University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said Tuesday that he made mistakes in planning the school’s reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and in retrospect, might do things differently.
The reopening was focused on upholding the mission of the university with the least amount of risk, he said. The university established leadership groups and expert committees in a process that was more centralized than usual, Schlissel said, because officials had to make quick decisions and information was changing all the time.
“In hindsight, one of the errors I made is I took a very experts-focused approach that became narrow,” Schlissel said. “What I lost sight of was the breadth of how the campus is experienced and the breadth of the wisdom of all the different components of the campus. If I had to go to back to March or April again, I would have developed other mechanisms to get more and broader types of input.”
Schlissel made the comments during a live-streamed conversation with Provost Susan Collins that was addressed to the campus community. It was moderated by Professor Scott Page, a faculty member in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
The president began by saying he is feeling a lack of trust as the university has reopened but he is working to rebuild it.
“I really feel, stronger and stronger, an erosion of trust across the campus, trust in the leadership, trust in me personally and the leadership team,” Schlissel said. “I am groping for ways to rebuild the trust so we can tap into the unanimity of purpose and really take the institution forward …”
The conversation came as a number of issues have collided at UM.
The university’s Graduate Employees’ Organization is striking for a second week and Schlissel announced he had filed a motion asking the Washtenaw County Circuit Court to intervene. UM also faces numerous lawsuits over sexual abuse allegations against former sports doctor Robert E. Anderson, and dissatisfaction over the handling of sexual misconduct claims against former Provost Martin Philbert.
On Wednesday, UM’s faculty senate will consider a vote of no confidence in the administration.
Schlissel said he is looking for more ways to become engaged with the faculty, get a broader scope of input and become more transparent.
“The way to confront that is by being there,” he said.
Page said the faculty has a number of concerns, and he attempted to address some of them during the 45-minute virtual conversation.
He asked Schlissel and Collins to reflect on how UM has done with bringing students back to campus. The issues he asked about included students who needed to be quarantined with the virus in a room on North Campus with no heat and a bag of chips.
“In some places, we have not done nearly as well as we needed to,” said Collins. “It’s not excusable that any of students who are quarantined or in isolation aren’t well supported with all of the supplies that they need. It is a stressful, difficult situation. That should not have happened. I apologize for that.”
She added, “We are learning together on the fly, and we didn’t get it all right as we went along the way and we need to fix that.”
Schlissel said students were tested before they came to campus and the positivity rate is exceptionally low right now, even better than campuses that are fully remote such as Michigan State University.
“I don’t want to say anything to jinx us,” Schlissel said. “The students must be behaving themselves on average … The faculty is obviously protecting themselves, as we are not having many cases there.”
Page asked the president and provost to respond to concerns expressed about a survey, saying questions were framed in a way that made some instructors feel obligated to teach in person.
The intent was to accommodate any person who did not want to teach in person, Collins said.
Collins said decisions about which classes were to be taught in person should have been made collaboratively as to how to deliver the best education possible. She added that 78% of UM’s credits are remote this fall.
“If we said, ‘let’s not teach in person at all, too many people are concerned and some people don’t feel free to tell us they are concerned, let’s not do it,'” Schlissel said, “then there are many, many of our students that are disadvantaged.”
He pointed to students who might need an in-person lab to go to medical school or students who are getting in-person music instruction or attending nursing school classes that need to be in person.
If there are no in-person classes and UM doesn’t fill the dorms, then students are disadvantaged because they don’t have safe places with good internet service, he said.
“We have kids coming out of the foster care system that are living in our dorms,” Schlissel said. “There is a real equity issue of who can live in town and have a good time while fully remote if we are not providing housing for kids who also need an education but don’t have other great options. So it’s a complicated problem. We gave as much flexibility as we could. We are open to new ideas.”
Besides the reopening, the faculty has concerns about how the university responded to institutional and systematic racism, especially in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody and worldwide protests.
UM is usually a leader in these issues but there have been no new hires, no new programs, no plans for galvanizing the university’s resources to make society a better place, Page said.
“We owe the community an apology for not getting that out more quickly for that,” Collins said.
Afterward, Page said he saw humility in the administration and felt the conversation was productive and hoped to see more in the future.
“I have increased faith in their willingness to listen,” he said.