Before the Winter 2021 semester comes to an end, The Michigan Daily interviewed Martino Harmon, vice president of Student Life, about fall semester plans, housing, Fraternity & Sorority Life and vaccinations. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TMD: Last semester, students were essentially kicked out of the dorms, and some scrambled to find off-campus housing. How will you ensure that students living in residence halls in the fall will have an improved experience? How will you ensure that 50% of the students living in the dorms will be vaccinated in the fall semester?
MH: We’re really optimistic about the future. Our plans for the fall — which are definitely rooted in encouraging a large number of students to be vaccinated — will give Housing the opportunity to have more safe face-to-face in-person interactions in addition to maximizing some of the virtual interactions that we’ve learned. For example, the lounges and the study spaces will be more accessible. They may be by reservation, but depending on the state of vaccinations, we may be able to have more flexibility.
Also, providing vaccinations and testing for those that may not be vaccinated will help the Res Staff members feel safe and engage more with students. There will always be exceptions, but we’re strongly encouraging students to be vaccinated, and we’ll be talking about more and better ways to do that. The Campus Health Response Committee is working on systems that will allow students to report their vaccinations over the summer. The key is really encouraging students to get vaccinated as supplies continue to ramp up.
TMD: Will students on campus who are fully vaccinated have different guidelines to follow than students who are not fully vaccinated?
MH: Some of those details are still unfolding based on (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. So for example, we expect to have some safety measures in place, like masking and social distancing. We also don’t know if a booster vaccination will be needed at some point during the academic year, and that will impact some of the safety measures. There may be some safety measures that can be relaxed that will be determined by CDC and Washtenaw County public health guidelines.
TMD: The Daily has written multiple stories regarding students’ mental health during the pandemic, especially how virtual classes and COVID-19 are affecting the campus climate. How do you plan to address this and improve the well-being of students now and moving forward?
MH: Counseling and Psychological Services, Wolverine Wellness, Services for Students with Disabilities and (University Health Service) are working collaboratively to deliver a more holistic approach. I’ve worked with Provost (Susan) Collins, and we have appointed a review committee of people from academic affairs and Student Life to look at what we currently do and how we can improve or expand access. They have gone around various town halls, they’ve engaged with students, with staff and faculty and got a lot of feedback on a variety of different possibilities. They will present recommendations to the provost and I in May, and I think we’ll be able to implement some in the fall. The stress from virtual work is something we need to address as a root cause. To address the issue, we need to focus on more counseling and engaging with faculty and academic planners to see: “How can we be more aware and sensitive and plan to minimize some of those stresses?” If we only address the symptoms, we’re really not going to solve the issue.
TMD: Although student life was difficult due to the virtual format of this semester, how do you think that this year went, in terms of the student experience?
MH: We surveyed students twice in the fall semester and had over 9,000 responses. It was clearly difficult for students to connect and find things to do, so I appointed a task force at Student Life to look at how to enhance student engagement. The task force really came up with a number of innovations like grouping weekly events and opportunities together in the Top Picks email sent every Sunday.
We also expanded our cohort program to reach up to 2,000 first and second-year students, providing a forum for students to make connections. We also launched a program called Resource Navigators where about 140 volunteers from Student Life check in with over 2,000 first and second-year students who may not be connected to another established group. It was a tough year — a tough semester — and students really are exhausted from the whole experience. But our goal was to find ways to help students engage and connect and do all that we could do in a safe way to make the experience as good as it possibly could be given the context.
TMD: How much of student organizations and campus events do you anticipate will be virtual versus in-person come the fall?
MH: For Student Life, this will be the year of transition, meaning things won’t be 100% back to normal, but we’ll be moving towards that. We are planning and optimistic about more in-person events, and that includes student organizations. We want to give them guidance on how to have more in-person events. But, a lot of this revolves around students’ willingness and ability to be vaccinated. As vaccines are ramping up, we’ll have more options in terms of opening things up.
TMD: Fraternity and sorority life has a sizable presence on campus and in student life. What would you like to see change or continue about FSL here at Michigan?
MH: I’m really pleased that the councils’ leaders, which are the four major groups within Fraternity and Sorority Life, have stepped up during a difficult and challenging year and set some guidelines for their organizations. Self-policing and safety have been a real challenge for them during a time when everyone is exhausted and people naturally want to socialize, but those council leaders have done that.
