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UM President Talks Academics & Athletics As Classes Begin In Second Academic Year In A Pandemic

University of Michigan

University of Michigan president Dr. Mark Schlissel says this is the first global pandemic of the modern biomedical age, and we're learning and making history as we go.

He talks with WEMU's Lisa Barry about the new academic year now getting underway and says everything involving campus life and university athletics "will be as safe as possible" as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.


Lisa Barry: [00:00:00] It's back to school time for local school districts and universities. I'm Lisa Barry, and for the second year in a row, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that rite of passage won't be the same for many involved. That includes the University of Michigan, where classes begin today. And joining us to talk about that is the University of Michigan president, Dr. Mark Schlissel. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Mark Schlissel
Credit University of Michigan / umich.edu
University of Michigan president Dr. Mark Schlissel

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:00:22] Sure. Thanks very much, Lisa. Nice to talk to you.

Lisa Barry: [00:00:25] So, here we are going into the second university academic year in a pandemic. How do things look to you this year compared to last year at this time?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:00:35] Of course, it's still a really challenging time, but we're excited to begin a much more normal semester now and in the days ahead. About 93 percent of our classes will be in person. That's quite different than last year. Residence halls will be operating at near full capacity. There'll be a sense of sort of vibrancy, more of a sense of normalcy for sure, than we experienced last year. And I think it's mostly due to the effectiveness of a requirement we placed on students that they be vaccinated. And that's just going to make a big difference for us.

Lisa Barry: [00:01:11] University of Michigan has a vaccine mandate. And how well has that been received? And you feel like everyone's cooperating?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:01:18] Well, you know, interestingly, although we've been considering this for quite some time earlier in the pandemic, it was student government that passed a resolution saying, "Look, you know, you should really require this. It's really important." And then our faculty governance group really voted and overwhelmingly said the same thing. And that made it much easier to go ahead with all this internal support and begin the process of making sure that as many people as possible were vaccinated. You know, right now, 91 percent of all our students are vaccinated, and that includes almost 99 percent of everybody in our residence halls. We made it a requirement. If you're going to live in our residence hall, you have to be vaccinated. So, the students can have a more normal residential life experience. About 87 or so percent of our faculty have already documented their vaccination, and our staff are somewhere in the upper 70 percent, and we're continuing to drive this forward. So, it's been very successful, and I think it's given folks a greater degree of confidence, especially with the Delta variant circulating that they'll be as safe as they can be.

Lisa Barry: [00:02:25] So, here you are, the president of the University of Michigan. Has it been difficult to focus on academics and research, which I know is important to you when dealing with the global health crisis? I mean, where is the balance there?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:02:38] Well, you know, at our core of the reason we do all these things is so that we can maintain our outstanding educational programs and our enormous research community moving forward and then fulfilling their mission. So, I personally have been spending much more of my time managing the complexities of a pandemic. But our faculty and our students are spending their time doing their research and teaching and learning.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:06] Speaking personally, I know I like to focus on the positive. But I want to ask you, what would you say has been your most frustrating experience over this past year?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:03:16] Oh, gosh. You know, it's all very, very challenging. It's an example of having to make decisions in the setting of great uncertainty. And, as you know, the guidance we get from the federal government and from the state government changes with time. Sometimes, it appears like guidance is flip-flopping, as are sort of evidence-based of how this particular virus behaves, gets better and better. Perhaps, the most frustrating part is the shifting landscape, but that, you know, sort of comes with the territory. This is not a truly novel circumstance.

Lisa Barry: [00:03:48] Football just around the corner. It looks like athletics will be taking place this year. Do you feel confident about the health and safety of that, or is there still an element of playing it by ear due to the pandemic when it comes to athletics at U of M?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:04:02] Yeah, you know, we always have to be flexible. But I can tell you that our student athletes are almost 100 percent vaccinated. They're quite close to 100 percent. And those that aren't vaccinated aren't going to be playing or competing. And we do have exemptions, by the way, a religious exemption, a medical exemption, but the participants will be basically fully vaccinated. We have rules on our campus that include the Big House that, in indoor spaces, you have to still be masked. So, we'll require the fans have come to the stadium next weekend and beyond to be masked while they're in the restrooms, the indoor parts of the stadium, and we'll recommend that they be masked while they're in the bowl. But that won't be a requirement. And, of course, we're going to have to be flexible. If it turns out that the incidence of disease increases and we run into difficulties, we won't hesitate to pull back.

