The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly altered the university we love and affected every one of you – our students, faculty and staff. Missing are many of our traditional rites of spring, from seniors taking photos in their caps and gowns, to the walk-off victories of our softball and baseball teams, and faculty and staff on campus excited to close out another successful semester.
The loss of each of these moments robs us of the closure and celebration that come with the season. Instead, our community fears for its health, is concerned about the economy and faces a major test of its resolve. Mounting uncertainties and new and ongoing challenges are disrupting how we pursue our education, research and patient care mission. These are anxious times, both for us as individuals and as a 203-year-old institution. I want to take this opportunity to share some of the actions we have taken in response to the pandemic –to address fast-changing circumstances, demonstrate our crucial value as a public research university, and be supportive of our students, faculty and staff.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19
As health and safety guidelines have evolved, so has the university’s response. One of our earliest actions was reaching out to inform and assist U-M students abroad in areas where infection rates were highest. New recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and executive orders from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer followed in the days and weeks since.
Our state went from its first positive case on March 11 to being one of the hardest hit in less than three weeks.
I’m very proud of the way individuals from all parts of our university have responded. Collectively, we got the word out on the importance of social distancing and hygiene practices, provided expertise to elected leaders on virtually all aspects of COVID-19, helped those in need and transformed how we convene, work and learn.
Serving the U-M community and our broader society
Our focus on operations that are critical to our mission has resulted in several developments that are impressive and important in light of the current crisis. We’ve revamped the way we work, asked our students to change how they learn, and confronted the realities of having to operate in a world that has changed dramatically. These are the moments, created by you, that will come to define the University of Michigan in the spring of 2020.
- Michigan Medicine opened a special unit for COVID-19 patients, ceased many activities in order to increase capacity in critical areas, and implemented measures to protect patients and the health professionals on the front lines saving lives.
- Numerous teams have helped us tackle the pandemic as well, including reconfiguring patient rooms, procuring special equipment, stepping up cleaning, facilitating remote technology, and enhancing safety and security during rapidly changing conditions.
- Faculty moved winter, spring and summer courses to alternative modes of instruction.
- Researchers have ramped down labs, found ways to continue research remotely, and many are using their expertise to address COVID-19 across a wide variety of disciplines.
- Numerous staff are supporting students under often chaotic conditions, helping those abroad to relocate and supporting those living on or near our campuses.
- Human Resources implemented paid time off banks for employees affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to provide stability and support in March and April.
Preserving financial resources wherever we can
In the past few weeks, we’ve reduced university spending amid this uncertainty, while also maintaining pay for full-time employees through April. Actions include:
- Suspending all university international and domestic air travel, with rare exceptions requiring approval. We did this first and foremost to protect safety, and it also is financially prudent.
- Changing hiring guidelines for new and existing positions to include careful consideration of whether a role is critical during the pandemic.
- Significantly reducing discretionary spending across U-M.
The work each of you has already done to reduce spending has been appreciated. It is vitally important that we continue to remain focused on creative ways to continue to reduce discretionary spending as we move forward. We’ve incurred unpredicted expenses at the same time many of our sources of revenue have become less certain.
The constantly evolving situation continues to call for more change. Michigan Medicine is preparing for the possibility of setting up a field hospital in anticipation of a surge in patients needing care, and we still cannot predict when it will be safe to return to more normal operations across U-M.
U-M leadership is working closely with all of our schools, colleges and units to better understand and plan for longer-term realities of the pandemic. There is so much we simply do not know right now. We cannot yet be certain about how long we’ll be asked to stay home, future expenses, demand for classes, the nationwide economic slowdown, potentially greater needs for patient care, and projecting future levels of state support and federal stimulus measures. As we examine all of these factors and the effects of the pandemic unfold, there will be more difficult decisions ahead.
Right now, we are asking everyone to use as appropriate the banks of paid time off for COVID-19-related absences as guided by U-M and the federal Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA). Throughout April, the university will provide the additional funds needed to cover COVID-related absences for any regular faculty or staff members who exhaust both banks of time. Additionally, we recommend judicious use of all available paid time off options because of the uncertain duration of the pandemic.
With each passing day, the pandemic affects us on every level. We have lost or deeply fear losing friends and loved ones during a time when our ability to support each other is limited by the requirements of social distancing. We are enduring major disruptions to our work and personal lives and have been forced to refocus on how we deliver the most important aspects of our mission.
I want to thank each one of you for demonstrating such high levels of professionalism and commitment – even as your own lives are upended. Your strength is the reason why we are able to teach, discover and care for the sick during this pandemic.
I know that life is exceedingly difficult right now, and ask you to please take care of your physical and mental health and that of your loved ones. While social distancing remains essential, distant socializing is also strongly recommended. Keep in touch with one another, your families and friends.
You have my utmost appreciation and gratitude. As a strong community we will overcome these difficult times. Thank you for your myriad contributions to our success and resilience, and stay healthy.
Mark S. Schlissel