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U of M president defends COVID-19 response, admits BLM response insufficient

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel at podium
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, held a livestreamed conversation on Tuesday to address what he described as an “erosion of trust” on a campus, both in him and the administration as a whole, regarding the school’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If we said [before the start of this semester] ‘Let's not teach in-person at all, too many people are concerned, and people don't feel free to tell us that they're concerned, so let's just not do it,’ there are many, many, many of our students that are disadvantaged,” Schlissel said of the University’s decision to re-open dorms and teach about 22% of the school’s courses in-person, as opposed to almost entirely remote.

The conversation, in which Professor Scott E. Page addressed questions gathered from students, faculty and staff, to President Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins, comes as the Graduate Employees' Organization recently voted to extend its strike, resident advisors say they continue to be on strike, and the faculty Senate is expected to take a vote of “no confidence” in the administration on Wednesday.

Most of the questions and concerns Page received out of “thousands of emails,” he said, fell into two categories: “...[Our] public health and re-opening strategy, how that's played out; a lot of concerns about transparency there. And second, what has our response been to what has been a societal uprising of epic proportions, in relation to structural racism that we've seen, right? And really, the lack of response.” 

Collins maintained that regardless of whether the school had gone fully remote or not, “most of our students would be in Ann Arbor, in the community anyway.”

“So it was not a choice between go remote and everyone stays home and things are significantly safer and there are fewer public health issues, versus bring students to campus,” Collins said.

And going fully remote would have been hardest on students with fewer resources, Schlissel said.

“There are students that need organic chemistry lab to go to medical school. And there are students that are getting violin instruction. There's a whole nursing school of students that need to be in person,” Schlissel said. “So those kids, those young people would be disadvantaged.

“And then when you talk about our dorms, you know, if we don't have in-person class and don't fill the dorms, there are going to be students that are disadvantaged in the dorms. Because they don't have safe places with good internet and a safe environment to study at home. We have kids coming out of the foster care system, living at our dorm. So there's a real equity issue of who can live in town and have a good time over a fully remote [semester] if we're not providing housing for kids that also need an education but don't have other great options.” 

Page also brought up questions around testing, specifically, the university’s strategy of primarily testing sick individuals, rather than using testing as a mass surveillance tool.

“[The University of] Illinois tested everybody, right? We did not. Notre Dame tested everybody before they showed up. We did not,” Page said.

Schlissel said that until recently, there was a lack of access to quick-turnaround tests.

“So 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; to use it in our hospital, anyone with a symptom. [University Health Services] is testing 50 or 100 people a day...But we tested all the students before they arrived in the dorms, we tested everyone in the Greek system before they arrived. And now we're ramping up our surveillance test system, now at 3,000 tests a week, up to 6,000 and then beyond in the coming weeks.”

Despite more limited testing, Schlissel touted the university’s low rate of positive tests as a measure of success. 

“Our percentage of positivity is exceptionally low on this campus. If you literally compare how we’re doing, compared to other campuses - even campuses that are fully remote, like up in [East] Lansing.”

U of M’s positivity rate was around 1-2% the first couple weeks of September, but has been trending upward lately. Michigan State University doesn’t report the percentage of positive tests, but has been dealing with outbreaks of more than 300 people recently.

Where Schlissel and Collins said most of the administration’s missteps had been, however, was its lackluster response to the Black Lives Matter protests and police reform movement over the summer.

“I think that we really deserve that criticism,” Collins said. “These are hugely important issues...And we have been working on a variety of things. We were just slow. And, you know, I will be the first to say that that's a problem.”

Administrators intended to do more, Schlissel said, but were overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic.

“It got crowded out of the way, not to be forgotten, but to be picked up at the same time as we’re worried about people's individual health and safety, and how to stay ahead of an infectious illness,” he said.

Page pushed back, voicing what he said was a widely-held faculty belief that the University had become too hierarchical, and individual departments and schools couldn’t respond the way they might have with more resources.

“I think that can go in the category of lessons learned,” Schlissel said. “...But this notion of us saying, ‘Look, the central administration is busy figuring out a safe semester. Why don't you, Scott, be the point person and work with faculty, colleagues and others who might have the capacity to help us not lose the moment? And in hindsight, that was a great idea.”

Editor's note: U of M holds Michigan Radio's license.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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