Another campus announces a mixed fall term: the University of Michigan

UM sign _Ken LundAnother major American university announced its fall plans.  This time it’s the University of Michigan, and that institution is opting for a combination of in-person and online education.

First I’ll explore the announcement (the “CAMPUS MAIZE & BLUEPRINT”), then I’ll connect it with some other themes.

In full disclosure: I have three degrees from Michigan.  Met my wife and had our first children there.  So I may have some biases, not to mention heaps of nostalgia.

The announcement

According to president Mark S. Schlissel, fall 2020 is going to be a mix of in-person and online classes for the Ann Arbor campus.  That is, it will neither be wholly online nor entirely face-to-face, but a hybrid, driven at least in part by student choice:

Courses will be offered in formats that include in-person, remote and mixed instruction depending on curricular needs…

Although not all courses will be available in every format, most students will be able to choose whether to return to Ann Arbor for a hybrid learning experience or study from home in a fully remote mode…

Students aren’t the only ones with decision making power on this score.  It seems that faculty and staff as well can choose to work remotely: “We’re continuing to develop plans to protect vulnerable members of our community – and will encourage students and employees with high levels of risk to teach, learn and support our mission remotely.”

(That is, if I read “employees” correctly as “faculty and staff.”  However, the next sentence might mitigate that interpretation, or at least suggest a world of unfolding micropolitical struggle: “Schools, colleges and units will work with individuals to every extent possible to address their concerns.”  “possible” does a lot of work there.)

The hybrid model is so time-consuming, so resource-demanding, so onerous, and possibly so dangerous that Michigan decided not to host a presidential debate this October.

The announcement has an important detail about class scale, setting up three tiers based on size:

Generally, large classes will be held remotely, small classes will be held in person, and medium-size classes will be a hybrid of the two. This and other means can be used to diminish classroom density.

UM Fishbowl full of computers_Carl BErger

I spent an awful lot of time working on old Apple computers here in the 1990s.

In person classes will end with Thanksgiving, following a national pattern.

The university offers a range of support services, along the lines we’ve seen from other campuses of late:

We will provide support for our public health-informed semester through several of our central resources for students or faculty, including our Center for Research on Learning and TeachingCenter for Academic InnovationServices for Students with Disabilities, and Information and Technology Services. For faculty, this includes course design assistance and recommendations, workshops, help with creating instructional communities, and additional programs that support the quality of a U-M education…

Michigan Housing will set aside living spaces to quarantine and care for those with significant exposures to others diagnosed with COVID-19, as well, to isolate those diagnosed with this infection who cannot return home to recuperate.

The statement lists a battery of public health measures familiar to anyone following this story for the past month:

Our plan to conduct an in-person semester relies on basic public health strategies including social distancing, minimizing out-of-area travel, wearing face coverings, washing hands frequently, symptom screening, clinical testing, contact tracing and quarantine that add up to a highly effective way to limit spread of this illness, allowing students to pursue their Michigan education.

In terms of governance, it looks like a fairly decentralized plan: “Decisions about which courses and sections to offer in which formats will be made by schools, colleges and departments to fulfill their unique educational needs.”

There is a lot of conditional and hedging language in the statement.   For example, this admission that plans are open to revision:

Please note, however, that major changes in conditions could mean we have to adjust parts of our plan. We will remain agile and ready to adapt as needed because we have seen how quickly circumstances can change.

Left unsaid: the fate of Michigan football, one of the very few university sports teams that actually makes serious money.

What does this mean for the rest of us?

UM is a huge, wealthy, and elite institution, but, like Harvard, it is just one of more than 4,000 American colleges and universities.  What does its planning mean for the rest of academia?

It embodies trends I’ve been tracking.  To begin with, it’s another hybrid of the Post-Pandemic Campus and COVID Fall scenarios (click through if you’re unfamiliar with them). I traced some examples of this hybrid recently.  Strategically, a hybrid can make a lot of sense.  It reduces chances of infection by lowering the in-person population density, while improving enrollment numbers by appealing to those who really want to be on site.

There is also a nod to a possible Toggle Term scenario in that hedging statement.  U of M attracts students (and faculty and staff) from around the world, which opens up all kinds of pandemic possibilities.  There is also the possibility of local infections spreading from across the state of Michigan, or from Ohio.  Consider today’s county-level snapshot, with hotspots to the west and south (New York Times):

coronavirus Michigan spread by county 2020 June 23_NYT

Or perhaps the Detroit area will flare up again.  Once an infection takes hold and spreads, even through a relatively low density population, it might be a good time to throw the switch.

On the class scale system: this recalls what we’ve seen from Penn State and Rice but with a third layer.  I think many campuses are working through this now, trying to pick levels beyond which online online is best.

Overall, these trends seem to be rising.  They have limits, of course.  The overwhelming majority of campuses lack not only Michigan’s financial heft (about $12 billion) but also its prodigious computing might.  UM is also very large in terms of population and spatial area; its plans might not fly for a small school.  And every academic institution has its own confluence of tradition, local situation, strategic mindset, and more.

One media note: what Michigan is doing is planning for a hybrid term.  That is not what media coverage describes.  Instead I’m seeing misleading headlines proclaiming simply “open,” like this one:

University of Michigan will offer in-person classes for fall semester

Or this, from the Detroit Free Press:

U-M to bring students back to campus for fall

It seems like news media have a hard time presenting the hybrid scenario.  They look like they prefer a simple binary, as my old friend and fellow Michigan alum Rob Henderson observed.   Either the Post-Pandemic Campus or COVID Fall scenarios, and no space for connecting them.

(thanks to Rob Henderson for the link; UM sign photo by Ken Lund; Fishbowl photo by Carl Berger)

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11 Responses to Another campus announces a mixed fall term: the University of Michigan

  1. Glen S McGhee says:

    You dropped (the) football prematurely, I thought.
    Have you heard about returning student athletes at University of Michigan? Have they returned yet? Have they been tested? Have any student athletes tested positive for Covid-19?
    This signal-of-infection on campus will drive reopening policy, I think, to the extent that media outlets cover it. Detroit Free Press, for example, reports 2 infected student athletes.

  2. Glen S McGhee says:

    Ann Arbor, right? Let’s not TOTALLY FORGET about the towns these schools support and maintain.
    Story in NYTimes, Univ of Mich hometown taking a hit.
    This bookstore is probably after Bryan’s time. How many Go Fund Me’s can keep a university ghost town alive? https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-literati-bookstore-amp-booksellers

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I don’t know Literati Bookstore. Definitely after my time, although a couple of blocks from places I knew well: where I lived one summer, a campus building where I took classes, a favorite theater, and the bookstore I worked at.

      To your point, Glen, a decline in in-person campus presence – students as well as faculty and staff – will certainly cut demand for local goods and services.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    It’s mind-boggling to think of all the worst-case possibilities for spreading the pandemic during the College Meltdown: 3rd wave-themed frat parties (which I have been talking about for weeks), full Big 10 football stadiums, protests by Charlie Kirk’s pro-Trump forces…

  4. Glen S McGhee says:

    3rd wave-themed frat parties? I missed that somehow.

    Are you referring to the Tuscaloosa Covid-party, where party goers intentionally expose themselves to Covid, and the first to get infected wins a cash pool?

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