Schlissel faces no-confidence vote from UM faculty senate

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A day after University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel acknowledged mistakes in planning the school's reopening amid COVID-19 and said he could feel an erosion of trust in him, the university's faculty senate plans to take a no-confidence vote in him.

The resolution, among several to be taken up at a 3 p.m. meeting Wednesday, faults the UM leader for the university's response to the pandemic and for his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against former Provost Martin Philbert, "who was dismissed for sexual misconduct that was known to members of the university community for decades," according to the resolution of no-confidence.

The resolution also says he "has yet to produce a model, analysis, or scientific data predicting the risk levels for the Fall 2020 reopening plans," that he ignored recommendations for ensuring a safe return to campus and did not respond to "grave concerns" expressed by students and faculty.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

It also says Schlissel "failed to properly and effectively address reports of Martin Philbert’s misconduct, despite the university receiving information 'various times over the course of more than 15 years, including during key periods when he was under consideration and later selected for senior positions within the university.'"

UM Music Professor Colleen Conway, chairwoman of the Senate Assembly and Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, could not be reached Tuesday. But she told the UM student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, that the vote is "unprecedented."

Exactly how it will impact the president and the administration is unclear. Annalisa Manera, a UM professor of nuclear engineering, said the faculty senate has no power, but a vote will send a message.

"It's up to the Regents to decide if they want to do anything with it," said Manera, vice chairwoman of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. "The faculty wants to send a clear message about how things are being handled."

The planned vote also includes a vote of no confidence in the administration for numerous reasons, including the Ethics and Privacy Committee appointed by Schlissel said the reopening plan does not meet “the reasonable standard for safety recommended by our report,” and students, staff and faculty do not feel safe, according to the resolution.

"The faculty of the University of Michigan has lost trust in the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis," the resolution said.

The looming vote comes as a number of issues have collided at UM.

The university's Graduate Employees’ Organization is striking for a second week; 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 the allegations against Philbert.

"President Schlissel failed to properly and effectively address reports of Martin

Philbert’s misconduct, despite the university receiving information various times over the course of more than 15 years, including during key periods when he was under consideration and later selected for senior positions within the university," the faculty senate resolution says.

Manera said there are other issues at stake, ranging from allowing graduate students to opt out of in-person teaching, to transparency around the return to campus, to the handling of Philbert.

The GEO has chosen to strike, Manera said. The vote is their way of expressing frustration with the university, she said.

More will be heard during the afternoon meeting, she said, when people will speak in favor or against proposed motions before a vote is taken.

"The University of Michigan is not in its own bubble," Manera said. "There has been a loss of trust in the administration over the COVID crisis. This is why people have submitted these motions."

Schlissel apologized last month for the university's handling of allegations against Philbert, which included instances of sexual harassment and multiple sexual relationships within the UM community for most of Philbert's 25-year tenure as a professor. The findings were detailed in a 94-page investigative report issued by the WilmerHale law firm.

Schlissel, who became president in 2014, named Philbert provost in 2017.

In his comments Tuesday during a live-streamed conversation with Provost Susan Collins, Schlissel said the university's reopening plan was focused on upholding the school's mission with the least amount of risk.

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."

UM reopened with a mixture of in-person and remote classes, with 78% of credits this fall being taught online. As of Tuesday, the university had tested 13,520 people for COVID since March 8, with 386 positive tests.

That includes 63 positive tests in the previous 14 days, according to UM's online COVID-19 dashboard.

The discussion with Schlissel and Collins, which was addressed to the campus community, 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."

Schlissel added 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," Collins said. "It's not excusable that any of the 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.