The Michigan Daily sat down with the Vice President of Student Life Martino Harmon to discuss Fraternity and Sorority Life, mental health, student organizations support, labor shortages and the impact of a vaccine mandate. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: In your interview with The Daily last spring, you said vaccines were going to be a pivotal factor in planning and executing the return to campus. What specific opportunities has the vaccine mandate made possible this fall?
Martino Harmon: I’d love to brag and say my prediction was brilliant, but it was backed up by science and was pretty much expected. I talked to colleagues across the country, and they were stunned that our students are so compliant. Within the students, we have a 98% vaccination rate, 98% with faculty and 90% with staff. I don’t think people understand that this is not common across the country. We saw a little bit of an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases when everybody came back, but then things really leveled off and have been pretty stable. We’ve gone through a semester and things have been pretty positive, and we’ve been able to plan and do things that we would not have been able to do as safely without the vaccine mandate. People were really excited we could be in person.
TMD: You said students are 98% vaccinated, but how have you handled situations in which students have not received exemptions and refused to get vaccinated?
MH: Students who have approved exemptions, they’re required to test still once a week, and a good majority of them are following that. And those that aren’t, we’re diligently following up with them. Their ResponsiBLUE will block them from doing certain things if they are not getting tested. They won’t have the green checks. Students who didn’t follow the protocols, don’t have exemptions and didn’t get vaccinated have a registration hold. Not being able to register for winter term will get your attention.
TMD: This has obviously been a very transitional semester as we’re trying to get back into the swing of things in person. So The Daily was hoping you could talk about what the return to Fraternity and Sorority Life has been like for the fall semester.
MH: All the chairs of the FSL social events, along with the leadership, came together for an extensive meeting in the fall. We did the same thing last year, but it was virtual, but this time it was in the Union. It was almost really like a conference, in a sense. I mean, you had all sorts of campus officials there from University Health Services, from the Division of Public Safety Security and from Student Life to really talk about event planning, health and safety. So that was a chance not to just send out information but actually have engagement.
FSL also works with their advisors and national offices. So even last year, during the pandemic, when we had situations where we may have had an outbreak in a sorority or fraternity house, they could call in the national office and ask for their assistance in working with that chapter.
We’ve encouraged FSL chapters to check ResponsiBlue at their events and to have a guest list in advance to send the ResponsiBLUE link. And if it’s an indoor event, to wear face coverings and so forth.
TMD: The university has been under some fire recently for sexual misconduct allegations from U-M officials, including late University Athletics doctor Robert Anderson. What are some of the ways that Student Life is working to prevent sexual misconduct on campus and support survivors of sexual assault?
MH: Honestly, it’s such a horrific situation and those survivors, I don’t even have the right words to express how horrible they were treated. This is just a really bad, bad situation. But over the last 30 years, the University and Student Life have always really tried to work to prevent sexual assault and sexual misconduct through training, through education and through support for survivors from victims. That’s always been a part of what we do and it always will be.
We’re trying to do it better all the time. SAPAC, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, that’s their mission. They have hundreds of students that are part of that operation and a great staff. They have an initiative, a counseling group support program that they launched this year with CAPS — Counseling and Psychological Services. Overall the University is really looking at the structure of the Title IX office, changing reporting lines, etc. There’s a lot of university work being done, but then there’s also the work that’s being done by Student Life. These are very serious health and wellness issues that are definitely on the forefront of the work that we do.
TMD: The Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Committee Report was released recently and gave recommendations such as creating a strategic plan to address complex health and wellness needs as well as emphasizing a culture of empathy to mitigate academic stress. How do you hope to begin to implement some of the institutional changes recommended?
MH: This is a really important topic. Even before the pandemic, student mental health was clearly a major concern. Just to make sure there’s an understanding of why we have this committee, we really want to change the narrative, the approach and the culture around how we address student (mental) health. We really are taking more of an institutional approach and really maximizing and even enhancing all the different avenues of support that are available or have been created.
Now we’ve moved into the implementation phase and it’s not an overnight sort of thing. There’s certain segments to it and it will always evolve, but the co-chairs of that committee — Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones and Senior Vice Provost Amy Dittmar — are really leading the implementation groups. There are eight different implementation groups that they’re leading and this is all really in concert with Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness, Dr. Robert Ernst, who’s also leading our COVID-19 response team. These eight different implementation teams are currently being staffed and they’re going to work on different aspects of the recommendations and how we want to move forward.
CAPS, for example, have made some changes and created a new intake model and intake assessment model, which allows them to do more sort of triage on the spot. There are other options that may be more effective and more appealing to students, so they’re actually hiring more people to do that assessment. Wolverine Wellness is incredibly effective, but it’s often not always well known what Wolverine Wellness can do in terms of providing support. So not only are we strengthening Wolverine Wellness, but we’re also hiring more people and more staff to work on engagement. That engagement strategy is something we started working on during the pandemic called Resource Navigators. We’re actually doing that right now, and we’re hiring people where that will be their specific role as opposed to being volunteers. UHS also has psychiatric care, so we’re actually hiring a few more psychiatrists for UHS.
