Students came together to mourn a variety of causes on Sunday evening: the 200,000 lost to COVID-19, the end of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s strike and their loss of faith in University leadership.
A crowd of approximately 50 undergraduate and graduate students gathered at the Blake Transit Center and marched to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel’s front lawn for a candlelit vigil.
Students associated with GEO and Students Demand Representation organized the demonstration, which impeded traffic from Main Street to State Street as the group expressed their discontent with Schlissel, U-M administrators and local police. The group arrived at the front lawn of Schlissel’s house, where several students and organizers spoke and played music.
Rackham student Lucy Peterson, a GEO member who helped to organize the vigil, said the goal was to commemorate the losses of both the organization and individuals during the pandemic in addition to raising concerns about the administration’s reopening.
“What we wanted to do in GEO was mark a moment — the end of our strike — and come together and be able to reflect with one another,” Peterson said. “200,000 people have died of COVID in the United States … We have things to mourn: A lot of us have known people who have died, and the strike in some ways took our attention off of that.”
GEO’s strike ended on Wednesday when they accepted the University’s proposal meeting some but not all demands, one day after the University filed an injunction. Members said they would not have accepted the University’s proposal had it not been for concerns over the potential financial impacts of the injunction and fears of retaliation.
Students Demand Representation is a coalition of students across the University’s three campuses working to get student demands heard by upper-level administrators. The group partnered with GEO for a rally last weekend.
Peterson also said the vigil provided an opportunity for those who are discontent with the University’s response to COVID-19, the GEO strike or any other matter to come together in solidarity. She said U-M leaders, such as Provost Susan Collins and LSA Dean Anne Curzan, have made decisions that have hurt students.
“This time is for us to come together and say, ‘Well, the University’s cruelty is on full display, we gave them every opportunity not to be cruel, they have every opportunity not to be, it’s a choice, in a big way,’” Peterson said. “These people have real power: President Schlissel has real power, Provost Collins has real power, Anne Curzan has real power, the regents have real power. So that all of them pander to us by saying they care and then make the choice that they did was quite devastating.”
Several undergraduate students attended the vigil to express their disappointment with the administration’s handling of COVID-19.
Engineering junior Joshua Sodicoff said his disillusion began in March when students were sent home from campus, adding that he has since gotten involved with an activist coalition that works with GEO.
“Since March, I have been incredibly disappointed in the University’s response to the coronavirus — that started with their plan to send everyone off campus once they brought a whole petri dish of students back after spring break, and extended as they kicked people out of dorms without giving them a fair refund,” Sodicoff said. “Throughout the whole summer, a pretty large coalition of groups have been working on trying to get their demands from the University. Everyone thought that there really wouldn’t be that many concessions to people’s health and safety.”
LSA junior Trenten Ingell said he was displeased with the University’s response to the GEO’s demands for public health and safety, claiming that the University’s decision to reopen was driven solely by profit.
“The University has still not met a lot of GEO’s demands when they canceled the strike, their anti-policing demands and even a lot of their COVID demands were completely rejected,” Ingell said. “Their intentions for profit have been very clear — how they really only understand what makes them money, and they have no idea how to care for people, how to provide a safe environment for campus.”
The students at the vigil aren’t the only people on campus with a shortage of trust in the University’s leadership. Members of the Faculty Senate held two votes of no confidence in the administration on Wednesday, one focused on the University’s reopening plan for fall semester and the other on Schlissel’s role as president. The first failed narrowly, while the second passed. The symbolic measure means faculty members do not have faith in Schlissel to execute his job as head of the University.
Addressing faculty members Wednesday before the vote of no confidence, Schlissel acknowledged criticism that he had failed to properly engage with the community.
“Criticisms and challenges are qualities that make universities great,” Schlissel said. “They also provide an opportunity to create solutions that benefit from multiple perspectives. We can and must work together as a university to solve problems.”
GEO Secretary Amir Fleischmann spoke out against the tenured faculty who did not support the graduate student strike and the Board of Regents, a body of elected officials who oversee the University.
“To see grad students and undergrads really putting ourselves on the line and breaking the law to do so, and people with bulletproof job security who are as much at risk as any of us by a COVID outbreak in this community, still refusing to stand up for themselves is really pathetic,” Fleischmann said.
Peterson explained that the University’s decision to confront GEO workers and the union itself with legal ramifications caused a general loss of confidence, and this vigil provided a chance to look towards future activism.
“This moment was a chance for us to say, ‘We are still fighting for those things,’” Peterson said. “Even in the absence of a strike, we will still be organizing and moving and demanding and doing the work that we can do and harnessing the power that we can harness as students, as workers and as the people.”
Daily Staff Reporter Hannah Mackay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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