Staying focused on the University of Michigan’s mission while engaging in safe work practices will be the keys to a successful fall semester — and beyond.

That was the message from President Mark Schlissel during an Aug. 12 virtual town hall for staff about U-M’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The session drew nearly 5,000 viewers on Zoom and covered a variety of topics, from the university’s financial health to the question of whether employees can continue working from home.

Joining Schlissel were Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer, Office of the President; Rob Ernst, associate vice president for Student Life, executive director of University Health Service and director of COVID-19 Campus Health Response; and Pam Gabel, executive director of the Shared Services Center and co-chair of the Workplace Innovation and the Staff Experience Committee.

Schlissel said many aspects of the university’s mission can be effectively delivered remotely, but others — such as science lab or studio art courses — cannot. That’s why U-M, unlike some universities, is not having a fully remote semester.

Schlissel said staff members are essential to the university’s mission. He also said while there is no way to completely eliminate personal risk, he believes that by implementing a set of “layered approaches,” the campus will be able to serve its mission with approximately the same level of safety for employees that is involved when going to a supermarket or sitting in a backyard at a distance with friends.

“The goal is to best serve our mission, while balancing that with the health and safety of everybody in the community,” he said.

Schlissel stressed that staff members should continue to work from home whenever possible. However, he said as the university reactivates, there will be some circumstances that require face-to-face work, particularly in schools and colleges.

“In a place our scale, one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

Schlissel said the university will be as sensitive and accommodating as possible to meet the needs of its employees, especially those who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill.

He also said managers are encouraged to be flexible with scheduling for employees who face added childcare responsibilities at home because of the pandemic.

In response to concerns from staff members about being asked to come to campus when they don’t believe it’s necessary, Schlissel directed people to the Human Resources leads in their units, the Office of the Staff Ombuds and the employee hotline.

Ernst said the university has implemented several measures aimed at keeping the community safe, from a universal mask requirement to efforts to reduce density in buildings.  

“I think the environmental controls that have been put in place have been very thoughtful,” Ernst said. “Our Environment, Health & Safety team has been working an unbelievable amount to try and inspect all these workspaces and implement standardized protocols to ensure physical distancing and personal protection.” 

About 70 percent of student credit hours will be delivered online this fall, Schlissel said. Students moving into U-M residence halls will be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 before arriving in Ann Arbor. There also will be surveillance testing of students throughout the semester.

Schlissel went on to say that anyone who is symptomatic will be tested, with students tested through University Health Service and university faculty and staff tested through their health-care providers.

Additionally, the university has created an online symptom-checker tool so members of the community can check their symptoms daily.

When asked about U-M’s financial health, Schlissel said the pandemic has caused tens of millions of dollars in losses to the university and hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the health system. Schlissel said measures such as a hiring freeze and a ban on nonessential travel have helped stabilize the finances.

He also said while federal CARES Act funding helped mitigate an 11 percent cut in state funding in the current year, the state will almost certainly steeply cut the university’s funding next year absent additional federal relief.

“So overall, you know, we headed into this as a large, healthy, robust institution with strong finances,” he said. “Right now, we’re working our hardest to maintain a level of high functioning and be true to our people. And I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to adapt, and when the pandemic comes under control, we can get back to a version of normal that puts us back on a stronger financial footing as we were before.”

Schlissel said while the university will continue to use hundreds of millions of dollars from its endowment annually to support student financial aid, biomedical research, professor salaries, large campus projects and other areas, depleting it to maintain the status quo would harm the university in the long-run.

He also said many funds were provided by donors for specific purposes.

“If we were to literally empty the bank to make sure that we can continue to run the university exactly as we always have, even though there’s a global crisis going on, we would be diminishing the University of Michigan forever into the future,” he said.

Schlissel said one silver lining to the pandemic has been it has forced people to explore ways of doing their jobs differently. He said many people have found that they get more work done when they’re working from home rather than in the office.

“I think after the danger of the pandemic is past us, and it’s going to be at least this coming academic year, if not longer, we’re going to take some of the things we learned and figure out how to make them a more regular part of people’s options when they work,” he said.

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