Lisa Barry: [00:04:58] There's been a lot of controversy over sexual assaults at the university--I know dating back several decades in some situations. Do you feel the culture that allowed that to happen has changed enough to move forward and that it doesn't happen again?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:05:15] You know, I wish I could say with certainty that nothing like this would ever happen again. That's certainly our goal. But I would say all across society--and you just have to open the newspaper practically every day--we get both surprised and disappointed by the way people mistreat one another. So, we've been working consistently at the university and continuously improving, not just the way we investigate and adjudicate accusations of misconduct, but how we educate people to prevent misconduct. We make it more comfortable for people to report instances, to feel protected and supported during the process. And it's an ongoing responsibility of the university. We've gotten much better at it, and we have to be humble enough to recognize that there's still always room to improve. We've been working with a very good consultancy called Guidepost that specializes on this, and they're helping us understand best practices around the country and in higher ed, but also, you know, the large businesses. So, we're committed to continuously getting better. I think the conditions now are much better than they were decades ago. And Dr. Anderson committed his acts in misconduct. But, of course, we have to be humble enough to recognize we can always get better.

Lisa Barry: [00:06:30] What can we do as students or faculty or even community members to ensure that culture does not continue as we move forward?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:06:40] That is a fantastic question. I think every one of us as individuals have to be able to look each other in the eye and say, "This will not happen at my university." And everybody has to take personal responsibility to recognize and cut off bad behavior, report bad behavior, and support one another while these difficult episodes happen. But that's a really great question.

Lisa Barry: [00:07:04] What are you looking forward to in the upcoming academic year at the University of Michigan?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:07:09] Well, I'll tell you, we had Move-in period recently, and I was outside walking along the road also on Thompson Street as students are moving into West Quad. And I saw their families and, you know, the excitement, the trepidation in parents' eyes, just the energy that comes from the campus once again being a vibrant, residential place to study and learn and grow. So, I'm really looking forward to capturing some of that student joy that I observe this week.

Lisa Barry: [00:07:39] And you feel confident that it will be safe for students, it'll be safe to attend football games. You feel everything's in place that's necessary?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:07:47] You know, I think everything will be as safe as possible. But the truth be told, as we've learned about COVID-19, even with very good vaccines, you know, this disease is going to be around. It's not going to be eradicated. So, we really have to learn to live with it. And the way to live with it is to be vaccinated. And a higher percentage of people are vaccinated, the less this thing will spread. And when you're in crowds, at least when there's a high incidence of disease to wear masks. So there are things we can do to mitigate. And the great thing about the vaccine is it is incredibly effective even against Delta and preventing hospitalization and, God forbid, deaths. So, get vaccinated, you know, be smart, but also, you know, start enjoying life. I think it's time to come out from undercover cautiously.

Lisa Barry: [00:08:35] Do you take pride in the research that's going on at your university? Are people looking into everything from--how do I say this--what we find in the sewers to at the hospital? Seems like I know they were working on a vaccine. I've spoken to some of the medical professionals.

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:08:51] There's a lot of creative things. You know, we've published over 1000 papers on COVID-19 in a year and a half, which is just an amazing focus of our research community. The monitoring of virus levels in sewage is an interesting example that lets us get an early warning about whether people who live or work in a building are showing greater frequencies of carrying the virus, and then we can go in and be more intensive than our interventions. The most cool study I heard about recently was looking at screening already approved drugs for having any activity at all to fight the virus. If you were to develop a brand new drug against COVID-19, it would take years to get for safety and approval of that drug. But what if an existing drug turns out to have activity against the virus? And there are lots of interesting examples of existing drugs being repurposed. So, we're doing a big study looking at thousands and thousands of existing drugs where we know their safety profile, looking to see what kind of activity they have against COVID. And it's interesting and exciting, and it's got some early good leads.

Lisa Barry: [00:09:56] I've been in touch with interviewed and communicated with several medical historians from the University of Michigan, and I have been told we are at the point now that we are writing new history, that we have exceeded what happened 100 years ago. Do you have any sense of that we're in the middle of making some serious history here?

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:10:14] Oh, I think, you know, for sure. Imagine what it would have been like for this new disease to burst upon the scene 50 years ago. We wouldn't have been able to identify the virus so quickly. We wouldn't have been able to develop a diagnostic test that could tell us whether someone was infected or carrying the virus. We certainly wouldn't have a vaccine inside of a year. It's just breathtaking. And we wouldn't have had this much success distributing that vaccine across the population. So, this is really the first global pandemic of the modern biomedical age, and we're learning and making history as we go.

Lisa Barry: [00:10:49] University of Michigan President Dr. Mark Schlissel. Thank you so much for talking to us here on WEMU. And best of luck in your new academic year.

Dr. Mark Schlissel: [00:10:57] Thank you so much. And be well. Bye bye. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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