Regents hear public commenters call for student representation, expanded support ahead of in-person academic year

Thursday, July 16, 2020 - 10:12pm

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Courtesy of Arjun Thakkar

The Board of Regents held its sixth meeting of the year Thursday afternoon to hear from public commenters urging the University of Michigan to consider student input on administrative decisions and to continue expanding plans for an in-residence academic year.

All Regents, except Regent Katherine White (D), and University executive officers were present for the meeting. This was the first meeting in which Regents Denise Ilitch (D) and Jordan Acker (D) served as chair and vice chair of the board.

During the regular agenda, University President Mark Schlissel announced he was appointing Susan M. Collins to the position of University Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. Collins began serving as acting Provost, and later interim Provost, shortly after former Provost Martin Philbert was placed on administrative leave and later removed amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Schlissel also commented on the recently mandated facemask policy, which requires everyone on campus grounds to wear a face covering. 

“The research is clear that wearing a face covering is one of the most effective tools we have for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives,” Schlissel said. “It’s difficult to maintain distance from groups even when outdoors on a busy University campus, and so, face coverings outdoors will help slow the spread of the virus as well.” 

Schlissel said he was pleased to hear the Department of Homeland Security policy that required international students taking exclusively online classes to leave the U.S. was revoked, meaning international students will be permitted to remain in the country if their classes are all remote. He referenced the amicus brief the University filed in support of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s lawsuit to block the regulation.

“International students are core members of our institutions,” Schlissel said. “They make valuable contributions in our classrooms, campuses and communities, contributions that have helped make American education the envy of the world. International students contribute to a diversity of thought background and experience that promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society. We strongly disagree with arbitrary restrictions on international students that might force them to risk their health in order to continue their studies.”

Twelve members from the University community were permitted to address the regents during the  public comment portion of the event. The speakers discussed the idea of student representation on the board, plans for the upcoming in-person semester and efforts to provide adequate funding to the Flint and Dearborn campuses. 

During the June 29 special Regents meeting, University President Mark Schlissel announced the Flint and Dearborn campuses would receive a shared $20 million fund, double the $10 million that was previously allocated in the budget presented at the June 25 meeting.

Engineering Junior Labiba Qazi, vice president of Dearborn Student Government and member of One University, an organization advocating for equitable funding at the University’s three campuses, argued for transparency with the designated resources. Qazi emphasized the University should use the funding to prioritize students’ needs. She referred to a May 2020 proposal published by 1U that called on the administration to extend the Go Blue Guarantee and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives to Dearborn and Flint.

“It is incredibly important for (the) administration to actively engage with the campaign in order to determine costs and work through specifics for how to implement these policies,” Qazi said. “At minimum, there should also be some sort of student platform for representative students to make and possibly vote on decisions regarding the allocated funding. This allows for oversight and lets students be the decision makers for the funding the students and faculty fought for.”

Rackham student Ryan Glauser called on the board to expand funding and testing capabilities for the University Health Service in accordance with federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. Glauser described a recent incident he experienced in which 20 people came into contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, but UHS only tested four of them while the others paid to test themselves elsewhere after UHS asked them to self-quarantine.

“Austerity has led to UHS being understaffed, underfunded and unprepared for a pandemic,” Glauser said. “However, we are at a point where we can fix this mistake before a more calamitous one occurs when about 50,000 faculty, students and staff return to campus over the next month. For starters, U-M must increase UHS’s testing capacity to be able to test the entire U-M community within a week. Anything less than that puts the entire U-M community at risk. You all have a chance to truly honor your commitment of being a people’s business. Falling short on testing will lead to excess death.”

Rackham student Kathleen Brown said the Wolverine Culture of Care Pledge, which calls on students to share collective responsibility in limiting spread of the coronavirus, does not align with layoffs and the decision to hold an in-person school year because the choice threatens the health and safety of the community. 

“Shared responsibility is evoked again and again in times of crisis, encouraging us all to pitch in,” Brown said. “Yet despite this rhetoric of care, the University’s actions demonstrate that it values its endowment over workers and students’ needs, causing hardship and harm … If the University believed in a real culture of care, it would recognize how this pandemic has negatively affected us and it would commit to mitigate these negative consequences. Otherwise, all talk of care rings hollow.”

Spyros Kasapis, an Engineering Ph.D. student, is a member of the Coalition to Elect Students to the Board of Regents. Kasapis criticized the Regents for the time restrictions on public comments and making decisions about students without considering their input. He referred to the June 29 special meeting when the administration approved the 2020-2021 school year budget and tuition increases without offering an opportunity for public comment.

“Students should have a say on decisions that directly affect them,” Kasapis said. “In short, among the many things we are demanding is clear student representation in votes on the Board of Regents (just like) at many schools in the United States, for example the University of California. Many of our student members, including me, ask you to nullify the tuition increase which you voted (for) behind closed doors. From now on, you should expect to hear a lot from us.” 

Regent Paul Brown (D) responded to Kasapis’s demands for student involvement, stating he supported having student representation on the board, but it was not within the administration’s control since, as mandated by the state constitution, a student would have to be elected in order to serve.

“Membership on the board is described in the state of Michigan’s Constitution, and so the board itself does not have the ability to designate members or what groups they’re from, but the constitution does not prohibit a student from running for the Board of Regents,” Brown said.

Amanda Kaplan, Central Student Government president, in her first report to the board, explained what she and CSG Vice President Saveri Nandigama have been working on since being elected. She also commented on the controversial tuition increases and lack of student input in passing the budget.

“Students really want to feel heard, and they were especially disappointed about the tuition increase and the lack of student representation in this process,” Kaplan said. “We are hoping to have CSG host a town hall to connect students with relevant administrators regarding all that has happened this summer and all that will continue to happen in the fall. I hope that some of you will consider attending to listen to student concerns and answer any questions they may have.”

Daily Staff Reporters Arjun Thakkar and Alexandra Greenberg can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu and aggreenb@umich.edu