I want to acknowledge their work and their efforts in that area because I think that’s critically important. I know as an institution, we are in the process of hiring new leadership over Fraternity and Sorority Life, so I’m anticipating that new leadership will bring new energy, ideas, and direction to the staff and students. We know that some of our Interfraternity Council chapters are still challenged in understanding the recruitment processes that were implemented a couple of years ago. We need to continue to engage with them to develop a better understanding and stay consistent with the system. For our historically underrepresented and diverse councils, we need to make sure we understand and support their experience. I’m really looking forward to their continued leadership, especially as we transition to a different kind of fall.
TMD: Do you anticipate that FSL activities such as recruitment and rush will be in-person next year?
MH: It really depends on vaccination rates within the FSL community and their willingness to work with the staff and reimagine the process. I’m not 100% certain that they’ll be fully back to the original plans before the pandemic, but I would anticipate that there will be more opportunities for in-person recruitment if it’s adhering to whatever safety measures are in place at that particular time.
TMD: There have been concerns from the student body about fraternities gathering amid the pandemic this semester. How has Student Life and the University handled these concerns, and has this been a concern of yours?
MH: Absolutely, it’s been a major concern overall. We receive phone calls from concerned neighbors or students through our COVID concerns line, and members of the University of Michigan Police Department work with Ann Arbor Police Department to follow up on those. When those reports come to us and we have all the information, we follow up, and there are consequences.
But more importantly than that, the FSL community has to take responsibility, and we’ve seen that from the leadership on the councils, but we need to see more. We have to make sure the responsible leadership extends all the way down through the members. And in many cases it has, but in some cases, it hasn’t. I have to acknowledge that while we’re asking young people who are wired to socialize to not socialize when it causes disease and harm to the community, it’s not acceptable. Hopefully, in the fall, we can loosen things up and focus more on what we can allow students to do safely versus telling them what they can’t do.
TMD: Reflecting on the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think Student Life will look like in the fall when classes are in-person and there are more in-person components on campus? Also, what goals do you have for campus life as things transition to in-person in the fall?
MH: One of the goals for Student Life is to really help the second-year students capture some of the traditions and rites of passage they missed in their first year. That starts with Welcome Week. We are partnering with Academic Affairs and New Student Programs to figure out opportunities or tracks that are more specific for second-year students. I’m optimistic that we’ll be in a better place in Student Life. We’ll take our core work and strengthen our core work to the new normal.
TMD: The University often emphasizes that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are very important, and since last summer with the George Floyd murder and the racial reckoning of protests happening around the country, there has been even more of a light shed on these initiatives that go into play here at the University. How do you plan on incorporating DEI values into your decision-making about Student Life?
MH: I want to mention the incidents of last summer — the racism incidents and issues that led to police killing Black American males — is something that we’ve been focused on before last summer, but certainly last summer was a period of heightened concern and efforts around this. It’s important that our staff incorporates training on safety and DEI. A perfect example is as the sexual misconduct policy changes from a national level and on campus, we try to make sure that our leaders within Student Life are aware of the changes in their training and that our hiring pools are diverse.
It’s also so important for us to engage with students and staff to ensure that we know what the issues are. We have a campus climate committee that is chaired by Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones, Ginsberg Center Director Mary Jo Callan and comprised of students and staff. They talk about various issues on campus including the elections, anti-racism and all types of issues in order to give us feedback. Finally, we have to make sure that we are deeply engaged in DEI work from a long-term perspective, ensuring our policies are sustainable and part of our core priorities.
TMD: As vice president of Student Life at the University during COVID-19 and a virtual semester, what are some lessons and takeaways you just have from this year that you’ll think about going into the future?
MH: This year reaffirmed a few key things for me. One, the importance of listening. In the fall, many Residential Staff members decided that they would stop working because they needed to feel safe. We delivered a lot because the door was always open to listen and engage. When the work stoppage ended, I committed to meet with every member of the Residential Housing staff in person, socially distanced and masked, if they wanted to. This was an opportunity for me to show I was ready to listen and share information.
I also learned that you need to be ready to pivot and expect the unexpected. You can have the best plans, but sometimes you have to change. We saw that students needed different ways to engage, and many of our staff needed to feel safe in doing that too, so we assembled a task force. In quarantine and isolation housing there were some things that weren’t up to our quality standards, but we were able to address those problems. Not only did we need a gift basket with a lot of goodies, but we needed to put essentials like soap in there. We needed to have a quarantine Coordination Center on-site so that staff could be there to address what students might need on the spot.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the leadership of the campus climate committee.