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After the University of Michigan released plans for the winter semester incorporating more significant measures to mitigate COVID-19 spread on campus, the Graduate Employees’ Organization told leaders, including University President Mark Schlissel, to give credit where it is due and acknowledge that they asked for these measures when they went on strike in September. 

“Cite your sources President Schlissel,” the union wrote in a tweet responding to Schlissel’s announcement for the winter semester.  

The Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike for two weeks at the beginning of the semester, advocating for improved protocol to manage COVID-19 such as widespread testing and accommodating Graduate Student Instructors who are not comfortable with teaching in-person. 

After Schlissel threatened to sue the organization, the Graduate Employees’ Organization accepted an offer that members felt failed to meet many of their demands regarding a safer pandemic response, cutting ties with law enforcement and improving employee childcare services. 

However, GEO Vice President Erin Markiewitz said she sees some of their previous demands reflected in the University’s winter plan despite the University’s failure to give recognition. In particular, improved testing capacity and more remote class options are two aspects of the University’s winter plan that the GEO also had on their agenda. 

“In an early town hall, President Schlissel said something along the lines of: our plan can’t be substandard because no standard for a COVID plan exists,” Markiewitz said. “When GEO pointed to other peer institutions as examples of what an adequate pandemic response plan would look like, for instance Cornell, they said, ‘Well, they're not the standard.’ If there was never a standard, then why does the new plan seem to be closer to the standard that activists pointed towards earlier this semester?”

Additionally, Markiewitz said GEO feels the University has downplayed the work of student activists. Regarding the GEO’s lack of recognition from the University, Markiewitz said the University will “never honestly recognize the influence of the thousands of hours of unpaid labor that pseudo-organizers and community allies put towards the fight for a safe campus.” 

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In the announcement about plans for the winter semester, Schlissel wrote the University saw an “unacceptable level” of COVID-19 cases. In an interview with The Daily, Schlissel said that he thought this was due more because of students not following the safety protocol at social gatherings. Schlissel also said he does not regret the University’s choice to bring everyone back to campus in the fall despite the high number of COVID-19 cases.

“You know, I’m happy that we tried it, and I’m happy about the amount of in-person education we were able to deliver, and the amount of student experience we were able to deliver,” Schlissel said. “I think what you have to keep in mind is it doesn’t get easier as the academic year goes on, it gets harder.”

When asked why the University did not adopt any of these measures when the GEO was advocating for them, Schlissel said working with larger companies to increase testing capacity earlier in the year would not have limited the number of cases because of the time it would take for results to come back. 

“Commercial testing in the early days of the semester would not have helped us, but through the semester working with a local startup, you know, we’ve made the investments that have ramped up the level of testing,” Schlissel said. 

Currently, the University has a testing capacity between 9,000 and 10,000 tests per week. By continuing to partner with smaller startups to facilitate testing, Schlissel said that the University intends to ramp up testing to about 12,000 to 15,000 tests a week by the start of next semester.

In addition to increased testing, the University will also require all students who live or work on campus to get tested every week. Other measures outlined in the winter plans include significantly limiting the number of freshmen who are permitted to live in on-campus housing and moving most classes to remote learning. 

But for members of GEO — who went on a work stoppage and faced potential professional repercussions to push the University for more testing, among other things — these changes feel like too little, too late.

Rackham student Abby Lamb, a member of GEO, said there was no excuse for not providing better protocol to manage the pandemic earlier this year. 

“The administration was working with the same information that other universities and the public at large had access to in the early stages of the pandemic,” Lamb said. “They made a calculated decision to perform minimal monitoring and testing while still trying to offer the ‘on-campus experience’ to students for the fall term.”

Lamb also said she feels like the University has exploited students by prioritizing finances during the fall instead of students’ health and well-being. While the University is benefitting from tuition and housing costs, Lamb said she worries for her students who are burdened financially. 

“(The administration’s) decision to adopt a large portion of the changes we originally wanted only after the leases are signed, the tuition refund deadlines have passed, and the outbreaks have gotten out of hand cannot be ignored,” Lamb said. 

Rackham student Dom Bouavichith, a member of GEO and its communications committee, said he believes the University does not put the students’ best interests first. Bouabichith said it seems like the University is adjusting their methods for next semester to protect its reputation primarily and not the students’ well-being.  

“In some ways it feels like the admin has come to their senses, but really I think this was a calculated business decision — ‘We were willing to risk community safety to maintain tuition and housing revenue, but doing that hurt us so we’re shifting course,’” Bouavichith said. “It’s a pretty low bar, so I’m not rushing to offer any praise.”

While Bouabichith said he feels like the University’s plans for the winter semester further prove the validity of the GEO strike, he wants the University to take responsibility for their mistakes instead of trying to justify them. 

“I don't really care if U-M recognizes that we were right,” Bouavichith said. “I just want them to act like a responsible institution. I do think they should admit that they were wrong and that their willful ignorance did profound harm. These choices have significantly eroded trust in the administration, and I think the University needs to rethink its priorities here and follow the science over profits.”

Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at goodingl@umich.edu

 

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