U. of Michigan Struggles Over Its Campus Reopening | #students | #parents

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor faculty has flirted with voting no confidence in its president a few times in the institution’s 200-year history. In 1954, faculty members wrist-slapped President Harlan H. Hatcher’s handling of the dismissal of a trio of professors for their alleged Communist affiliations. Most recently, in 2002, they threatened a no-confidence vote over a faculty grievance process. But it appears they always stopped short of using the ultimate — albeit symbolic — faculty admonishment tool.

That changed on Wednesday — well, maybe.

During a meeting attended by more than 2,000 faculty members — an eye-popping number that’s the product of both inflamed passions and the ease of attendance in the Zoom era — 957 faculty members voted in favor of a motion of no confidence in President Mark S. Schlissel for his handling of the university’s reopening, narrowly edging out the 953 who voted against it. But it was unclear on Wednesday night whether the motion had passed, because 184 faculty members abstained. If an abstention counts as a negative vote — and that’s how a senate secretary said it works, to the uproar of many faculty members — the motion failed because it didn’t get majority support.

A significant percentage of those who care to vote, and technically a majority of them, voted ‘no confidence.’

At best, Schlissel avoided official faculty condemnation, with an asterisk. The motion states that members of the community have “exhausted all channels of communication to express their grave concerns about reopening plans,” and that Schlissel “has shown little substantial changes in policy in response to expressed concerns.” A no-confidence vote in the university’s reopening plan, meanwhile, narrowly failed, 915 to 991, with 198 abstentions.

The no-confidence votes follow weeks of upheaval that included a graduate-assistant strike — a rare move for the storied Graduate Employees’ Organization — that roiled the campus. Graduate assistants stopped teaching and took to a socially distanced picket line to demand more coronavirus testing, better representation in pandemic-related decision making, and time-to-degree extensions. A group of resident advisers joined them, and undergraduates who tested positive for Covid-19 took to TikTok to file bleak dispatches from quarantine apartments provided by the university (“We were given one roll of toilet paper,” one student said, holding up a single-ply roll in an otherwise barren apartment lacking even a microwave).

“At this point, there’s not a constituency on campus that hasn’t complained about the reopening process,” said Kentaro Toyama, a professor of community information and one of three faculty members who put forward the no-confidence motion. “The administration has basically acted like a dictatorship, not as an American public university you’d hope would be a beacon of deliberative democracy. The university should implement a policy in our bylaws that basically says never again will the administration make decisions of this magnitude without serious consultation of all stakeholders.”

While he was still in the faculty-senate meeting Wednesday night, Toyama wrote in an email that “a significant percentage of those who care to vote, and technically a majority of them, voted ‘no confidence.’”

The unrest unfolding in recent days at the university has taken aim directly at the leadership of Schlissel, whom faculty and graduate students have accused of increasingly top-down leadership, inadequate coronavirus testing, and the fall semester’s Original Sin of deciding to be in-person in the first place, against the guidance of a committee he appointed.

Unease Over Reopening

The situation shows that even universities that have, until now at least, avoided the major outbreaks among students that have forced other campuses to move online can’t avoid the general community unease of navigating an in-person semester during a pandemic. (Critics argue that the official tally of Covid cases could be low at Michigan because of testing that isn’t randomized and is a fraction of what’s conducted at, for example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

Schlissel declined to comment for this story through a spokesman. Last week, he and Susan M. Collins, the provost, acknowledged in an email to the campus community that the university “feels fractured.” But he defended his administration’s responsiveness to the strikers’ concerns, saying the university “addressed nearly all of the issues” raised by the union in a proposal that union membership rejected last week.

“Only 22 percent of our undergraduate credit hours are being delivered with some in-person component, based on decisions made as locally as possible by schools, colleges, and departments based on pedagogic needs and instructor preferences,” Schlissel and Collins wrote.

U. of Michigan

President Mark Schlissel

“By providing more flexibility for students who choose to take classes fully remotely, we reduced density in our residence halls by a third. In addition, we gradually and successfully ramped up our research operations, while keeping the density in our labs low. As measured by network log-ons, activity on campus is only about 40 percent the level that it was last year at this time.”

Rank-and-file members of the union say the university proposal watered down their demands. For example, they wanted the elimination of a $500 fee for international students, while the university instead offered to increase its International Center staff to bolster support for those students. On testing, the university promised more detail and transparency about its testing program, but it was silent on the most persistent demand from the campus community: asymptomatic testing.

On Monday, Schlissel announced in a video message that the university would sue to end the strike as it dragged into its second week. “The university’s offer to continue talks remains open,” Schlissel said. “What we cannot welcome is the profound disruption to the education we’ve promised our undergraduate students. We want our great classes to continue, our students to learn without interference, and we don’t want anyone to feel threatened simply for wanting to go to class.”

The Road to ‘No Confidence’

The thread that unites administration critics is coronavirus testing policy. You could hear it in the chants of strikers earlier in the week.

“What do I want!”
“Randomized testing!”
“When do I want it!”
“Last week!”

When Schlissel did defend his testing policy, he stumbled. During a faculty town hall last month he made an analogy to the HIV pandemic, saying large-scale testing could lead to an increase in risky behavior, according to The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper. “Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security,” Schlissel said. “That happened in the HIV epidemic when people got a negative test and they presented it to their sex partners and spread disease nonetheless. So testing is challenging at the scale you’re talking about.”

Schlissel apologized in a letter to the Queer Advocacy Coalition, a student group, but it was one of several reasons cited in the no-confidence motion. Schlissel, it states, “publicly reinforced negative stereotypes about the gay community, perpetuated the stigma around HIV, dismissed testing as an important tool, and abdicated the university’s responsibility to test in order to contain outbreaks.”

Broader frustrations with racism and policing in the city are also factoring into the general discontent voiced by faculty and graduate students. Many of them raised concerns about a program that paired Ann Arbor Police Department officers with faculty, staff, and students to educate community members about masking and social-distancing guidelines. They worried that the program made Black students less safe by increasing the likelihood of interactions with armed law enforcement, and by encouraging neighbors to tattle on each other — a “license to Karen,” as one graduate striker, Katherine Wright, put it.

The university reversed course, and the Ann Arbor police won’t be involved with the program. Even so, one of the graduate union’s demands is that the university defund the campus police. Members argue that the pandemic and policing are related; they’re both about the safety of students. “It’s really important to me as a sociologist, but also as a Black woman, to have a campus where I feel safe to come to work, where I don’t have to worry about the campus police being armed,” says Wright, a fifth-year Ph.D. student.

A faculty resolution has no teeth and is symbolic. But it’s an official statement that signals to future generations where the faculty stood on matters of significance. In the 1954 case about the dismissal of the faculty members, for example, the faculty didn’t quite vote no confidence in the president — though at least one faculty member interpreted it as such — but rather affirmed intellectual freedom, according to a Michigan Daily story from the time.

In that case the arc of history was with the faculty. In February, the campus will celebrate the 30th anniversary of an academic-freedom lecture in honor of the three fired professors — Chandler Davis, Clement Markert, and Mark Nickerson.


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