A message to the University of Michigan Faculty Senate

Dear Colleagues:

I am writing today to discuss the five motions being considered at Monday’s Faculty Senate meeting. I would like to provide additional context and information that you may want to consider before the two days of voting.

Provost Susan M. Collins and I will also be speaking at the meeting. Both of us appreciate the time faculty from across the campus have spent engaging with us on important issues facing the university and sharing their concerns. We understand that COVID-19 continues to create fears for ourselves and our loved ones, and campus units are doing their best to address concerns using processes that are based on health and safety guidelines.

Regarding the pandemic, we recently met with the members of this year’s COVID-19 Faculty Council who were appointed by SACUA. Those meetings will continue biweekly, as will our regular discussions with SACUA, school and college leaders, and with faculty from across the campus as we continue to navigate the pandemic and other challenges.

The resolutions collectively leave the impression that COVID-19 is getting worse on our campus. The facts tell a different story, and we want to share those with you today as you consider these resolutions.

For U-M’s COVID-19 response, we have relied on university faculty and staff experts on all matters relating to health and safety. All of the strategies and policies we’ve put in place are informed by science, data and federal, state and county public health guidelines. These experts have also closely monitored the COVID-19 responses of similar universities, and that information has informed our response, as well.

In contrast to last fall, when cases rose steadily during the first weeks and months of the semester, cases this fall are steadily declining after the initial increase associated with the repopulation of our campus. This is reflected on our data dashboard.

U-M’s wastewater surveillance program, which monitors sewage on and near campus, has shown findings that correlate very closely with the identified case counts ­– there was an initial increase followed by a progressive decline.

Classrooms have not been associated with confirmed COVID-19 transmission due to the university’s masking requirement, high vaccination rates in the U-M community and meeting or exceeding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ventilation standards.

Our constant tracking of cases, severity of illness, and public health guidelines will allow us to implement stronger mitigation measures if needed.

The motions relate to COVID-19 and sexual misconduct, and the context and facts below are organized under each motion.

Motion 1: Work Connections

The possibility of COVID-19 infections among vaccinated individuals was one of the reasons we cited when announcing the university-wide vaccination requirement. We know vaccination reduces spread and severe illness, including that caused by the Delta variant.

Data continue to support the assertion that widespread vaccination is the most important tool to protect ourselves and others from infection and serious illness. As I shared last week, positivity rates for COVID-19 among students with symptoms seeking care at the University Health Service are declining, and those who do test positive generally experience mild symptoms. Last week, for example, only 2 percent of students with symptoms tested positive at UHS for COVID-19.

It’s important to note that for many years, faculty and staff with medical conditions that necessitate a modification to their assignment have been asked to provide supporting medical documentation to Work Connections.

Each request is carefully considered and individually assessed by medical personnel (nurses and physicians) against Michigan Medicine and CDC criteria.

It is not in Work Connections’ scope to review requests related to the health status of an instructor’s family members or others with whom they reside. Those requests should be submitted directly to the instructor’s department.

The motion raises concerns about the Work Connections unit’s role and handling of requests for modified instructional assignments. In response, I want to share details about the number of requests and their status.

The vast majority of instructors have requested no accommodations; the number seeking to work remotely is extremely low.

So far this fall, Work Connections has reviewed 28 formal requests to teach remotely out of a total of 8,500 instructional faculty members across all three U-M campuses. Those 28 break down as follows:

  • 4 were medically supported by Work Connections as needing some enhanced accommodations.
  • 2 were submitted with no medical support, and Work Connections is awaiting further information
  • 1 request was withdrawn.
  • 1 request was unrelated to COVID-19.
  • Of the 20 not supported, 15 of those requests did not meet the criteria for an accommodation informed by guidance from the CDC and Michigan Medicine. Five of these did not include a physician’s request for remote work or had incomplete medical information. In some cases, more medical documentation would warrant a reassessment, and this has been communicated to those individuals.

Please note these numbers do not include the 51 ongoing cases not specific to requests for remote teaching where Work Connections is providing support due to serious, ongoing illnesses or disability, eight of which are COVID-related.

Ultimately, academic units, not Work Connections, decide on the accommodations, which may also include changes to classroom layouts, adding an air purifier or relocating a class when virtual teaching is not a medically-supported restriction.

Motion 2: Notification, testing, ResponsiBLUE and contact tracing

U-M relies on a layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation strategy to support a robust in-person experience. It was developed by faculty and staff experts.

Notifications: Though the motion calls for the “notification of close contacts be re-established,” the university always has and continues to directly notify all close contacts identified through case investigation.

This is part of the critical work of tracing the close contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19. These direct notifications are similar to what we do for other infectious diseases such as measles.

The broader notifications via email were implemented before vaccines were available and were for awareness and did not indicate close contacts. As noted, close contacts (as defined by the CDC) are notified directly. In an effort to protect privacy, we do not plan to include specific information that can identify individuals in any public notices.

