U of M president under fire for homophobic comment to justify reopening plans, lack of testing

Panel created by president advised against reopening this fall

University of Michigan | Andrew Roth

During a virtual University of Michigan faculty town hall meeting earlier this month, President Mark Schlissel drew comparisons between the HIV epidemic in the 1980s to the COVID-19 outbreak as part of his reasoning for not implementing the testing measures to the extent suggested by medical experts. 

“Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security. That happened in the HIV epidemic when people got a negative test, and they presented it to their sex partners and spread the disease nonetheless,” Schlissel said on Aug. 13. 

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel | Wikimedia Commons

Leaders from U of M’s Queer Advocacy Coalition (QAC), a graduate student run organization at the School of Social Work, wrote to the president’s office Monday calling Schlissel’s comment a “bizarre and homophobic microaggression,” and said that it was “horrifying” that none of the faculty or staff members in the meeting corrected him for the statement. 

“President Schlissel’s comment implies that HIV was spread primarily by queer individuals making irresponsible decisions with their sexual health, which ignores the longer historical context and trend of marginalizing LGBTQIA+, low-income, those with mental health conditions and Black individuals in research and healthcare,” QAC leaders wrote. 

“Considering the larger context in which this comment was made, President Schlissel is scapegoating a marginalized community for the AIDS epidemic as away of justifying a reopening plan that further endangers marginalized communities.”

The president’s office did not directly respond to questions raised by the Advance, and instead shared an email sent Tuesday from Schlissel to the QAC.

In the email, Schlissel apologized for his comments and said they “were intended only as a critique of the effectiveness of massive testing of asymptomatic students for the virus that causes COVID-19 in an effort to prevent its spread.”

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“The analogy I used is not a good or fair one. In using this analogy to make my point, I unintentionally reinforced stereotypes that have been historically and unjustly assigned to the LGBTQIA+ community as well as other communities and persons affected by HIV and AIDS,” Schlissel wrote. “Again, for this I apologize, especially as it relates to groups that have been historically maligned and stereotyped. It was not my intention to disparage any community or person affected by HIV and AIDS.”

Schlissel, along with executive vice president and chief financial officer Kevin Hegarty, executive director of the Shared Services Center Pamela Gabel and executive director of University Health Services Robert Ernst, hosted the meeting to discuss the university’s plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But while Schlissel made his case about the ineffectiveness of mass testing, the University of Michigan ranks first in the state for the most COVID-19 cases and 18th in the nation with 281 confirmed cases, according to reporting by the New York Times.

Right now, the university is testing about 175,000 people per week, but Schlissel said if testing was increased to daily or every other day it would be 300,000 tests per week to test students alone.

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“Testing is part of keeping the community safe, but it’s not an essential part, and we don’t have the capacity,” Schissel said during the meeting. “And I’m not even sure I would do it if somebody plopped all those tests on my desk.”

The university is sticking with its plans to offer in-person classes this fall semester, which begins on Monday, but Schlissel said about 70% of student credit hours will be fully online.

Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University both announced all classes will be done online after watching outbreaks pop up connected to students’ return to campuses across the country and ultimately decided that the universities aren’t ready to handle an outbreak.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill became a cautionary tale after starting in-person classes on Aug. 10. By Aug. 17, the school closed down and all classes were moved online after a large outbreak was traced back to the university. According to data from UNC, nearly 650 students and faculty tested positive with COVID-19 since the first day of classes.

In Michigan, Central Michigan University saw an outbreak of its own with 38 coronavirus cases reported Saturday linked to students’ return to campus. 

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COVID-19 committee’s advice ignored 

Schlissel established a number of committees to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and plan for the fall semester. But now some committee members say the concerns they raised were ignored by the university. 

One of the committees Schlissel created in April was the Ethics and Privacy Committee to work on plans for the “re-opening of functions of the University of Michigan campuses” after the university closed during the first wave of coronavirus cases hit the state. 

During that time, Schlissel stated that the ability to test students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 and antibodies “will be critical for our ability to use public health interventions to block transmission of the disease until there is a vaccine or effective treatment.” 

The committee was asked “to advise [Schlissel] and other campus leaders on the ethical and privacy issues that might result from the large scale application of these clinical tests across campus.”

On June 8, the committee released its mandated report of “ethical risks” for assessing policies for reopening the University for on-campus instruction and housing.

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However, the committee did not believe that the university took the advice provided in the report when creating the fall semester reopening plans. 

The committee wrote to Schlissel in a July 31 letter, which the Advance obtained, that they were concerned “the current plans for Fall 2020 will not meet the reasonable standard for safety recommended by our report, that good alternatives exist and that it is not too late to pursue them.”

The letter states that closing the campus due to a surge of COVID-19 cases after reopening for the fall could be harmful to the university’s faculty, staff and students and the surrounding communities, especially for communities of color and other vulnerable populations, which have disproportionately suffered and died from COVID-19.

“The question now is: Given the current incomplete control of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US and globally, would concentrating some 45,000 students in Ann Arbor from across the U.S. and around the world run a significant risk of not meeting this safety standard–and is there a way of avoiding this without compromising vital academic and social interests,” the committee members wrote. “Accumulating evidence now suggests there is such a risk of creating a new ‘hot spot’ of viral infection within the University and the surrounding community, which would inflict considerable — in some cases grave — harm.”

U of M did not return a request for comment.