Paul L. Caron

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Michigan: A Dystopian Delta University

Chronicle of Higher Education:  The Dystopian Delta University, by Silke-Maria Weineck (Michigan):

Michigan LogoOrgan loss, cancer, pregnancy — at Michigan, in-person teaching exemptions are hard to come by.

Joy is everywhere,” our chief health officer intones in an online Covid briefing. “I actually can see joy,” our president says. “So much excitement, so much energy, joy,” affirms the vice president for student life. We’re back to in-person teaching at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Elsewhere on campus, we hear, a professor who can work for four hours on a good day — as long as she does so lying down —wonders if life will ever be the same. She suffers from long Covid, which creates a frightening mix of unpredictable and debilitating symptoms. A faculty member reports being in the throes of a panic attack; another vomiting from stress. Migraines swell. Professors are deeply worried about their unvaccinated children. Some are pregnant and are following reports that, if they catch Covid, they are at increased risk for severe illness, pre-term birth, and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “other poor pregnancy outcomes.” One has lost four organs to cancer. Another one is still undergoing chemotherapy; her vaccination failed to give her any protection. A professor in his 70s, with long-term and serious health complications, checks his email. All of them tell us they got the same message: Their request to either teach remotely or to go on medical leave has been denied by “Work Connections.”

So much joy.

My colleagues Rebekah Modrak, Michael Atzmon, and I have been collecting these stories here at the University of Michigan, where the fetishization of “the normal” steamrolls the most vulnerable among us — in the midst of the fourth wave of a pandemic that has killed one in 500 Americans. ...

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.

Ostensibly, they assist faculty and staff who fall too ill to work or to work full time, though I cannot recall a single helpful thing they did for me when I had to go on medical leave a few years back. Their greatest power right now is the power to “validate” your medical concerns if you say you need to teach remotely to remain safe or to keep the ones you love safe. Mostly, though, they invalidate. ...

[W]e 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.”

The analogy is, of course, an embarrassment. The university doesn’t force folks to drive if they’d rather take the bus. Car crashes killed 38,680 people in the U.S. last year — while Covid killed 375,000. Many faculty can easily teach and serve their community online. Telling a cancer patient to teach in person is like telling her to drive a car without seatbelts and with rotten brakes. ...

There is a famous economics paper, “Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange,” that explains how when employers treat employees better than they absolutely have to, their employees will reciprocate. (Possibly we didn’t need a Nobel-winning economist to explain that.) They will also be happier. They will feel as if their institution does not simply talk about equity but actually seeks to ensure it. Such an institution would not inflict abject fear on some of its workers. It would trust them when they say what they need to thrive.

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