Students at University of Michigan (U-M) have returned to a hotbed of controversy: HIV stigma and a denialist’s approach to COVID-19 testing. Unlike Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—who has been praised and criticized for imposing strict social-distancing guidelines—the school’s leadership has prioritized reopening before it is fully prepared to do so.
Cue Mark Schlissel, M.D., Ph.D., the president of U-M, who—as if responding to a call from central casting—stated during an Aug. 13 virtual faculty town-hall meeting:
“Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security. That happened in the HIV epidemic, when people got a negative test and they presented it to their sex partners and spread disease, nonetheless.”
Besides its casual homophobia, what is most alarming about this statement is Schlissel’s use of easily debunked lies about HIV and false equivalencies regarding testing.
It is understood that public officials frequently misspeak during public announcements. While this incident could have been an unfortunate blunder, Schlissel’s Aug. 13 virtual faculty town-hall speech reveals that this was the continuation of an idea that he has held for some time. 47 minutes into that hour-long meeting, he doubled down on his decision to avoid providing extensive COVID-19 testing while falsely comparing the efficiency of current tests with that of early HIV tests:
“What I’m nervous about is deploying a test that may only be right 50% of the time. Because imagine a person who thinks they’re fine actually is infected and spreads the disease. And we’ve seen that with other diseases, HIV is an example from a couple of decades ago in the early days of HIV testing.”
Tragedies of early HIV testing aside—they initially issued high rates of false positives, not false negatives—it is surprising that Schlissel made these statements at all. Especially after reading his bio on the U-M website, which states that he is the “first physician-scientist to lead” U-M and that his research concentrated on a type of cell “in the immune system that secretes antibodies.”
When asked to comment about Schlissel’s use of this harmful language as well as where he acquired his data and if he believed his statements, Kim Broekhuizen, the school’s associate director of public affairs, shared a prepared apology that was sent to Queer Advocacy Coalition (QAC), a student-led graduate and professional-level social work LGBTQIA+ community.
“My comments were intended only as a critique of the effectiveness of massive testing of asymptomatic students for the virus that causes COVID-19 in an effort to prevent its spread. The analogy I used is not a good or fair one. In using this analogy to make my point, I unintentionally reinforced stereotypes that have been historically and unjustly assigned to the LGBTQIA+ community as well as other communities and persons affected by HIV and AIDS. Again, for this I apologize, especially as it relates to groups that have been historically maligned and stereotyped.”
This letter was sent in response to QAC’s demand that Schlissel apologize and “rectify the damage that he continues to perpetuate against these communities by equating the COVID-19 pandemic with the AIDS epidemic and using this as a stance to justify the University’s decision to not widely test students.”
While acknowledging the unintentional harm imposed by his actions, Schlissel failed to offer a solution to rectifying his remarks. TheBody sent repeated follow-up requests, asking whether Schlissel personally believed what he stated at the town halls. The school failed to respond before this article’s publication.
In an interview with TheBody, three members from QAC shared their frustrations with what they felt was an inadequate apology.
For Leslie A. A. Tetteh, the president of QAC, “There’s a need for that public apology, because that train of logic needs to be stopped. There’s also a need for him to unpack where that thought is coming from and why others didn’t call it out; why they sat with what he said and didn’t acknowledge it.” During Schlissel’s session, he was accompanied by numerous highly educated leaders of the university who, far from questioning him, gladhanded his sentiments.
Tetteh also notes that a major point of harm that came from this statement is that for many students, Schlissel’s words were their first engagement with the virus, giving it the potential to define their understanding of how HIV operates.
To Stacey Tomczyk, another member of QAC who shared her thoughts with TheBody, the most striking point was the parallel with the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS epidemic. “They’re totally shirking responsibility for COVID in the same way that the government did during the AIDS epidemic. Blaming the students in the same way that the government blamed gay men, instead of using his position to help the situation.”
Looking at the implications of the statement, QAC member Brodie Lobb believes that Schlissel needs to consider, “Is this a false comparison that you thought was true, but after thinking about it, you know that it’s not? Or is this something that you do believe?” Whatever the outcome of that interrogation, for Lobb, the next step would include advertising educational resources across the campus about the history of the HIV epidemic and highlighting that there is free HIV testing available on campus.
All three QAC members noted the historical lack of funding given to developing treatment for HIV and AIDS and how it mirrors the resistance to properly fund COVID testing for the most vulnerable communities, as well as the proliferation of misinformation about viral cures, hoaxes, social deterrents, and causality.
In that sense, Schlissel’s reluctance to release a community-wide corrective and refusal to expand testing adheres to the current commander-in-chief’s perspective on the coronavirus. Interestingly, in an effort to legitimize this view, Schlissel has created a uniquely hateful revision of HIV history; a scenario that no HIV expert that TheBody spoke with had previously encountered.
According to Jose de Marco, a leading organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia, what Schlissel believes does not matter. “COVID is so different from HIV. It kills much faster, and the modes of transmission are different. Testing for COVID should be ramped up; everybody should be tested.” And while testing for both viruses is essential, equating the two is dangerous, because COVID-19 is shockingly easy to transmit, while HIV requires much more intimate contact.
