As staff of the University of Michigan, we are deeply troubled by the administration’s inadequate handling of the return to in-person instruction, the aggressive legal action taken against our own graduate students who were on strike through Sept. 16 and the threats of retaliation made against striking resident advisors. While these historic actions have ended, we believe many of the issues the Graduate Employees’ Organization and other student activists raised remain unresolved. University staff stand in solidarity with GEO, Resident Advisers and other members of the University community — here and abroad — who are striking, organizing and speaking out about the University administration’s actions. As unprotected staff members, we may fear retaliation for speaking out, but we believe these concerns are too important for us to be silenced and complicit.
From requests for sufficient personal protective equipment to defunding the campus police, GEO and R.A.s made several important demands regarding the administration’s reopening of the campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Announced in a Sept. 14 video, University President Mark Schlissel authorized the pursuit of a temporary restraining order and a court injunction against GEO. The legal actions taken against GEO undermine the values of our University community and stand in direct contradiction with our mission: “to serve the people of Michigan” and support “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” Meanwhile, R.A.s, many of whom are low-income, have been threatened with the loss of their jobs and housing.
As mentors and educators ourselves, we are alarmed by what the administration's actions signal about the current and future character of this institution. For a University claiming a priority of “rebuild(ing) trust and confidence in this community,” threatening their students and workers over demands for a safe and just campus only deepens a self-inflicted wound: the perpetuation of a hostile learning, working and teaching environment that disrupts student learning. We hope that the recent offers to GEO and the R.A.s from the University reflect a renewed commitment to listening and working with the campus community; however, we see this as a first step rather than an endpoint. We encourage the University to continue to meet in substantive negotiations with the campus community to create informed and equitable solutions to meet the needs of all University staff, faculty and students.
Since May, GEO has bravely and persistently raised concerns about the lack and inconsistency of University policies and resources that protect our community from the threat of COVID-19. We echo GEO’s insistence that a universal, unconditional right to work remotely is in the best interest of the health, safety and well-being of the University and surrounding community. While the roles of staff vary considerably across campus, our experiences corroborate these concerns. Staff carry a disproportionate burden of risk of the campus reopening — managing reception desks, cleaning facilities and coordinating quarantine housing. Many of us have been needlessly called back to in-person work, even as the administration continuously declares publicly that “all work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely.”
Additionally, staff have been asked to volunteer services outside of their appointments, including performing building safety checks over the summer, assisting during fall move-in and surveilling student behavior on campus without the universal testing necessary to ensure our health. While our responsibilities for keeping students, faculty and other staff safe have increased, many of us have been temporarily furloughed and have had our compensation frozen or reduced. Those who have not been furloughed or are able to shift to remote work have seen significant and inequitable increases in their workloads to compensate for absent colleagues. We, too, are overworked and undervalued and we, too, have important ideas and perspectives that deserve representation. Staff stand in solidarity with the R.A.s’ demands for safe and transparent enforcement strategies of COVID-19 guidelines that do not involve armed police, increased testing and personal protective equipment.
Commending GEO’s inclusion of anti-policing demands, staff affirm that policing is a workplace safety issue and demand to be included at the table for conversations related to policing on our campus. Currently, staff are often responsible for directly interfacing with police: responding as building managers when issues arise and training R.A.s and student staff on if, how and when the Division of Public Safety and Security should be involved. As staff, we demand more adequate training and resources when navigating non-violent encounters and enforcing safety policies.
Additionally, many staff members are mandatory reporters of sexual harassment and misconduct and act as advisers for students and student organizations, including those living together in off-campus housing. In this capacity, the staff has witnessed firsthand the disproportionate impact that campus policing has on those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color within our community. The #BBUM campaign has powerfully documented these experiences since 2013, demonstrating that Black students regularly experience racism from campus and city police.
As staff, we believe that those who have been striking, protesting and demonstrating advocate for the health and safety of the University and surrounding community. We support and stand in solidarity with their actions, and believe the fight for a more equitable campus is far from over. We demand University administration to follow through on its claimed values by taking the following actions:
Taking concrete anti-racist action regarding the assaults to which individuals who are Black, Indigenous, people of color and undocumented people are subjected to daily in this community; continuing intentional engagement with GEO and R.A.s to address their critical demands that would ensure a safe, equitable and just work environment for the entire University community; and providing staff training and resources for conflict resolution, emergency management, non-violent encounters and community safety.
Most importantly, we demand that the University prioritize staff participation and representation in University conversations about the pandemic, policing and all policies impacting our employment.
The authors of this op-ed are all University of Michigan staff. The current list of signatures can be found here and they can be collectively reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, to sign this letter as staff, please complete this Google Form.
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