Schlissel, Collins discuss responses to COVID-19, racial tensions


While acknowledging missteps in how University of Michigan leaders have engaged with the campus community in recent months, President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan M. Collins say they will work hard to restore trust and transparency moving forward.

Schlissel and Collins spoke for 45 minutes during an online, campuswide town hall Sept. 15, primarily addressing topics that have grown out of criticism of how U-M has handled its hybrid fall semester under a coronavirus pandemic, and issues of racial injustice.

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They vowed to work to rebuild trust by engaging more with the campus community, and Collins announced an effort designed to tackle the topic of campus policing and promote a safe environment for all, with a goal of making the Division of Public Safety & Security a national model for public safety on a university campus.

Speaking to approximately 8,300 viewers who tuned into the town hall, the pair took questions from moderator Scott Page, a professor in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and LSA. Page’s questions were drawn from those submitted by faculty, staff and students.

The session followed a Sept. 11 email to all faculty and staff from Schlissel and Collins in which they pledged to engage and listen more to enhance trust and share more information with the campus community.

“I’m looking or groping for ways to rebuild the trust so we can tap into our unanimity of purpose and really take the institution forward through this generational challenge,” Schlissel said during the town hall. “For me it’s an issue of trying to find ways to be more engaged with the faculty, more communicative, involve more faculty, get a broader array of input and have them know me and my thinking better.”

View the full 45-minute conversation with President Mark Schlissel, moderator Scott Page and Provost Susan M. Collins.

In an email sent to Faculty Senate members after the town hall, Schlissel elaborated further on upcoming efforts to expand campus engagement, announcing he will establish a faculty group specifically devoted to the issues related to COVID-19 on campus, and that he and Collins will explore similar structures to improve engagement with students and staff. (See related article)

All members of the Ann Arbor campus community were invited to the town hall and asked to submit questions. Page said questions focused mostly on two topics: public health in reopening this fall and U-M’s response to racial inequality.

Schlissel said the plan to ramp up for the fall semester had to be fluid and flexible as information continued to change.

“The way we approached it is, what can we do to deliver on the greatest fraction of the value of our mission as possible, while at the same time mitigating as much of the risk of living in the COVID-19 era as possible?” he said.

In doing so, U-M became more centralized than is typical to ensure decisions could be made quickly. Schlissel acknowledged he took an “expert’s-focused approach that became narrow.”

“What I lost sight of was the breadth of how the campus is experienced and the breadth of wisdom of all the different components of campus,” he said. “If I had to go back to March or April, I would have developed other mechanisms to get more and broader types of input.”

Schlissel also addressed the issue of testing, which he stressed is just one “essential component” of an integrated public health strategy. “We’ve really struggled getting access to adequate capacity of high-turnaround testing. What we did is we applied the capacity we had to test sick people,” he said.

The university also conducted pre-arrival testing for 6,000 students moving into Michigan Housing, offered baseline testing to the 1,500 residents living in fraternity or sorority chapter facilities, and recently introduced a surveillance testing program open to the U-M community on the Ann Arbor campus.

He said U-M’s capacity to test asymptomatic people through its surveillance testing program is 3,000 people per week and the university seeks to ramp up to 6,000 in a few weeks through saliva-based testing.

U-M’s surveillance testing strategy was developed by public health experts, to detect how well the face-covering mandate and social-distancing requirements are working, and to detect hotspots quickly. Schlissel said the positivity percentage of COVID-19 tests at U-M is low.

Page, the Williamson Family Professor of Business Administration and professor of management and organizations, political science, complex systems and economics, mentioned issues surrounding inadequate housing and supplies offered for quarantined students, and Collins acknowledged missteps.

“It’s not excusable that any of our students who are in quarantine or isolation aren’t well-supported with all the supplies that they need,” Collins said. “It’s a stressful, difficult situation and context, and that just shouldn’t have happened. I apologize for that.”

“Student Life has been actively working to make sure every single room is fitted with whatever it needs, and all the students get the support they should have if they are in those spaces. We’re learning together on the fly and we certainly didn’t get it all right as we went along the way, and we need to fix that,” she added.

Over the summer, Page said, faculty were surveyed to gauge their comfort level in delivering in-person classes in the fall, and that some faculty members felt pressured into responding a certain way and fearful that complaining would jeopardize their positions.

“The intent was to accommodate any instructor, and that’s faculty or (graduate student instructors), who did not want to teach in person,” Collins said. “I worry a lot about issues of hierarchy, issues of whether people feel free to make statements, which is why we kept coming back to that intent. When we have learned about instances where there have been problems, we have jumped in to address them.”

Nearly 80 percent of credit hours are being taught remotely.

Page said many expressed disappointment that after a summer of Black men and women losing their lives during exchanges with law enforcement, and a Black Lives Matter movement that swept across the country, U-M had little to offer those returning to campus in the fall.

“I think that we really do deserve that criticism,” Collins said. “These are hugely important issues, they are kind of the heart and soul of the University of Michigan. We need to be a leader in this space, and we will be a leader in this space. We have been working on a variety of things, and we were just slow. I’ll be the first to say that’s a problem.”

Among the issues central to the current Graduate Employees’ Organization strike is public safety and, specifically, defunding DPSS. Collins said she appreciates GEO bringing the issue of policing forward. She said the administration plans to launch a task force aimed at ensuring all members of the U-M community feel safe.

The first step, she said, is outreach so any action is inclusive of the broader university community input.

“We don’t think we have all of the right ideas, so we’ll work together to launch that process with a task force that will be transparent, inclusive, address whatever issues surface,” Collins said. “We want to make sure we do in fact have the best public safety department here on campus, but also that we are an exemplar and leveraging our great faculty and research to address broader issues of policing across society.”

Schlissel said a more robust response to racial inequality would have been apparent if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Susan and I began discussions during the summer months when unarmed Black men and women were being killed in encounters with police,” he said. “This is a moment, we have ongoing work in this area, this is a moment. I sure hope and pray that we don’t lose the moment. Let’s get up and do something here.

“It’s no excuse, but in the moment, it got crowded out of the way, not to be forgotten but to be picked up at the same time we’re worrying about people’s health and safety and how to stay ahead of an infectious illness.”

Schlissel and Collins both said they look forward to continued discussions of issues on campus.


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