Michigan's college towns are quieter this spring than they would be in a normal year. As University of Michigan students and faculty wrap up another COVID-19 semester, UM President Mark Schlissel hopes the fall will bring impressive vaccination rates and the return of an ebullient campus.
The pandemic school year
“We’ve had to learn as we go. We’ve had to rely, of course, on our experts, but also bring our community along. We’ve had to approach this with really great humility,” Schissel said. “I wish we had ramped up our testing program earlier. Early on, we were using Michigan Medicine, our own major healthcare system, but they really weren't set up to ramp up and do massive surveillance testing on a major college campus.”
Gov. Whitmer's handling of the crisis
“One thing I’ve learned is not to second guess well-intentioned, hardworking, serious data driven leaders like the governor because until you sit in their chair, you really don’t know all the various inputs that a leader has to balance,” Schlissel said. “I’d say even when our state was under very stringent regulation, with a state of 10 million people, it always comes down to personal responsibility.”
Vaccinations for students
Schlissel says dozens of universities across the country have decided to require students to be vaccinated before returning in the fall, but UM has yet to announce a decision.
“I’m optimistic that a very high number of students will be vaccinated before the fall semester. We are discussing and considering whether to mandate vaccination,” Schlissel said. “It’s complicated, we want to be sure that we make good, consistent decisions and strike all the right balances, so we’ll probably have more to say about that in the days and weeks to come.”
A return to normal
One of the things that makes college such a memorable experience is the social connections forged in person, says Schlissel, and without that there is a “lack of joy” on campus. However, he sees a more hopeful, in-person fall semester ahead. Schlissel, who used to run an immunology research lab, says the pandemic’s dark shadow has illuminated one key facet of this research university’s mission.
“The University of Michigan has been here for 200 years, if nothing else, the pandemic has proven the importance of education and research,” Schlissel said. “It’s research that has allowed us to overcome a global pandemic, or make significant progress in less than a year. Imagine if this were 50 or 60 years ago. We would not have known what the virus was, we wouldn’t have sequenced its genome, we wouldn't have a diagnostic test, and we certainly wouldn’t have a vaccine in less than a year. So, this mission of the University is critical.”
This article was written by Stateside Production Assistant Olive Scott.
Editor's note: U of M holds Michigan Radio's license.