That is not how everyone understood Schlissel’s comments. Sammy, a U-M student who asked that their real name not be used for this article, shared, “When I heard what Schlissel had said, I was so freaked. I was like, ‘I don’t want to get AIDS!’” Sammy said that while they have learned that HIV “is not as easy to catch as the flu, I still don’t feel comfortable in my dorms. If I can’t get tested unless I’m sick,” they said, “then aren’t they basically saying they won’t care about me until I’m on death’s door?”
Contrary to Schlissel’s on-the-record perspective—and though they are otherwise different—the best way to deter the spread of the coronavirus mirrors HIV prevention: increased testing and use of barriers. In this instance, face masks instead of condoms. And yet, the bulk of Schlissel’s virtual addresses were dedicated to dismissing this common-sense safety protocol or insisting that 100% compliance around wearing face masks is impossible. He said:
“Testing is part of keeping the community safe, but it’s not an essential part, and we don’t have the capacity—and I’m not even sure I would do it if somebody plopped all those tests on my desk.”
This dismissal of testing is not new to U-M. Last July, as part of a cost-cutting plan, the school eliminated free testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from its tuition-funded University Health Service. That decision was retracted after student-led social media protests caused an uproar.
The school has yet to change course on its opposition to frequent COVID testing or virtual instruction. This, despite the decision to eschew face-to-face learning by schools from across the nation, including the universities of Pennsylvania, Southern California, Virginia, Princeton, and the State University of Michigan.
The decision to maintain an active campus appears to be financially motivated. Littered throughout Schlissel’s online addresses, one constantly hears GOP-style talking points about the need to reopen the economy even as viral resurgences are on the rise.
“There are people whose jobs wouldn’t exist if there weren’t students, and I’m very sensitive to that in a very difficult economy,” Schlissel stated during his Aug. 13 town hall, as if he were unaware that Broadway and most of the entertainment industry has willingly shut down to preserve the safety of its customers and performers. But college students are paying customers too, and as teenagers seeking guidance from a trusted institution, they deserve to have their health put first.
For Ariel Friedlander, an art major and HIV activist at U-M, the belief that teenagers will follow social safety protocols, even as their school’s leader dismisses their efficacy, is a sign that the school does not have a proper safety plan in place and needs to shut down immediately. “This shifts the blame from real systemic issues and the people who are in charge onto individual students,” she said. Even as these students are legally adults, many of them are away from parental supervision for the first time in their lives and bound to make life-changing decisions.
Friedlander believes that until the school can adequately empower the 48,000-plus teenagers and early 20-somethings who attend the school to make safe choices that will protect their lifelong health, it should close.
Echoing this and Sammy’s fear about safety, two students recently tested positive in student dorms, even as requests for additional safety protocols by resident advisers were denied during an Aug. 23 meeting that illustrated the school’s level of preparation.
When an RA pointed out that her team should get tested on a regular basis due to their frequent contact with residents, Robert Ernst, M.D.—executive director of University Health Service and associate vice president for Health and Wellness in Student Life—responded:
“The emphasis is on prioritization; folks who are symptomatic. And as part of contact tracing. It’s not an unlimited resource, and the trade-off is turnaround time for getting the results. So that may change as the resource becomes more readily available.”
Ernst is the school official who implemented the cuts to tuition-funded STI testing for students in 2019.
For Vidhya Aravind, a recent graduate from U-M’s School of Information, Schlissel’s HIV stigmatization and COVID-shaming are intrinsically linked to his inability to properly empower students with the information they need to thrive at the institution. As a trans woman of color, she believes that “marginalized students don’t have a whole lot of agency over how policies about them get implemented” at the school.
This trickles down from Schlissel’s casually targeting people living with HIV via homophobic language to support a controversial stance while ignoring calls to consult the affected communities in order to craft a suitable apology. Aravind believes that a legitimate apology will include redistributing power to level the playing field so that marginalized people no longer have to exist as tolerated individuals.
“Even if you’re giving a trans person and a gender-critical person an ‘equal’ platform, the gender-critical person is going to benefit more from it, because their narratives are already the dominant narratives.”
As a cisgender, straight, white man who presumably does not have HIV, Schlissel will never understand the impact of his homophobic language. In order to make an apology that feels equitable, he will need to give up power to the communities that he has impacted while working to dismantle the structures that oppress them, even at the cost of his own benefit.
Aravind acknowledges that this level of radical compassion is uncomfortable and comes at no personal benefit to the person in charge. In fact, it might require Schlissel to step down and help bring in a new leader who is equipped to do the work that he has shown himself unable to do. The essential steps that she, Friedlander, Tetteh, Tomczyk, and Lobb suggested include:
- Close U-M’s campus, just as Broadway producers have closed down their productions until safety protocols allow audiences to return to see a show without fear of catching COVID-19.
- Avoid using disqualifying hate speech, and accept the consequences if you do.
- Provide marginalized voices the power that they lack even at the expense of those who already hold power.
- Remove influences from the Board of Regents who prize the institution’s stature over the safety and wellbeing of its students.
- Hold individuals responsible for allowing hate speech, even unintentional, to go unchallenged.
It is impossible to say where this saga will end. For now, it is a stark reminder that stigmatization has no place in an equitable society.