Ann Arbor had a relatively low infection rate, he told university employees, and a lot of risk could be mitigated with masks and social distance. But faculty were not reassured.
“Show us the science,” more than 830 faculty members and graduate instructors demanded in an Aug. 7 letter, citing an influential study on campus reopening that suggested the University of Michigan needed to do much more testing. In an online town hall, Dr. Schlissel tried to explain that testing had limits, even at places like the University of Illinois, which had invested heavily in testing and tracing. But his choice of words inflamed the situation.
“Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security,” he told the faculty, repeating a Trump administration argument against testing. And universal testing at an institution Michigan’s size was, he said, “science fiction.” Without evidence, he added that the H.I.V. epidemic had spread as “people got a negative test and they presented it to their sex partners.”
Dr. Schlissel quickly walked back the H.I.V. remark and apologized, saying he only meant to question the effectiveness of universal testing. But the video was on YouTube. Gregg Gonsalves, professor of epidemiology at Yale University and co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, called his stance “egregious” in The Nation, and other epidemiologists, including Mr. Bergstrom and one of the authors of the study on safe reopening, Yale’s A. David Paltiel, blasted him on Twitter.
By the time fall classes started on Aug. 31, graduate students were preparing to strike rather than teach face-to-face, and undergraduates, parents and faculty were petitioning for expanded testing. Two and a half weeks later — on the same day the Big Ten announced it had found a way to test athletes daily and therefore would go ahead with football season — Dr. Schlissel’s faculty narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in him.
The faculty relationship has since improved, but the virus has whipsawed the campus. Dr. Schlissel said outbreaks have been traced almost entirely to undergraduate gatherings. In late October, after health authorities in surrounding Washtenaw County slapped the whole campus with an emergency stay-in-place order, the faculty petitioned the president for a winter semester with fewer students in dorms, fewer in-person classes and much more mandatory testing. It had more than 1,100 signatures.