Communication and trust are the foundation of every strong and lasting partnership. Every type of relationship, from a romantic connection to an employee-boss relationship, requires a foundation of honesty and dialogue to keep it both healthy and functional. While this is evident to most of us, it appears to come as a surprise to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Provost Susan Collins and other members of the administration. Recent communications from their offices about our “fractured” community present this universal truth as a new discovery. This situation leaves me reflecting on a lot of questions: How should the administration move to rebuild trust with the student body? How do we as students proceed in the wake of all this?
Simply put, Schlissel’s observations about fractured trust in the community are accurate. In recent events, one of the serious grievances expressed in the GEO strike and the Resident Adviser strike was the lack of transparency and honesty from the administration, both in reference to recent issues like COVID-19 and systemic failures like continued sexual assault and misconduct scandals during Schlissel’s tenure.
Recently, students feel varying degrees of betrayal and mistrust when reflecting on their relationship with the current administration. Music, Theatre & Dance junior Samantha Estrella expressed disgust in regard to the lack of support students actually receive versus what the University advertises. She said that she “does not trust the University administration. Time and time again, students of all backgrounds and needs have come to the ‘leaders’ of U of M in need of aid, in need of active tangible and fruitful empathy, (but instead were) met with the stale cold steel that is capitalism and ego.”
Kaitlyn Tom, LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior, says “I don’t trust the University administration because of the poor handling of the COVID-19 situation. The testing at the University has been below average at best, and the dashboard is embarrassingly inaccurate. … I’m watching these numbers go up and have no faith in the administration, as there is no actual action taken by the administration. … Why hasn’t our University done anything yet?” Other students expressed sentiments like LSA senior Cheyanne Killin, tweeting, “I doubt I’ll ever be able to trust the U again.”
So where does an administration go from here? After responding with lawsuits and injunctions to strikes and protests, how does the University regain the trust of its student body? After attempting to limit faculty governance and being met with a vote of no confidence, how does a University regain community trust?
First and foremost, a good step to regaining trust is to stop perpetuating the very actions that broke it: condescending communication, lacking transparency at the most fundamental level and gaslighting students and faculty expressing concern. Administrative figures act like discontent is a surprise, while breaking its promise with R.A.s and Northwood Apartments residents, and quarantining students in residential buildings in spite of their commitment against moving quarantining students into residential buildings in emails to parents and students.
Administrative figures reinforce systems that cause students to feel powerless and unrepresented as they simultaneously call them “impressionable” when filing an injunction against a union striking for a safe and just campus. At the same time, they also expect students to behave appropriately and provide little to no enforcement mechanisms except a now canceled student policing body. Administrative figures simply ignore the fact their COVID-19 dashboard repeatedly breaks, hides cases, reveals cases retroactively and fails to update in a timely manner without providing any transparent reason for the fluctuations. Finally, the repeated gaslighting of students expressing concerns about University officials must stop for any semblance of real dialogue to return. Simply put, one can host as many moderated town halls as they want, but as restitution for condescension, broken promises and outright failure, they won’t do much to help.
Beyond stopping current behavior and recognizing systemic failure, recognizing the administration’s culpability in the actions that caused “frustration, anger and distrust” is a must if the University truly wants to move forward from this moment.
Estrella highlighted this when she said, “there have been multiple occasions where the University could’ve taken back an inequitable action in some way and therefore have rebuilt lost trust. … At this moment, nothing short of an admission of needing complete change, a sincere apology and tangible and concrete shifts … will restore my faith in this school.”
While apologies are a valid and necessary part of regaining trust, actions speak far louder than words for students like Estrella and LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance senior Alain Sullivan. Sullivan, unsure of his ability to regain faith in the University said he believes concrete actions are necessary to even begin to approach reconciliation. “I honestly cannot say what the administration would need to do to regain trust,” Sullivan said. “But implementing more testing and backpedaling on the in-person instruction is certainly a step.”
While many options exist, if the Board of Regents are looking for an immediate way to stop this hemorrhaging of faith in the legitimacy of the administration, firing Schlissel would greatly help the University’s image. Separating the University from the stain of Schlissel’s COVID-19 incompetence, union-busting, mishandling and negligence of sexual assault and misconduct in a multitude of situations and authoritarian behavior would likely give the University’s reputation a much-needed refresher.
What should students do while the administration behaves like this? This, to me, is a far more complicated question. To be completely honest, I struggle with answering this question myself. How does one balance pursuing an education at the University with being an enabler of this negligence through financially supporting the institution via tuition payments? There isn’t a concrete answer to this complicated question, but I believe the best thing to do is bring awareness to a strategy students should use to hold the administration more accountable.
You may not have heard of a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request before, but it is one of the most powerful tools a student or faculty member can use to seek out information in a public university setting. An FOIA request is basically an opportunity to ask the University practically any question or for any amount of information and be guaranteed a response.
These questions range from, “How many times has DPSS used their service weapons in a non-training setting?” (a FOIA request I submitted revealed the answer is one time in the past two years … to kill a deer) to “Emails Mark Schlissel has sent to Susan Collins with the word ‘scab’ in the message body since August 22, 2020.” The more specific you are the better, you can often get FOIA requests completed for free if you are very specific. The more generic you are, the more the University can stall, costing time and money.
These requests can be made via email to the FOIA office, following a template I created, or simply stating your name, contact information and information you are seeking. I’ll be hearing back from the FOIA office on Oct. 8 regarding “the number and names of all faculty and staff who have died since March 3rd, 2020…” to see just how many faculty and staff have died due to the University’s incompetence surrounding COVID-19. The more information we can get through these legally protected means, the easier it will be to cut through the fog of University messaging.
Strategically speaking, outreach to the administration can be powerful; Specific and targeted outreach is unbeatable. Sending emails to the board, the president’s office, your college’s dean and others can certainly have some effect; however, as we have learned from the University’s reaction to the strike, things that potentially affect income get the most attention.
There are two easy ways to challenge potential income and get the University’s attention: internal processes or external actions aimed at prospective students. In terms of internal action, the next time you’re frustrated with the University (or after reading this column), send an email to the Registrar’s Office expressing some version of “the current actions of the administration are making me reconsider my status as a student. What is the process of applying for a tuition refund/unenrolling?”
This carries serious weight; if about 400 students sent this message, even without any intention of doing anything more than sending the email, the University would most likely take serious notice. The revenue lost if those students actually followed through would erase the gains from a restored football season. Externally focused, if you email the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, informing them you cannot recommend the school to friends and family unless the administration changes its actions, you will likely be heard.
While we may sometimes feel powerless, at the end of the day the University is beholden to us. The University has many steps it must take to regain the trust of its student body. As students, faculty and community members, we must work to hold the University accountable by whatever means necessary. We must constantly seek out new information, new tools and new strategies to inform our fight for a competent administration.
Andrew Gerace can be reached at email@example.com.
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