Testing: Weekly testing for unvaccinated individuals who have an approved vaccine exemption is supported by CDC guidance, and we’re requiring this (along with anyone not fully vaccinated). The CDC does not recommend routine asymptomatic testing for vaccinated individuals. The success of U-M’s vaccine requirement is key to this discussion as well.

However, more than 8,000 tests are available weekly for asymptomatic community members through our Community Sampling and Tracking Program – and we’re working to expand availability based on community feedback. Currently, many morning slots are going unfilled so we have surplus capacity.

ResponsiBLUE: The suggested response related to close contact exposure on the ResponsiBLUE app for those who are fully vaccinated is consistent with CDC guidance, which states that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine and can therefore remain engaged in in-person activities.

Motion 3: Methods of instruction

U-M’s schools and colleges take the lead on decision-making about course modalities, with decisions focused on pedagogical considerations and programmatic needs. Like other matters pertaining to the academic mission and the nature of the relevant degree program, the mode of class delivery is under the authority of the academic unit.

This is codified in the U-M Standard Practice Guide, which states that “departments may establish or modify rules and conditions of work to promote efficiency, safety and quality service” and “day-to-day management is delegated to the departments.” The SPG further specifies that “assignment of work, methods of work and location of work, including telecommuting and working remotely” falls under this policy.

With the exception of the crisis period last year, U-M practice has always been that faculty do not have individual discretion to move courses scheduled to be in-person to a remote modality.

Additionally, we asked schools and colleges to work with instructors to build course schedules, while also considering instructor requests, with the intent that they would stay in the published modalities for the duration of the semester – and students would have the classes they signed up for.

To do otherwise would create major and unpredictable disruptions for many students. The provost and I value the expertise and creativity of faculty, and we will continue to support their choices about methods of instruction and other dimensions of pedagogy within published course schedules and modalities.

This work was informed by the recognition that the university was returning to a primarily residential experience for our students this fall. Our students expressed a strong preference for in-person instruction, the Board of Regents strongly supported this approach, and in-person experiences are a hallmark of a U-M education. We have thrived as a residential public university.

Motion 4: Sexual misconduct

The university has made transformative changes to how we prevent and address sexual and gender-based misconduct. These include actions such as a new policy on supervisor-employee relationships, our university-wide policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct that takes effect Oct. 1, creation of the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (ECRT) and the launch of a broader cultural change working effort focused on community norms and behaviors, led by a working group inclusive of faculty, staff and students. We hired the nationally recognized firm Guidepost Solutions to collaborate with us in this work, and the university has acted on recommendations brought forward by SACUA’s task force on WilmerHale.

The team tasked with changing the sexual and gender-based misconduct policy provided many opportunities for all members of the campus community to provide input and feedback on our policies. This included survivors, respondents, students, faculty and staff. Our policy aligns with the many federal mandates.

For hiring and promotions into leadership positions, we’ve established a formal process that includes checking for any record of complaints or investigations with ECRT regarding all internal candidates. In addition, we check records in the staff and academic HR files and general personnel files, and obtain updated criminal background checks.  We also are examining ways to further scrutinize external candidates and ensure that information about policy violations and other misconduct is available to decision-makers and systematically considered.

ECRT tracks all reports we receive, as well as considering prior reports, when appropriate, to determine whether a pattern exists.

The full scope of feedback from the Faculty Senate’s administrator evaluation surveys is not made available to the president and provost. Only the administrator being evaluated has access to the qualitative comments.

The university gave the WilmerHale team completely unfettered access to every email message and every document they requested as part of their investigation and placed no limits on their review. As to the 2004 employment litigation involving Martin Philbert, the independent report states: “The litigation record – including the testimony of multiple witnesses – included no evidence that Philbert had had a relationship with a female lab employee. We did not identify any additional evidence that the President or the University should have considered, or any further steps that should have been taken in response to the information President Schlissel learned.”

Motion 5: Instructors who care for children

It is university policy that “supervisors are encouraged to accommodate the child care and family care needs of staff members, to the extent possible and consistent with the operating requirements of the unit, by adjusting work schedules and starting and quitting times.”

As noted above, pedagogical considerations and programmatic needs are the primary drivers of school and college decisions about course modalities, recognizing that the university was returning to a primarily residential experience for its students.

The university has created time-off banks for COVID-19 related absences, and this includes dependent care. University Human Resources also created a chart to help faculty and staff navigate which forms of paid time off are best to use in different scenarios. We continue to explore other options for how to better support faculty who have parenting responsibilities.

Provost Collins and I have both emphasized that we’re a residential university, and it’s important to transition back to the general expectation that instructors be available for on-campus engagement – of course while continuing to follow U-M policies and procedures for those instructors with special health needs.

Thank you for your engagement in the governance of our university, and for your tireless efforts on behalf of our students and mission.


Mark S. Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D.