Then there are all these other plans that follow the recommendations on how we better support students’ ability to find these sources. Right now, we’re investigating the development of an app that will help students figure out where to find mental health resources. We’re also creating plans to better train faculty, who are often the first contact when students are struggling. We want to help faculty to better direct students to give them more resources. Moving into this implementation phase, the increase of resources is not anything new, it’s just been more focused and targeted. So CAPS has been adding counselors incrementally for years such as embedded counselors in the schools and colleges, but this is a concerted effort to change the approach.
TMD: In Fall 2020, many residential advisers went on strike and there were many complaints from students about long lines for the dining halls, among other concerns. As the residential dorms and dining halls have opened to nearly full capacity since the beginning of the semester, what feedback have you received from ResStaff and students about the opening of dining halls and residence halls?
MH: Overall, I think people are pretty satisfied for the most part. I think they’re recognizing we haven’t had a lot of COVID-19 spread in the residence halls. It’s been pretty fascinating that we haven’t had a large level of spread, and I really believe a lot of it has to do with vaccination policy. We started with a requirement to be vaccinated in the residence halls, so that particular population, I believe, is 99% vaccinated. That’s what the Residential Staff members wanted, and it’s paying off in terms of safety. I have not heard the same concerns, fears, frustration nearly as much as last year, and I think the way things are playing out so far, I can see why. A lot of it too is that students are voluntarily, I believe, wearing face coverings. It also removes the need for Residential Staff members to enforce wearing masks.
In terms of dining, we saw lines at the beginning of this year and last fall semester. But this year, it’s happened for two reasons: One, on every campus I’ve worked at it’s been the same, but in the first couple weeks, students are figuring out their patterns and their schedules. Two, what has really been affected this year, is the labor shortage. Just like you’ve seen a labor shortage across the country, that has definitely impacted us in dining as well as the mail centers in the residence halls.
We’re not just sitting around and hoping it’ll sort itself out one day. We actually increased the average wage for all student employees in those areas to $12 an hour, and that’s a costly increase, but it was necessary. Mail centers, for example, are no longer a responsibility for the Residential Staff to do that work, so we started hiring students who live in residence halls or students who don’t live in residence halls and need a job for those positions, and we’ve been able to see some uptake there. The labor shortage is real and a lot of people were surprised that it’s even amongst students, but it is. Not having enough student staff impacts how many stations are open in the dining halls, impacts hours, it impacts how fast we can turn a table. We’re trying to constantly work to overcome that, but it’s been a challenge. If you know students who need a job, if they want to work, we are really reaching out to get more student employees.
TMD: How has Student Life supported student organizations in developing safe plans for meeting with members in various formats such as in-person, hybrid and virtual formats?
MH: That support primarily comes through CCI, the Center for Campus Involvement, and they have a number of different support mechanisms for supporting student organizations during the pandemic. They have workshops that talk about how they can create safe events and link them to CDC recommendations and recommendations of our public health professionals. They also created guides for that, so if you can’t attend a workshop, there’s reference materials that organizations can utilize. They have individual consultations where student organizations’ leaders can sit down and talk in detail about their event and ask some detailed, specialized questions.
The Idea Hub is also a place where not only can student org leaders talk with staff, but they can also talk with each other. If they want to collaboratively plan an event, that’s a great interaction place where they can do that.
Another source would be Conference Services. If a student org has an event, then Conference Services would be able to go into much more detailed type of planning for a whole conference, and they would help a student organization with planning and safety measures. Maybe less formal avenues might be through offices like Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, or the Spectrum Center, or different departments that may generally work with student groups.
TMD: It sounds like there’s a lot to return to in person, but what aspects of last year’s virtual environment have continued as campus is transitioning?
MH: We learned a lot of great things in terms of some of the benefits of virtual and hybrid types of programming. I attended the virtual opening for the Indigenous Peoples Month program. It was a great event, and it’s easier for students sometimes to log on virtually versus maybe coming to campus. What we’ve been trying to do through our planning in Student Life is to strike a balance. You may have people (in-person) in this event space, but you also may have a virtual option so that we can be as inclusive as we can possibly be.
It was important for us particularly to take advantage of the warmer weather and to provide as many in-person (outdoor) options as possible. What was missing during all the virtual life was just that engagement and human interaction. But as we move toward winter when it’s colder, there will probably be more of an emphasis on creatively planning hybrid approaches or virtual approaches.
TMD: Since early October, the University has been reporting a rapid increase in influenza cases that has been spreading over the past month and a half, even though surrounding areas around Washtenaw County have not been reporting any high flu cases. With this large outbreak of flu, concentrated in Washtenaw County and specifically on campus, do you have any indication of how this will affect Student Life moving forward?
MH: The biggest thing that I would say, and I’m so glad this question is asked, is to encourage students to get a flu shot because that will help at least prevent the level of spread and as students travel during the holidays. Nobody wants to travel home with the flu and nobody wants to give their family members the flu. So how it affects Student Life and what we may do, I don’t know. I do know that students should get a flu shot and that I can say with clarity.
Correction 11/29: This articles has been changed to reflect accurate data for vaccination rates on U-M’s campus.
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