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
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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.
Don’t get me wrong: The joy is real. 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.
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.
The case managers, nurses, and “physician consultants” at Work Connections pore over the records of sick and worried instructors and staff. Not everybody has had a bad experience: Two friends whose conditions were not Covid-related tell me the process was smooth, their leave requests accommodated. Other colleagues described them to us as frequently rude and disrespectful, as interfering in their medical care, as being entirely unfamiliar with the nature and rhythms of academic work. Their formulaic notes tell you that you are wrong and that your physicians are wrong, too. Most communication happens over the phone, colleagues tell us, and there is no documentation. They imply, though they never state outright, that you are malingering, that you are a slacker. “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” as Marine Sgt. Daniel Daly is rumored to have asked his troops before leading a charge against German soldiers. Work Connections rephrases the sentiment: “Thank you for providing this. We had the opportunity to review this and have notified your department that based upon our review, the medical documentation does not support the need to work remotely or any restrictions beyond the normal Covid precautions of masking, social distancing and hand washing.” How does a cancer patient keep social distance once a university has scrapped all distancing measures in the classrooms?
Telling a cancer patient to teach in person is like telling her to drive a car without seatbelts and with rotten brakes.
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.”
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.”
Informal reports suggest that the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in the Office for Institutional Equity is more compassionate than the risk-management crew, and some have found support there. Chairs, deans, and supervisors could in theory ignore Work Connections, which has no official role in determining the modality of your teaching, but they usually do not, and the unit’s determinations carry a lot of sway.
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.
But we don’t pay President Schlissel to be good at analogies. We pay him to negotiate with our Republican Legislature, whose members regularly threaten to cut our meager funding if we don’t submit to their alternate vision of reality.
“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@example.com, 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, 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.
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.