Faculty, students distressed by gaps in ‘U’ housing communication

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 7:44pm

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Design by Noah Finer

The University of Michigan faculty were not informed of the March 17 email sent to University on-campus residents titled “URGENT: Petition to Remain in Housing,” according to an email LSA Dean Anne Curzan and Timothy McKay, associate dean for undergraduate education of LSA, sent to LSA faculty Tuesday night obtained by The Daily.

“We only learned of this message after it was forwarded to us,” Curzan and McKay wrote. “We cannot imagine what a distressing and disruptive message this was to receive for students still living in the dorms. We have been advocating for the students during the afternoon and are doing what we can to help in the wake of this sudden announcement.”

The email to on-campus residents directed students to return home, citing new developments in the COVID-19 pandemic. It said students needed to have a request approved to remain in University Housing and that students should expect dining and residence halls to consolidate. The “request to remain in housing” form, which asked students to explain why they must remain on-campus, was due less than twenty-four hours later. 

“This information is needed by 8am on Wednesday, March 18th,” University Housing wrote. “If you do not respond we will assume you have left campus and will discontinue building access.”

Kambiz Khalili, associate vice president of student life, followed up with an email to on-campus residents the next day to address and clarify messaging from the initial March 17 email.

“I am writing first to apologize for the anxiety, concerns and confusion created by the message you received yesterday regarding Housing move-out and consolidation,” Khalili wrote. “I also wish to clarify that you were not required to have moved out by 8:00 am this morning.”

Physics professor Yuri Popov told The Daily that on Tuesday night he started receiving emails from students requesting alternate exam times for the Physics 140 midterm scheduled for Thursday because they would be moving out of residence halls that day. When Popov asked the students why they couldn’t move out a different day, he was forwarded the University Housing email. 

Popov said he immediately wrote an email to Physics Departments Chair David Gerdes and McKay expressing his frustrations with the lack of communication to faculty regarding student housing situations.

“Why is no one communicating to us about this?” Popov wrote in his email to the department. “Why … are we the last to know that thousands of our students are in a state of crisis the day before they are supposed to take our exams, which were canceled last week in a similarly chaotic and poorly organized way? We need our leadership now. We need communication and guidance. AWOL is unacceptable and outright harmful in this situation. We don't need motivational messages. We need someone to lead and inform us on logistics and actions.”

Popov stressed the need for a more holistic approach to student well-being that allows professors to take into account both academic and personal needs. 

“It shouldn’t be that attitude that, ‘You guys just keep on teaching, and we’ll take care of students,’” Popov said. “That’s the completely wrong attitude because we need to know what’s going on with the students. … Look (at) how it looked from the student’s perspective. If instructors are kept in the dark, what happens here is from the student’s perspective they’ve been kicked out of the dorms and at the same time the physics professor sends them an email that says ‘hey guys, I’ll see you tomorrow at 9am in my online class.’”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald noted that Housing has apologized for Tuesday’s message, and wrote that the University is focused on the important work moving forward.

“Messaging since that time has been well coordinated across the campus community,” Fitzgerald wrote. “That’s the most important factor.”

Nick Seewald, Rackham student and graduate student instructor, made adjustments to due dates for his Statistics 250 sections after he received the email from Curzan and McKay. 

“My responsibility as a GSI is to make sure students can learn and learn well, and oftentimes that is hindered by people having to take care of basic needs and worrying about things like ‘where am I going to live tomorrow?’” Seewald said. 

Seewald said better communication, or “at least a heads up,” that some students might be leaving campus abruptly would have made it easier to facilitate classes.

“It would have made the situation seem like it was more unified, like there was at least some conversation about this across different areas of the University,” Seewald said. “As it was, I sort of found out at 10 p.m. and realized that that was less than 12 hours before the stated deadline for students to apply to stay in the dorms. It made things difficult to respond appropriately without a lot of lean time.”

Seewald noted that the COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented situation for the University and didn’t ascribe any ill intent to the lack of communication. 

“Everybody’s under a lot of pressure right now, and there’s a lot of pressure to act fast,” Seewald said. “So, I can empathize with the decision to act fast, but it definitely caused a scramble.”

First-year Law student Jessica Paduganan created a petition titled, “Petition for Clarification and Representation Regarding Plans for the Lawyers Club” Tuesday, because she was anxious and confused about the effect Tuesday’s University Housing email had on the Lawyers Club Graduate Residence. The petition had over 50 law student signatures as of Tuesday afternoon when Paduganan sent it to the Law School administration.

“We have asked the Lawyers Club administration to clarify the email, but to our surprise and dismay, they were also unaware of this email or what it could possibly mean for us,” Paduganan wrote. “We understand that these decisions are being made at another level, but the lack of clarifying information, which should be sent after these central University emails, leads us to think that there is no one from Law School Housing who is participating in, and advocating for us in these meetings.”

Paduganan said Tuesday’s University Housing email put graduate students in a hard position because many haven’t lived with their parents for years and don’t have a place to return to. 

“There’s a whole variety of reasons why ‘going home’ is not an option for people,” Paduganan said. “I don’t think that the University understood that saying ‘go home’ felt like we were being pushed out, that we were not welcome here and that the University of Michigan was not home to us.”

Paduganan has since spoken with the Lawyers Club administration, and she appreciated Wednesday’s follow-up email and University Housing’s $1,200 refund to all students who move out of residence halls and University apartments by March 25.

“I think some of the steps the University is taking is moving in the right direction, like starting to offer some refunds, clarifying the situation, apologizing for the tone and some of the anxiety they’ve caused,” Paduganan said. 

LSA freshman Lindsey Haughton, an out-of-state student, initially planned on staying in Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall long-term after the move to online classes. She said Tuesday’s housing email quickly changed those plans, and an exam Wednesday morning and a paper due Wednesday night added to her stress. 

“It was just really overwhelming and chaotic, especially because the days that they had given us off were last week when it seemed like people could stick around,” Haughton said. “And so, to have all those assignments looming during this time when we did actually have to move out of the dorms was really stressful.”

Haughton appreciated the effort by her professors to accommodate her move back home to New York Wednesday.  

“I reached out to my English teacher, for example, and had a paper deadline moved for that day. But teachers seemed to be primarily unaware that this was going on, which I think added to the stress,” Haughton said. “I was lucky that I had a relationship with mine and she trusted that this chaos was going on.”

Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.