19 Ethics Committee that expressed “with urgency” that the U-M administration’s plans to reopen were unsafe and the negative consequences were predictable. The suppressed report leaked on social media in late August, after most students returned to campus.

President Schlissel lists diversity, equity and inclusion among his top priorities. But U-M’s Chief Diversity Officer sat on that ethics committee, and the suppressed report emphasized that “communities of color and other vulnerable people will be the hardest hit” by the University’s actions.

President Schlissel spoke of reducing law enforcement. But he supported a new policing program that formalized a city-wide anonymous snitch system and expanded the mandate of the AAPD, which has still not been properly investigated for killing Aura Rosser. Similar programs elsewhere have been applied disproportionately on communities of color.

President Schlissel claimed he “didn’t know how to interpret” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call to all state universities to close their campuses and tell students to stay home. But her words were clear.

President Schlissel called U-M a “family.” But he admitted that the University may fire its most vulnerable staff members and dismissed the idea of using the $10 billion endowment to protect workers, asserting that new construction projects will take precedence over existing staff.

All of this provides plenty of reason to worry, but we now come to perhaps the most troubling development of all. President Schlissel said he is guided by U-M’s values as a public institution. But when the decision was made to reopen, U-M’s Board of Regents was chaired by one of Ann Arbor’s largest landlords, Ron Weiser — a billionaire Trump megadonor who has given more than $100M to U-M in the last six years. He closed a new $30M gift within days of U-M’s decision to reopen. In one of the biggest conflicts of interest imaginable between public health and private wealth, Weiser’s company McKinley, which he founded and of which he is majority owner, stands to take a financial hit if students didn’t come back and pay rent.

To sum things up, President Schlissel said this would be a “public health informed in-residence semester,” but the public health experts are upset and afraid. Thousands of community members are upset and afraid. And our megadonor landlord regent is satisfied that he’ll profit from the students told to return to campus by President Schlissel.

People will soon begin dying avoidable deaths from COVID-19 and the University will be culpable. Why did it come to this? Thousands of us were shouting warnings and demanding answers all summer, but we were ignored, silenced, made to feel powerless in our isolation. 

Authoritarianism happens wherever an institution lacks the safeguards to hold its leadership accountable to facts. I would tell you we stand at the edge of authoritarianism, but the truth is we have crossed that line. In front of our noses, a tiny group that is supposed to serve us has consolidated power over the largest public research university in the world, rendered truth meaningless and led us into an avoidable public health disaster. To point out the obvious invites harsh punishment, so this editorial is published anonymously. Many of you will be too afraid to even share it publicly; such is the culture of fear these rulers have created. If we learn anything from this, I hope it’s that the current leadership model has and will continue to fail us when we need it most. 

Perhaps in hindsight, this public health failure is not so different from the repeated failures to diversify the university. Or the failures to contribute positively in Detroit. Or the failures of allowing top offices to be occupied by sexual predators. If we ousted President Schlissel tomorrow but did nothing to change the increasingly privatized model of public education, we should not be surprised when history repeats itself with even more devastating consequences.

We are out of time to save our community from the most immediate consequences of President Schlissel’s public health lies, but I still hold out hope for a better future. This university is composed not only of a few powerful people at the top, but of tens of thousands of committed students, faculty, staff and surrounding community members who care passionately about education, intellectual freedom, truth and justice. We can run the University collectively and sustainably by forming representative stakeholders’ associations that prevent anyone from making major decisions without justification or accountability. Together, we can better serve the interests of our students, our workers and our society.

Another university is possible. The necessity of building it has never been clearer.