U-M President Schlissel on Equity, Online Education in COVID-19 World


The global disruption that the coronavirus pandemic has already created is having an impact on colleges across the nation, which are shifting to remote learning for students to continue to access higher education. In Michigan, which is one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus, the challenge is even greater for public universities facing a looming financial crisis because of the pandemic.

The question remains: how will students from low-income backgrounds fare in this crisis and beyond?

We turn to Mark S. Schlissel, the 14th president of the University of Michigan, which is ranked the top public university in America to answer our question about the economic consequences and more.  In this Q&A interview with journalist Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, Schlissel, the first physician-scientist to lead U-M talks about how the university is responding to the pandemic as well as the future of research in public health.

PULSE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued specific guidelines for institutions of higher learning in the era of COVID-19. Among them is the preparation for digital and distance learning. Is this a difficult transition for the University of Michigan?

MARK SCHLISSEL: It’s been a bit difficult culturally because in-person education is the heart and soul of a University of Michigan education. I’m impressed by how our faculty have risen to the challenge of moving to remote instruction so quickly. It’s a testament to their commitment to quality teaching.  That said, for a number of years we’ve been experimenting with ways to conduct online education through our Academic Innovation Initiative, and we’re learning how to make on-campus teaching better through the use of some online content – so called “blended education.”  Also, we are one of the largest purveyors of free online academic content through Coursera. We’ve taken advantage of that previous experience to inform what we’ve been doing during the pandemic.

PULSE: What does the future of learning look like in post-COVID-19?  

MARK SCHLISSEL: I think we will retain the residential higher education model because of the high value we place on the face-to-face learning environment. I’m sure we will also learn some things from the COVID-19 crisis that will make in-person education even better. 

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel speaking at The PuLSE Institute CEO Forum on Poverty Series on June 10, 2019 at the Colony Club in downtown Detroit. Schlissel, who spoke about the university’s commitment to fight poverty, was joined by Cynthia J. Pasky, president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions and Daniel J. Loepp, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and Detroit News opinion columnist is the forum series moderator. PULSE/photo.

PULSE: Has this virus disrupted the promise of access to higher education as well as the future of equity and diversity in post-COVID 19?

MARK SCHLISSEL: This has been a major disruption in our lives overall, including in higher education. We have worked – and succeeded – at making our education available remotely to eliminate the disruption for students on our campus. Very early in the crisis, even before it was declared a pandemic, U-M shared a range of digital tools to promote quality teaching and learning. But this pandemic has also affected our economy and the financial security of families, and so it’s especially important that we continue to offer programs like the Go Blue Guarantee, which offers four years of free tuition to in-state students whose families make $65,000 or less. And we expect that our students will have greater need for financial aid programs because of the effects of the pandemic on their families – and we’re prepared to offer that support. We’ll continue to identify talented hard-working students from all backgrounds, and endeavor to build a diverse learning community and make a U-M degree accessible to all who are admitted to our institution, regardless of their financial circumstances.

PULSE: What is being done to help students who are facing severe challenges during this pandemic?

MARK SCHLISSEL: Emergency Financial Assistance for students is being provided from the Dean of Students Office. DOS staff have been assisting students with a wide array of financial and other support needs including: referrals to health and wellbeing resources, referrals to academic support,  assistance with finding temporary and long term housing, and referrals for academic accommodations. Extended housing stay is being made available for those students who remained on campus winter term who are yet unable to return home. U-M’s campus-based food pantry, the Maize and Blue Cupboard through MDining, is currently open seven days a week to provide food and other personal item resources for students who may be experiencing food insecurity or be unable to access grocery stores or shop for personal items at this time. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provides tele-counseling and offers an array of other on-line mental health support. 

The University Career Center, Students with Disabilities, Wolverine Wellness and the International Center are all offering virtual support services. Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, Center for Campus Involvement, Ginsberg Center, Intergroup Relations, and other units engaged in student engagement and learning initiatives have mounted programs, events, and resources that have kept students engaged in their co-curricular development and student group involvement while remote. The Spectrum Center is providing virtual support services for LGBTQ identified students, as the transition back home can have unique challenges.

PULSE: The university announced recently that it is launching a variety of studies to understand the global pandemic. How does post-COVID 19 alter research at the university?

MARK SCHLISSEL: Many of our scholars are engaged in using their expertise to help treat patients affected by this virus, advance our understanding about COVID-19 and help our government officials make good policy decisions to keep people safe. Our scholars are also using their expertise to weigh in on important matters such as public health, the economy, public policy and health care during this pandemic. One example: Scientists at U-M are using artificial intelligence to identify a drug previously approved by the FDA—or more likely, a cocktail of several drugs—that could be used against COVID-19. It’s also important to note that many of our researchers have already published work that can inform society’s response to the crisis, including analyses of nursing home preparedness and social distancing using cell phone records.

Finally, faculty from our School of Public Health are advising Governor Whitmer about how to safely reactivate the Michigan economy after her Stay Home, Stay Healthy order expires. On our own campus, we’re planning to ensure that we can continue to conduct research safely in a time of social distancing.

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