ANN ARBOR, MI — On a cooler-than-normal mid-September morning, University of Michigan graduate students took up picket signs and marched for better safety precautions on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The day before, the university had filed an injunction against the Graduate Employees’ Organization union saying its ongoing strike had violated Michigan law and a collective bargaining agreement. Later in the day, UM faculty senate members cast a vote of no confidence in university President Mark Schlissel.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases continued to rise in campus residence halls and buildings. The university issued several public health notices from Sept. 16-18 regarding coronavirus cases in nearly a dozen buildings – most of which are residence halls. As of Monday, Sept. 28, there have 308 positive COVID-19 cases reported on campus since Sept. 6, including 64 in residence halls.
Addressing the handling of the pandemic, Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins admit they’ve made mistakes, including Schlissel saying he took a “very experts-focused approach that became narrow” and that he had lost sight of how the campus is experienced.
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Reopening amid coronavirus restrictions has challenged and divided the university in ways no one could have imagined six months ago, according to students and faculty.
“As one of my colleagues put it, it seems like there’s outright rebellion now among just about everybody outside of the administration,” said Kentaro Toyama, a professor in UM’s School of Information.
Striking for a safer campus
In mid-August, Toyama led a protest of UM professors, graduate students and Ann Arbor community members who said they had no confidence in the university’s plan to reopen campus this fall. Fast forward about three weeks when graduate student employees began striking for things like a robust COVID-19 testing plan, universal right to work remotely, childcare subsidies and access and disarming and demilitarizing the campus police force.
The work stoppage led to a strike by residence hall assistants who demanded more protection from COVID-19. Dining hall workers also had a list of safety demands for administrators, though they never formally went on strike.
The graduate student strike ended after about a week when the union accepted the university’s offer, which included progress in childcare options, transparent COVID-19 testing protocols and “incremental but real movement on our policing demands,” union members said in a statement.
But Jeff Lockhart, a UM doctoral student in sociology and GEO member, said the university forced the deal by threatening legal action after the group rejected the university’s initial offer. The group thought the offer didn’t constitute progress on its demands.
There’s always a sense that when something goes wrong, students will blame the university president, Lockhart said, but the tone this time was much different because the potential consequences are much “graver.”
“’Graver’ is sort of a deliberate word because people will literally die from poor pandemic precautions or guns on campus,” Lockhart said.
Early in the strike, Lockhart said the administration was trying to create fractures in the university community by creating divisions between graduate and undergraduate students and faculty. That didn’t work, though, as undergraduate residence hall workers went on strike, and the undergraduate student government endorsed the strike, Lockhart said.
That was the tipping point because the administration saw it couldn’t divide the university community, Lockhart said. The deal GEO signed to end the strike wasn’t perfect, but it demonstrates a victory for union organizing because it built solidarity across campus, he said.
“The union was not harmed in any way – no fines, no nothing – so the union is coming out of this stronger than ever with more allies and more support, and we forced a lot of important issues onto the table,” Lockhart said.
A confusing first-year semester
One of the graduate student employees’ demands asked for a robust COVID-19 testing plan. While UM has since signed an agreement with LynxDx – a startup that was spun off of intellectual property developed on UM’s campus to provide saliva-based surveillance testing – there were expectations UM would have had a testing and contact tracing program in place sooner.
UM has a volunteer testing program, but people agree it should instead have mandatory or same-day testing, first-year student Aarushi Ganguly said.
The semester has been confusing, Ganguly said, because some students are going to parties, while others are staying inside and wearing masks all the time. The administration, Ganguly said, has not helped the confusion because many first-year students aren’t sure what the university expects from them as far as actions and behavior during the pandemic.
“Especially as first years, we don’t know what college is like,” Ganguly said. “It’s a big transformative experience. We’re living away from home and yet we’re expected to follow important safety guidelines, but it doesn’t feel very consistent.”
Students make jokes every day about going home in a week, Ganguly said. In response to the pandemic, Ganguly said the university simply didn’t do enough with its resources.
“It’s like the university tried to do things, but they just fell short in a bunch of different areas and focusing on things they could have, like mandatory testing, which I know a lot of other places are doing around the country,” Ganguly said.
The pandemic has put everyone on edge to some extent, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said, adding he thinks the university has been resilient under the pressure.
“I think our students are being quite responsive to the safety measures we’ve asked them to adhere to,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not suggesting we don’t have any COVID-19 cases out there… but overall, we’re still doing pretty well. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing better than even some much smaller campuses.”
‘No confidence’ is new territory
Displeasure over the administration’s handling of the campus reopening led to the faculty senate casting votes of no confidence in the university’s plan, which narrowly failed, and in Schlissel, which passed by four votes after a two-day review. Toyama said the vote of no confidence in Schlissel shows the differences of opinion in the faculty and, even if there is disagreement, it’s a striking message.
“I don’t think there has ever been a moment with the 1,000 faculty basically voting they do not have confidence in the leadership,” Toyama said. “I mean, that is unprecedented for us. Historically, a no confidence vote has never actually passed, so this is new territory.”
The fall semester has been new territory for students’ parents, too. Holly LeCraw, mother of a UM senior, said concerns raised by graduate students and faculty over the summer led to the GEO and residence hall staff strikes, and while students appear to be doing what they’re supposed to in terms of wearing masks and social distancing, she thinks the administration is playing catch-up instead of being proactive.
LeCraw is happy her son is on campus for his senior year, but with cases at nearly a dozen different residence halls, she and other parent are questioning if the university is doing enough.
“It’s like trying to fly a plane without radar,” LeCraw said. “… I don’t understand why this premier institution started out behind so many of its peers. They have the best minds and resources available.”
UM has been reasonably successful returning the UM community to a reduced-capacity fall semester, and while plans continue to evolve, there will be things the university learns along the way, Fitzgerald said.
“One aspect of what we do as an institution is to perform some of that research to help ourselves and help society as a whole better understand this pandemic or this virus so that we can attack it incrementally and appropriately over time as we learn more about how to tamp down the virus,” Fitzgerald said. “We take different steps and implement different measures as we learn more.”
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