SACUA talks fall 2021 semester, government relations
SACUA talks student life for fall 2021 semester. Courtesy of Vanita Seed.

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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs met virtually Monday to hear presentations on the University of Michigan’s student life plans for the upcoming fall semester and the University’s ongoing relationship with local and state governments. Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, and Chris Kolb, vice president for government relations, presented at Monday’s meeting.

Harmon joined the meeting to discuss the University’s plans for a mostly in-person fall 2021 semester, which was announced March 12. 

“(The Office of Student Life’s) goal is the goal of the entire institution — to get back to a residential experience or what we would call a close to normal, or new normal, or whatever you want to say,” Harmon said. “There will still be safety measures in place. We likely will have masking and testing and social distancing.”

Part of the University’s plan, Harmon explained, is to open residence halls to 80% capacity with the “projected expectation of 50% of the students who wish to live in housing being vaccinated,” Harmon said. The University also anticipates U-M athletics will be able to host fans in the stands at the Michigan Stadium and the Crisler Center, if public health measures allow.

Harmon also acknowledged the abnormal dining hall experience this semester, with meals being take-out only, but noted that the University plans to offer dine-in and to-go options for students in the fall with the assumption that vaccination rates increase. 

“We heard a lot of pushback from our dining student employees and we decided not to do (in-person dining) this year, but next year with more vaccinations we plan to have dine-in or to-go with some students,” Harmon said. “All facilities will certainly have expanded access, longer hours, sort of (a) back-to-normal state and (there will be) more opportunities for student organizations to gather in-person.”

Harmon also addressed the mental health issues that students were having during the Fall 2020 semester, noting that he hopes to increase in-person student engagement while also following public health guidelines.

“We had a fall survey, which many of you may be aware of, and it identified how students are feeling lonely (and) isolated over work (or) exhausted just from the online learning,” Harmon said. “And so we needed to do something to increase student engagement, but we needed to do that (while) thinking about the fact that, at that time, we were in winter, where people were indoors. We had a really high number of case counts.”

Harmon said the Office of Student Life created a task force at the start of the Winter 2021 semester composed of staff from the Spectrum Center and Student Life to brainstorm how they could better support students and their mental health. Harmon said Student Life also created a “Find Community” page at the start of the Winter 2021 semester on their website to help students virtually connect with one another. 

“(Students) can find an array of different opportunities just to (connect with other students) and if they want to serve on a board or committee, they click that room and find opportunities to do that,” Harmon said. “If they want to volunteer, they can click here to find different ways to volunteer. We also launched a program called ‘Resource Navigator.’ … Our outreach is just to check in with (first-and second-year students), to say (to them), ‘How are you doing, what connections are you making, how can I help?’”

After Harmon’s presentation, SACUA Chair Colleen Conway facilitated a Q&A session with members of SACUA about plans for the fall semester. Engineering professor Allen Liu asked if there was any data on student mental health during the fall 2020 semester. 

“At one point it was about a 30% increase in requests for service around mental health, as compared to the previous year,” Harmon said. “It’s hard to compare last semester (since it) got broken up by the pandemic.”

Another question posed to Harmon asked how faculty can better support students, both in terms of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing fight for racial justice amid instances of police brutality.

“The more we can work together to address the traumas as well as just mental health in general, the more opportunities we can have to be able to address issues or be able to route students to the appropriate channels,” Harmon said. “The more (Student Life and faculty) can work together and see it not as ‘that’s a Student Life issue’ or ‘that’s a faculty issue,’ I think we’ll be able to address the multiple challenges that we faced this year.”

During the Q&A, Faculty Senate Director MaryJo Banasik mentioned student academic integrity and the possible rise of academic dishonesty during online semesters.

“We’ve had some issues with exam questions and responses and solutions being posted online, and full faculty documents as well,” Banasik said. “I wasn’t sure if Student Life looks at those academic integrity issues as well as some other offices on campus, so I just thought it might be an issue to put out there.”

Harmon replied that he didn’t know much about that issue.

Kolb then introduced his role, which involves managing the University’s local, state and federal government relations. Kolb was appointed the position in December 2020 after replacing Cynthia Wilbanks, who retired after serving the role for 22 years.

Kolb was asked about the University’s relationship with the Washtenaw County Health Department, to which he responded that the partnership has so far been productive.

“It’s actually been pretty good,” Kolb said. “We interact with our own public health approach, interact with the county in weekly meetings. I think my first weekend was when the COVID variant B.1.1.7 issue popped up on campus, and we had to work not only with the county but with the state as well on that.”

LSA professor Elena Gallo asked Kolb about the challenges that come with working as a liaison between the University and the state and local governments.

“What COVID has shown us is that we definitely need to have a game plan for when these types of situations occur,” Kolb said. “This won’t be the last pandemic, and it won’t be the last big issue that hits us in the sort of way. We need to have a playbook to pull off the shelf and look at. It’s important to understand these types of situations, whether that be public health, climate (and so on).”

LSA professor Douglas Richstone, chair of the Financial Affairs Advisory Committee for SACUA, and Dentistry professor Martha McComas wrapped up the meeting with updates from the Committee on the Economic and Social Well-Being of the Faculty. Richstone discussed FAAC’s increasing collaboration with the University since the start of the pandemic, which he said has been positive.

“The business and finance part of the University has used (FAAC) as a sounding board as they struggle through the chaos associated with the pandemic,” Richstone said. “That has led to a very good working relationship (with the University).”

After the updates, SACUA transitioned the meeting into a closed session to draft a SACUA statement in response to recent controversy surrounding University Regent Ron Weiser (R), whose misogynistic and violent comments at a recent North Oakland Republican Club meeting spurred criticism from University administrators and calls for his resignation from members of the Board of Regents.

SACUA’s statement — which was released March 29 — “strongly rejects and condemns” Weiser’s comments, saying that his language perpetuated violent and “misogynistic attitudes that continue to oppress women and girls.”

“Disrespect of women and incitement to violence against elected officials is a betrayal of the trust our community – students, faculty and staff – places on Regent Weiser,” the statement reads. “SACUA believes strongly and without any hesitation that Regent Weiser cannot be an effective leader in our community.”

All U-M Faculty Senate members, lecturers and clinical faculty members were sent the statement and may choose to endorse it.

Daily News Contributor Vanita Seed can be reached at vseed@umich.edu.

Update: This article has been updated with SACUA’s March 29 statement regarding controversial comments made by University Regent Ron Weiser (R).