Education

Michigan faculty approves motions on COVID, sexual misconduct

The Faculty Senate at the University of Michigan has approved five different motions calling for changes in the university’s COVID-19 protocols — including its handling of requests to teach and work remotely — and policies for preventing and addressing sexual misconduct.

Voting on the motions was occurring even as Dr. Mark S. Schlissel announced plans Tuesday to step down from the presidency in 2023, one year earlier than the end of his contractual term, amid tensions with the Board of Regents and faculty. The Faculty Senate narrowly voted no confidence in Schlissel’s leadership last year.

Allen Liu, chair of the Faculty Senate and an associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, said there appears to be a lot of distress among faculty members about the administration and especially its handling of the case of former provost Martin Philbert, who was elevated to the position as Michigan’s chief academic officer despite what an independent investigation found to be a two-decade-long history of sexual misconduct allegations.

“There’s a general sense among some that there is not a great amount of transparency when it comes to decision making,” Liu said.

All tenured and tenure-track faculty at Michigan are members of the Faculty Senate, whose motions are advisory and nonbinding. Still, the passage of the various motions, with the support of the majority of faculty members who voted, speaks to the level of their discontent with the administration’s leadership on public health precautions and sexual misconduct on campus.

Rick Fitzgerald, a university spokesman, said in response to the motions that Schlissel and his leadership team “greatly appreciate the broad engagement and collaboration from so many of our faculty members, especially those who helped to plan for the return to in-person instruction this fall.”

Schlissel “continues to consult with members of the faculty related to the university’s COVID response and many other matters,” Fitzgerald said.

The first motion raised concerns about denials of requests to work remotely from faculty members who have a medical need to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic. The motion also called for reform of the university unit charged with evaluating such requests.

Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German studies and comparative literature who sponsored the motion, said she and two other professors spoke with 17 colleagues whose requests to teach remotely were denied.

“Many of their stories were completely horrifying,” she said while presenting the motion during a Faculty Senate meeting Monday. “There was someone who had already lost four organs to cancer; another one is currently in chemotherapy, a colleague in his 70s with high vulnerability beyond his age, several suffering from long COVID with terrifying unpredictable symptoms that left them completely depleted.”

According to data provided to the Faculty Senate by Schlissel, the university received 28 “formal requests” from faculty to teach remotely. Four of the 28 were “medically supported by Work Connections as needing some enhanced accommodations.” Two were submitted with no supporting medical documentation, one was withdrawn and one 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,” Schlissel wrote in an email to Senate members sent in advance of the votes.

The denial of accommodations requests for faculty who want to teach remotely has been an issue at a number of universities across the country. At one point, Cornell University said it would not entertain any such requests, even those made on disability-related grounds, a stance it subsequently softened. Kutztown University in Pennsylvania denied all four requests for remote teaching accommodations it received, including from a professor who recently received a heart transplant and is on immune-suppressing drugs.

Two of the other three motions approved by the Michigan Faculty Senate also dealt with faculty flexibility to teach remotely. One asserted the right of faculty to choose their modality of instruction. The other called on the university to provide instructors and staff who care for young children with the option to move their teaching or work online if their children cannot attend school in person.

A fourth COVID-related motion called for changes to COVID-19 contact tracing and notification protocols and for increasing the frequency of COVID testing.

Michigan, which requires vaccination against COVID-19 for students and employees and reports a student vaccination rate of around 96 percent, mandates weekly testing of unvaccinated individuals. The Faculty Senate resolution calls for twice-weekly testing of unvaccinated students, faculty and staff and weekly testing of vaccinated individuals.

The final motion, which faulted the administration’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints and called for a number of specific changes, passed by the largest margin, with 701 in favor, 243 in opposition and 134 abstentions.

The administration has made changes to its sexual misconduct policies in recent months, but advocates for the resolution argued those changes wouldn’t have prevented the reported harassment and abuse by Philbert because administrators did not act on earlier complaints about his behavior. The external investigation identified numerous instances when university personnel “received information about Philbert’s sexually harassing conduct” dating back to 2003. Philbert was removed from his position as provost in 2020.

“Here’s what would have prevented Philbert,” said Rebekah Modrak, a professor at the Stamps School of Art, who presented the motion. “One, search committee members signing a statement that they’ve disclosed knowledge of sexual misconduct allegations to fellow committee members. Two, chairs and deans explaining in writing why discipline was or was not imposed after sexual misconduct has been brought to their attention. Three, the OIE [Office of Institutional Equity] referencing all prior reports while investigating to discover patterns of misconduct. Four, the formation of a committee of survivors willing to serve as well as informed faculty and staff to recommend policies.”

“We need to develop survivor-centric policies to remove predators from campus the first time an assault occurs, not the eighth time, the 21st time or the 900th time,” Modrak said.

Weineck, the sponsor of the motion on medical accommodations for faculty who want to teach remotely, described the passage of all five of the motions as the “strongest repudiation of the Schlissel era I’ve seen to date.”

Michael Atzmon, a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences who sponsored the motion on COVID testing and contact tracing, said he was “a bit surprised that some colleagues opposed these motions,” even the motion on sexual misconduct. But he said he was “very encouraged by the clear majority that voted in favor of each.”

Schlissel responded to each motion individually in the email to faculty in advance of the votes. He said that the COVID-19 situation is improving on campus, with cases “steadily declining.” And he defended the decision to bring professors back to the classroom, saying that students’ preference is for in-person teaching.

“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,” he wrote.

Schlissel also said the university “has made transformative changes to how we prevent and address sexual and gender-based misconduct.” He specifically cited a new policy prohibiting most supervisor-employee relationships, a new policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct that took effect Oct. 1, and creation of a new Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (ECRT), among other steps.

“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,” Schlissel said. “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.”

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