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The corporatized university and COVID

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This story from the Chronicle of Higher Education about COVID policies at the University of Michigan captures so much about what is wrong with the contemporary American research university in one Kafkaesque little nutshell:

I teared up when I first met my students on a Monday morning in late August. There it was, the magic of the college classroom, which I had taken for granted in the past. We had lobbied hard for a vaccination and masking mandate, and we got one. So although 18 percent of staff and 5 percent of students and faculty remain unvaccinated, most of us feel reasonably safe — at least those of us who are healthy, whose family members aren’t vulnerable, who don’t have children at home too young to be vaccinated, who don’t suffer from crippling anxiety.

Those not so lucky find themselves subject to the regime of Work Connections, described on its website as “an integrated disability management program developed by the University of Michigan to help employees and supervisors when an employee experiences an injury or illness that prevents working.” Work Connections is the kind of middle-management unit nobody knows about until they have to. You would expect to find them under HR, but they report to the director of enterprise strategic risk management, who reports to the chief financial officer. You might call it the Deep University.

The fine folks at Work Connections believe that the ability to work is, as it were, a kind of freedom:


Work Connections employs the kind of chipper corporate prose that has spread over our world like a word fungus. “Getting back to work quickly is good for you,” the website informs us in bold-face type. “We know, without question, that the sooner an employee returns to work the better their recovery is going to be,’ says Kate.” Kate is Kathleen Rychlinski, assistant director of Risk Management Services, director of Work Connections. This passage is so obviously false it does not even rise to the level of a lie. It is, in Harry Frankfurt’s technical philosophical term, bullshit. It reminds me of the old German farmer’s joke: “Just when I had the donkey to the point it didn’t need any food, it died on me.”

You would think that an institution that contains within itself one of the world’s leading medical schools would rely on that source of expertise for decisions on who should get exceptions to the in-person teaching requirement, rather than turfing those decisions out to an anonymous middle management administrative bureaucratic unit. I mean you would think that if you knew nothing about contemporary American universities:

Those who seek assistance are often struck by Working Connections’s apparent habit of questioning the expertise of the physicians who have endorsed accommodation or leave requests, most of whom work for our very own medical system. You’d think if you had a world-class medical school, you wouldn’t empower a case manager in financial risk management to overrule renowned experts in their field. But risk management is rarely concerned with the risk to you, and we have a Republican Legislature to appease. A colleague who was turned down writes, “It was clear that WC had been instructed to decline anything but the most dire conditions such as having had a stem cell transplant.”

Meanwhile, Michigan’s president (a medical school professor!) points out that hey driving is dangerous too:


We are told to get comfortable with risk here at the University of Michigan. “Everything each of us does involves a certain level of risk,” President Mark Schlissel writes in response to a faculty petition that asks for greater flexibility, support for parents, better response metrics, a plan for when things go south. “Every day, we calculate the level of risk we are willing to accept balanced against the importance of the task at hand. We all recognize the risk of auto crashes, yet most of us accept that risk by driving to campus each day to teach, serve others, or help patients heal.”

Forcing an immunocompromised faculty member to teach in-person when it’s impossible to know which of your students have COVID (see the rest of the story) is really very much like driving to work when you think about it, if you think about it the way a top university administrator thinks about things, which is exactly the way a top corporate manager thinks about things. Which is kind of a problem!

Is there an app? Oh there’s an app:

“The classroom,” our president writes to us, “is perhaps the safest place to be.” I get a text from a student who is worried about his teacher, who is sitting next to another student hacking thick phlegm into his thin bandana. The teacher looks worried and once again reminds everybody to please fill in their ResponsiBLUE before coming to class.

ResponsiBLUE is an app we are meant to consult every day before we go to campus. It asks us, among other things, if we have a “new cough,” and if we say yes, the app goes red and we are told not to go to campus. But nobody checks if you did your ResponsiBLUE, and nobody can check if you lied on it. Instructors aren’t sure if they can kick coughing students out of class. It’s an awkward thing to do, particularly if you don’t have tenure and need good student evaluations.

My favorite part of ResponsiBLUE is when it asks: “Have you had close contact in the last 14 days with someone recently diagnosed with Covid-19? If you are fully vaccinated, answer No.” So if that student who sat next to you and coughed into his single layer fabric mask for an hour is carted off to quarantine housing the next day, you were not, it turns out, in close contact with him, as long as you’re fully vaccinated — like the 28 percent of Covid patients in Michigan hospitals, like the 15 percent of our dead.

As I write this, a colleague texts to say she tested positive, despite her N95 mask. The moment she reports her positive test to University Health Services, she gets an automated email from [email protected], informing her that Work Connections has assigned a case worker to her. But why would a faculty member who tests positive automatically get a case worker from a unit that describes its services as “voluntary”? There is an uneditable attachment that is marked as a “claim submission form.” It declares her illness to be not “work-related” and, just to make sure, repeats, under “Nature of Loss,” “Non-Work Related Injury/Illness.” The bottom reads: “I certify that this information is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge or accurately reflects information provided to me.” But she did not say that her illness isn’t work-related; she is certain that it is. She wasn’t even asked the question. She pushes back and gets another email. Her infection is now coded as work-related.

Susan Collins, the provost, [Ed: salary $522,518] says: “We are not seeing transmission in our classrooms.” And how could we? As our app makes clear, it is impossible to be exposed at all. Until recently, students got a notification if a fellow student in one of their classes was infected. There were complaints that the notification didn’t specify the class in question — was it the one in the crammed windowless little basement classroom, for instance? The university took the complaints to heart — and stopped sending notifications at all. You do save on testing that way. One colleague tells us she has three students infected in a class of 27, with two more too sick to be tested. Another one has four positives in her class; going rogue, she has taken it online without authorization. A junior colleague in one of my departments lost three of her 17 students to isolation or quarantine in the first week.

By the way Michigan’s endowment is at the moment hovering around a mere $13 billion (it was $115 million when I graduated 40 years ago — that’s less than one percent of $13 billion for you MSU grads), which means among other things I don’t for a second buy any of the stuff in this story about how all these decisions are being driven by having to appease the Republican legislature or it will “slash” funding. I mean I’m sure the legislature is terrible, but state appropriations account for 4% of UM’s total operating budget these days, so how much “slashing” can even take place, assuming the legislature would get mad if the university’s administration allowed people who have medical reasons for wanting to teach remotely to do so, which seems like a wild stretch to begin with?

The problem here is that when you run a university like a business, it turns into a business, and a university is not a business. That’s something that should be fairly clear to those who went to one, assuming it did its job.

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