University of Michigan leaders say they plan to announce a decision regarding U-M’s fall semester by the end of June, while continuing to examine how the university pursues its mission under the ongoing cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an online session with faculty and staff May 28, President Mark Schlissel, Interim Provost Susan M. Collins and Simone Himbeault Taylor, interim vice president for student life, reinforced the hope that U-M students can return to campus this fall.
“First, and most importantly, we are all very optimistic that the University of Michigan will have a public-health-informed, in-residence academic year with as much in-person engagement as possible that is consistent with changing guidelines and conditions and with our core mission,” Collins said.
The hourlong session was viewed live by more than 6,000 employees and addressed such issues as finances, what the fall semester may look like, the university’s broad planning efforts, factors affecting students’ return, U-M’s endowment, and how diversity, equity and inclusion might be affected.
“The University of Michigan is a people business,” Schlissel said. “You deliver our mission. Our relationship with our employees, our commitment to them, is incredibly important to maintain across the pandemic, to make sure when all this is done we’re in good shape to move forward.”
He stressed that while the state of Michigan is seeing fewer cases of COVID-19 than at the pandemic’s peak, and some U-M researchers are returning to work in their labs and studios, campus activity will resume gradually. Those who can work remotely should continue to do so.
“Employees really shouldn’t come back to work in person until approved to do so by their supervisors,” Schlissel said.
The president recapped numerous lost revenue sources and additional costs stemming from the university’s response to the pandemic.
Recent actions such as salary and hiring freezes, and halts on discretionary spending and new building projects should cover the “lower range of projected shortfalls,” provided nothing worse happens, he said. The health system has had to implement even stronger cost-cutting measures.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over various funding sources — such as tuition, philanthropy, facility usage and athletics — continues. With the state looking at a projected $3 billion shortfall, Schlissel said U-M is expecting a state-aid cut, “we just don’t know the order of magnitude.”
Collins said several committees created by the Provost’s Office are exploring the many factors involved with bringing students back to campus, including prioritizing which classes are best provided in person and which ones may continue to be taught remotely.
She said changes to the academic calendar are being considered to minimize travel between home and Ann Arbor for students.
At the same time, planners are preparing for a resurgent virus, if it occurs.
“It’s possible that health considerations will require us to ramp campus activities back down, or even possibly return to a fully remote operation,” Collins said. “Our planning will enable us to be flexible enough to pivot back to remote if we need to do so.”
Taylor said Student Life is preparing for a residential experience as well as remote classes. That means testing for students in residence halls, social distancing expectations, changes in meal delivery, enhanced cleaning procedures, and the use of personal protection equipment.
“We’re probably going to be giving out this year not so much the T-shirts but probably a lot more face masks,” she said.
Schlissel said common questions posed by employees in advance of the online session dealt with the availability of testing and when it will be safe for employees to return. He said U-M is working with Michigan Medicine and outside testing facilities to ensure proper testing capacity, and that the university is following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s directives regarding when to return.
“We’ve learned from the pandemic that we actually can get a lot of the important work of the university done remotely, and when we do it remotely we’re doing it safely,” he said.
Other issues addressed in the meeting included:
Tuition: The administration will recommend tuition levels to the Board of Regents at its June 25 meeting. “We are essentially working as hard as we can to ensure our instruction is at the quality of a Michigan education, maintains academic continuity and enables our students to pursue their degrees and be exceedingly well prepared to have a vibrant and robust experience,” Collins said.
Endowment: Schlissel said the endowment could lose between 5 percent and 20 percent of its value due to pandemic-related factors. Still, U-M spent $370 million from it in the past year. “The endowment is critical. It will continue to be critical. It’s helping us a lot,” he said.
DEI: Diversity, equity and inclusion is a “fundamental institutional commitment” that will continue as the university deals with pandemic-related financial challenges, Schlissel said. Collins added that DEI was one of the “core principles” U-M considered when preparing to deal with the pandemic’s impact.
Responding to a question about what U-M is doing for its Asian Pacific Islander Desi/American community following an increase in reported COVID-related, anti-Asian hate incidents across the nation, Schlissel, Taylor and Collins said structures are in place to provide support for those who experience discrimination in any form.
“It is completely abhorrent, inappropriate, cruel and against every one of our values to show prejudice against a particular group and blame them or demonize them for a global pandemic,” Schlissel said. “We don’t have tolerance for this and I look for opportunities to publicly speak out against it.”
Whatever form an in-person fall semester takes, Schlissel, Collins and Taylor said it will be up to the university community to follow necessary directives and model appropriate behavior to make it work.
“I think it’s really going to be significantly up to our students whether we succeed in having an in-person fall semester,” Schlissel said. “I have great confidence in their seriousness and their maturity. I do think that they’ll rise to the moment and culturally reinforce with one another the necessity of thinking of this as something we all share.”
Note: This article has been edited from its original version to reflect the June Board of Regents meeting being moved to June 25.