GEO hosts virtual town hall to discuss COVID-19 concerns

Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 9:55pm

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Courtesy of Navya Gupta

The Graduate Employees’ Organization held a virtual town hall Thursday evening to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on graduate students and an open letter sent to the University of Michigan Board of Regents, University President Mark Schlissel, Interim Provost Susan Collins and other University officials. Rackham students Katherine McLean and Jeff Lockhart co-chaired the GEO COVID Caucus and led the meeting.

The caucus sent an open letter, signed by over 1,800 community members, to the University on May 8, demanding an additional year of funding to doctoral students, extensions of degree milestones by a full academic year, emergency COVID-19 relief grants to graduate students, protection of international graduate students and the option for Graduate Student Instructors to teach remotely. The letter also requested a graduate student seat at the table discussing reopening for the fall 2020 semester.

GEO accumulated 222 testimonials detailing struggles faced by graduate students and the resources that could help them. 

The caucus sent the open letter to the University requesting a response within a week. On May 15, GEO received an email response from the University stating the demands were not financially feasible.  

“On the seventh day at the eleventh hour, (the University) sent a response that effectively says that they are already doing enough and our demands are not financially feasible,” Lockhart said. “By saying that our demands are not financially feasible (the University) managed to ignore a bunch of demands that had zero dollar costs. Letting one of us sit at the table in the decisions about how to open up in the fall does not cost any money.”

The caucus wrote a follow-up letter on May 19 requesting a proper response from the University by May 22, but the University did not respond.

Some initiatives he University has taken amid the pandemic to address current graduate student needs include the availability of $2500 in funding through Rackham; parking, housing and dining rebates through the summer; the choice of having Pass/Satisfactory for the winter semester on transcripts and Rackham deadline extensions.

Lockhart said the caucus is reaching out to union lawyers about updating housing contracts and working with other unions and community groups so graduate students are able to acquire assistance from the University to combat the difficulties created by COVID-19.

“We are conducting research into University finances, enrollment projections and public health and safety projections,” Lockhart said. “(The University) hasn’t been particularly forthcoming on that but we are a public research university and a resourceful bunch of people so we are making progress.”

Rackham student Nishita Trisal said the caucus is working with junior faculty who, like GSIs, were not given tenure extensions and had to apply for tenure clock exclusions to garner more leverage. 

“One of the things that we are going to build upon now is creating alliances between graduate students and junior faculty,” Trisal said. “We are both asking for (tenure) extensions.”

Rackham student Lucas Chalhoub said the University’s response to COVID-19 takes students back to times where graduate degrees were only accessible to people with independent wealth. He urged graduate students to join the caucus and contribute to inciting a better response to COVID-19 from the University.

“For the love of God, join the caucus,” Chalhoub said. “We can always use more people. There is a bunch of organizing (graduate students) can do on a departmental level. Reach out to faculty who you know are trustworthy and organize your friends.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at itznavya@umich.edu.