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UM faculty senate splits in no-confidence vote on Schlissel

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan faculty is divided on the performance of President Mark Schlissel in the wake of students' return to campus amid COVID-19 pandemic, sexual misconduct scandals and numerous other issues.

On Wednesday, the UM Faculty Senate took a vote of no confidence in Schlissel — but faculty leaders are seeking a legal opinion as to whether the vote passed or failed.

The vote was 957 in favor and 953 against, with 184 abstentions.

Professor David Potter, the interim senate secretary, announced the vote had failed to pass during a virtual meeting. He factored in the total number of votes cast and said that more than half did not vote for no confidence.  But Professor Colleen Conway, the senate chair, did not call the vote one way or another.

Some questioned whether Potter should have included absentee votes, and that is why Conway will seek a legal opinion.

There will be a sentiment ballot for those who could not be at the meeting, but the faculty senate's bylaws only allow votes that occur in meetings.

Annalisa Manera, a UM professor of nuclear engineering, said she is not sure it really matters.

"What really matters is the faculty are split," said Manera, vice chairwoman of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs. "There is a big chunk of the faculty that has mistrust in Schlissel."

And another big chunk that does not.

Conway added that it is key that everyone comes together.

"We are in the middle of a pandemic and we need to respond to everything," said Conway. "The more opportunities to have shared voices and shared decisions, the better."

At the beginning of the meeting, Schlissel addressed the faculty senate, saying it was important to talk about issues, even if they are uncomfortable.

"Criticisms and challenges are qualities that make universities great," Schlissel said. "They also provide an opportunity to create solutions that benefit from multiple perspectives. We can and must work together."

After the vote, UM spokesman Rick FItzgerald said Schlissel and his executive team will consider the votes cast, which are advisory in nature.

"President Schlissel already has committed to increasing his engagement with the faculty across all of our 19 schools and colleges," said Fitzgerald. "He and Provost Susan Collins also have committed to engaging the entire community on the topic of policing so that UM and our Division of Public Safety and Security can be a national leader on campus safety."

Early in the meeting, a vote of no confidence in the administration's reopening plan failed, 915 in favor and 991 against, with 198 abstentions. 

UM President Mark Schlissel

"What a shame for our campus and the Ann Arbor community," tweeted UM's Graduate Employees’ Organization, which has been on strike for two weeks.

The unprecedented votes came after tensions escalated between administrators, students, staff and faculty amid the return to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graduate student instructors and resident advisers are on strike and faculty expressed concerns about safety, transparency. The handling of sexual misconduct allegations against former Provost Martin Philbert is also a key concern. Other faculty said they have been appalled at the court intervention sought by the administrators in the strike.

Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German studies and comparative literature, said before the meeting, "There is so much going on it’s hard to keep track. It’s like the Trump presidency."

Weineck, who proposed the motion for a vote of no confidence in the administration, said during her 22-year career has she not seen UM in such deep anguish.

"President Schlissel has finally admitted that the university was ill-prepared for this term," she said. "We must adjust our course. Unlike our peer institutions, we did not secure sufficient testing capabilities, we did not create humane quarantine conditions, we only tested about a third of our students before they arrived in town.

"We have failed to get to even 3,000 tests a week so far. Now, we hear, we’re shooting for 6,000 a week by the end of September. Enough."

She said that UM performed 2,011 COVID-19 tests and the positivity rate was 2.1% last week. By contrast, the University of Illinois performed 54,788 tests, with a positivity rate of .57%.  

"Are we doing better, as Mark Schlissel implied? Are we doing worse?" Weineck said. "Experts tell me we actually don’t know. Our test numbers are too small to tell, and our dashboard mingles symptomatic and surveillance testing, and our opt-in surveillance scheme further skews the data. But at least our football players will get tested daily — unlike our resident advisers."

Meanwhile, she said reports have emerged that some students with symptoms don’t go to UM to be tested because they don’t want to be housed with roaches in Northwood apartments, where students with the virus are quarantined.

But speaking against the motion was David Wright, an associate professor of accounting in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

"The are anxious times in the world, and of course within the university," said Wright.

He said he has been impressed with the policies, procedures and protocols in the business school. Faculty has been polled numerous times on ourselves at elevated risk and our personal preferences regarding teaching in person, remotely or hybrid. UM has been respectful, and transparent, he said.

"It would be foolish to say I have no concerns," Wright said. "But under the circumstances, I am very pleased with all the mitigating protocols we have in place."