The time to act is now. While COVID-19 may feel like it is pulling focus away from the issues that we care about, there has never been a time where student action at the University of Michigan, especially collective action, will be as effective as it will be right now. The fundamental disruption COVID-19 has caused to the four-year, traditional college model is the perfect storm for holding institutions accountable and making institutional change.
The four-year college model is a contrived but carefully curated system of educational and social experience designed to sequester money from students while theoretically providing them avenues for personal and educational growth. This model relies on the expectation that students will be focused on themselves rather than the larger community. Known for its brand strength and disappointing track record on issues of transparency and social change, the University uses this model to keep student voices quiet during their time at the University. After two years of personal experience and conversations with friends, classmates, alumni and others I’ve distilled the general University of Michigan college experience into this theory: The U-M undergraduate experience is designed so that students only have one year of focused activism and social awareness before they graduate.
Freshman year, the year of many firsts, is when the University plunges students into the deep maize-and-blue sea of unwavering school pride. Summer orientation in East Quad Residence Hall, Convocation at the Crisler Center, the thrill of life away from parents, a fall of Michigan Football games, UMixes on weekends, fraternity and sorority rush, basement band shows and other quintessential dreams of freshman year leave little room to look around at the systemic injustices at the University. At its core, freshman year is spent learning how to go to college and being taught to unequivocally love the University of Michigan.
Sophomore year, the year where the initial shine fades, is a time when students actually begin to learn and to open their eyes to the systems around them. The stresses of living off-campus, declaring a major, saving grade point averages and moving beyond freshman-year friendships, all begin to crack both the student and the facade created by the University. Students observe what appear to be isolated incidents: Administration and faculty members being accused of sexual misconduct, the University making decisions on important policy behind suspiciously closed doors and whispers of inequality at the Dearborn and Flint satellite campuses. With freshly awakened senses, the University begins to fear sophomores.
Junior year: the year of awakening. While there are students both cognizant of the deep-seated institutional flaws and working to fight them throughout their entire career at the University, I’ve observed junior year is the year of change for most. No longer needing acclimation to college, and having spent two years at the University, many students open their eyes to the systemic problems that plague the administration. Two years of life at the University of Michigan is generally enough time to tear down the facade of compassion and community the University spends so much time and money cultivating our freshman year. Years of mistreatment, malpractice and lack of transparency shows that these are not isolated incidents but patterns of negligence, lack of care and betrayal. This realization leads many juniors to join activist groups, speak out about their experiences, and pressure the administration to make substantive change. Two years is enough for students to realize that the University does not have a commitment to transparency or action surrounding sexual assault and misconduct as seen through the need for the WilmerHale report and SMTD Climate Survey, and the allegations surrounding David Daniels, Stephen Shipps and Martin Philbert. Two years is enough for students to realize that the University does not commit to making itself do anything more than appear to care about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, as evidenced by the constant mistreatment of the University of Michigan-Flint and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, lack of substantive action on racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and allowing Division of Public Safety and Security officers to remain armed. Two years is long enough for students to realize their voices will not be sought out when making critical and long-term decisions that affect them, especially the voices of disabled students, evidenced through the Michigan Union redesign and COVID-19 precautions. Two years is enough for many to realize the administration just doesn’t care, through actions like raising tuition during a pandemic and holding a University Board of Regents meeting without public comments when making this decision.
Come senior year, many are either burned out and ready to leave or holding on as tightly as possible to the college experience vanishing before their eyes. Alumni I spoke to reflected on focusing on post-graduate plans or doing a highlight reel of their favorite experiences at the University, pivoting away from the drive and focus of their junior year work. Understandably, senior year is a time to begin parting ways with the University of Michigan.
This model comforts the administration as they generally only bear the full brunt of a student’s activism and attention for one year. However, COVID-19 has substantially disrupted this model for the first time in recent memory with students making the decision to take gap semesters, take classes fully remote and therefore become more distanced from the University. Student groups and activists must work to collectivize their efforts, push for broader support among the student body and apply as much pressure as possible on the administration. For the foreseeable future, all attention can and should be focused on the failings of the administration. No longer can the veil of game days, tailgates, late dinners in the dining hall with friends, on-campus events, musicals, Guy Fieri night at Mosher-Jordan Hall and weekend ragers cloud the student body’s vision of the failings of the University administration. No “Go Blue” blinder will be put over the incoming freshman class’s eyes, this group being welcomed not by pageantry and celebration, but with increased tuition during a pandemic. We must turn their focus and anger towards the University’s mishandling of COVID-19 that will likely affect them for years to come. We must propel sophomores to turn their nervous energy and stress into a driving force for the movement, no longer needing the year to fully realize the systemic issues behind their isolated observations. Finally, no longer will seniors be able to relive their previous years on campus or be distracted by endless and extensive job searches. We must turn their focus and frustration towards leaving the University a better place than it was when they arrived for leadership for the initial push.
Already groups and pages like @blackatmichigan, @FightBackUMich, @AbolishMichiganIFCandPanhel, @HowCouldWeTrustUM and Students Demand Representation have been making appeals to both the student body and administration, cognizant of the critical window of opportunity to make change. Collectivizing these missions into coalition-like efforts will make these ripples into waves. Activist groups must seize this time to get their message out and consolidate their efforts, and work with other groups to mobilize action, even across seemingly disparate fields. The intersectionality between issues of racial justice, sexual assault and misconduct, COVID-19 care and general transparency issues will make collective efforts effective during this unprecedented and limited window of action. The time is now. Let’s work hard, work together and teach our leadership how to be Leaders and the Best.
Andrew Gerace can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.