When staff of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management raised concerns about the surging delta variant at a September meeting, Dean Sri Zaheer told them to "chill out and get over it" because people die every day from other causes.
Zaheer also told staff who wanted to work remotely to avoid infection that she knows they miss their "afternoon naps and watching 'The Bold and the Beautiful' at noon," according to an Oct. 13 letter Carlson staff sent to Zaheer demanding an apology.
The business school dean's comments, which were first reported by the U's student newspaper, offended staff who returned to their offices this fall but also said they worked just as hard from home. Zaheer later apologized via e-mail and at a meeting, acknowledging her comments were "insensitive and caused harm."
The exchange highlighted the difference in how some U administrators and employees view their third pandemic semester. Administrators have welcomed a return to normalcy this fall, with most classes and activities being held in person for the first time since before the pandemic. But many professors and staff, the ones working in close-contact classrooms and office spaces, have felt at risk doing so as the state continues to report some of the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the country.
Cases reported among students and employees at the Twin Cities campus have remained relatively low, however, thanks largely to COVID-19 vaccination and indoor masking mandates.
In November, the Carlson staff consultative committee attempted to send a newsletter to all staff recapping the dean's remarks and her subsequent apology. But the dean's office did not allow the committee to use the mass e-mail mechanism needed to distribute it widely, instead telling them to send it to their smaller office networks, according to staff.
The newsletter included the October letter from staff that criticized Zaheer's remarks and sought an apology. It also included a statement from the Carlson Dean's Advisory Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which said it was "deeply distressed" by Zaheer's comments.
"Minimizing the concerns and efforts of staff during an incredibly difficult time is contrary to a culture of dignity and inclusion that the Carlson School has proclaimed as a key goal," the advisory committee wrote.
Carlson School spokesman Steve Henneberry said the newsletter was not approved for widespread distribution because it "contained inaccurate information" about a separate topic, not about the comments and apology. Administrators asked for updates and are awaiting a corrected version, he said.
In a statement Thursday, Zaheer reiterated her apology and her support for pandemic safety measures. Still, she said, it also must be recognized that the "pandemic is becoming endemic."
"Accepting that does not, in any way, diminish the seriousness of the virus and its variants," Zaheer said. "I remain committed to providing a safe environment to learn, teach, work and research at the Carlson School, following University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines."
Staff had also requested that Carlson school deans and administrators participate in a training on microaggressions.
Henneberry said there would not be another training because administrators, like staff and faculty, already participated in trainings on microaggressions and bias this past year.