Students look to Winter 2021 with skepticism following Fall 2020 semester

Sunday, January 17, 2021 - 8:58pm

Students are skeptical about the upcoming winter semester.

Students are skeptical about the upcoming winter semester. Buy this photo
Maria Deckmann/Daily

The Fall 2020 semester — which included a Graduate Employees’ Organization strike and widespread concerns about COVID-19 policies —  tested the relationship between University of Michigan students and the administration. With the start of the Winter 2021 semester around the corner, many students said they hope the University will improve from last semester and apply lessons learned from the fall to have a more successful winter.

The Winter 2021 semester marks the University’s most overwhelmingly virtual semester, after Winter 2020’s mid-semester shift at the onset of the pandemic and last semester’s attempted hybrid of in-person and majority virtual learning.

Business freshman John Cook said his first semester of primarily virtual classes and limited opportunities for meeting other students was marked by disappointing levels of engagement. At times, Cook said, last semester felt like “watching YouTube videos.”

“One of the most important aspects of college — especially something that Michigan preaches — is (that) you can find people that you can interact with and engage with, and you can find people that push you to think harder,” Cook said. “But when it came down to classes, student engagement was zero.”

COVID-19 response

With the constant threat of COVID-19 looming over campus, University President Mark Schlissel sent out COVID-19 briefings to the University community each week. Some students said they were frustrated with the amount of jargon that the important information was sometimes wrapped up in, making it difficult to actually understand what was going on.

LSA senior Jordyn Houle said something a bit briefer than the emails that are occasionally sent out would help more people understand what is really going on.

“I think a lot of it is just a lot of rhetoric,” Houle said. “These things don’t get to the root of what the University’s response at any given time is. I think there is a lot of obfuscating around what’s going on (in the current briefings).”

The University’s testing policy last semester also fell under heavy scrutiny. While many other institutions implemented plans where students were randomly tested, the University’s plan did not mandate testing for all students. This semester, the administration changed course, electing to test all on-campus students weekly. Students like LSA sophomore Madelin Chau were surprised by the red tape covering University ordained testing in the fall.

“My biggest issue is how difficult it was to find out (how to be tested),” Chau said. “They should have made that more accessible to everyone.”

For the winter semester, the University has expanded testing access to all students, faculty and staff who live or work on campus. Weekly testing is required for undergraduate students who come to campus and will be enforced with checks of the newly updated ResponsiBLUE app upon entering University facilities. Administration also encourages students who live off campus to be tested regularly, particularly those living in Greek or co-op housing.

Students criticized the fact that some groups, including fraternities and sororities, continued to host parties during the fall semester. Chau said she would like to see the administration take further action to stop partying.

“You just hear about so many parties that continue to go on, you see it on Snapchat and things like that, so you know it's happening,” Chau said. “I do think that they need to do something about that, focus more on the Greek Life parties.”

Throughout an unprecedented semester, criticism of the administration persisted, and Houle said she found their actions when it came to COVID-19 to be somewhat soft. Similar to Chau, Houle expects the administration to be much more proactive about enforcement this time around. 

“I think that there was a lot of wishful thinking that this was going to go away without taking much action,” said Houle.

The University announced in November a stricter, “no-tolerance” approach to COVID-19 policy enforcement for the winter semester. University Housing residents will be placed on housing probation -- potentially one step from contract termination -- after their first violation. 

Tuition increase

Before the start of the fall semester, the majority of regents voted to approve a 1.9% tuition increase, after initially failing to pass the proposed budget. Students criticized this decision amid the economic downturn created by the pandemic. LSA senior Amytess Girgis, a recently named Rhodes Scholar and student activist involved in the One University Campaign, said the University has a “deep obligation” to put its money where its mouth is, considering its reputation as a top public university.

“What COVID has really brought out in this university is just a continued lack of ability or desire to allocate its funds appropriately, whether it be to protect students and faculty during a pandemic, or whether it be to provide the necessary financial aid to help people get through these times and any other time,” Girgis said.

Echoing Girgis, other students also said they were frustrated by the juxtaposition between the tuition increase and the perceived decrease in the quality of education due to remote classes.

“I think the tuition increase last semester, in spite of not receiving the same quality of education that students here expect to receive, was pretty disappointing,” Houle said. “Especially considering the $10 billion endowment that they have.”

Use of University buildings for shelter

With the majority of University Housing contracts terminated for the winter semester, community members are now asking the administration what, if anything, will be done with empty buildings on campus. Ann Arbor City Council has raised the possibility of using empty residence halls to shelter the city’s homeless population.

Although they may have a difficult time imagining the University opening its doors, students that spoke to The Daily were very open to the idea.

“I don’t necessarily expect that the University will end up (housing the homeless population),” said Houle. “But in an ideal world, I think that they should definitely try to.”

Girgis, who also voiced support for the repurposing of dorms, stressed the effect that the University has in raising the cost of living in Ann Arbor.

“The university has a direct hand in the rates of homelessness in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County,” Girgis said. “And so not only is it just simply the right thing to do. The university actually has a responsibility, to at least in some small way, make up for the fact that it is actively choosing not to make housing more affordable in Washtenaw County. And beyond that it’s also just the best course to undertake as far as public health goes.”

Cook said that, as a public university that relies partially on public funds, the University has an ethical responsibility to serve the surrounding community.

“I think it’s their duty to aid the homeless population in Ann Arbor,” Cook said. “So, if they have those unused buildings, I think that they should be utilized.”

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily in a December interview that the University has been in touch with Washtenaw County officials to try to understand the community’s needs and see if there’s a way it could be helpful. 

Graduate Employees’ Organization strike

A week into the fall semester, the Graduate Employees’ Organization launched a historic strike in protest of the University’s reopening plans. Girgis said the strike represented a larger underlying issue with a lack of community input into University decisions. She pointed to the controversy surrounding Regent Ron Weiser (R) as another example of this issue of accountability going into the winter semester.

“The fundamental problem with the University administration, at least for the time that I have been here, is that they refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the University community can and should be informing their decisions,” Girgis said. 

Girgis, who is also an activist with the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, emphasized that LEO will be in contract negotiations with the University this semester. According to Girgis, LEO is advocating for demands GEO has also campaigned for in the past, such as higher wages for University employees and increased childcare support. Last Friday, LEO held a bargaining kickoff rally in anticipation of the months of negotiations ahead.

“LEO is bargaining starting next week and (making) a lot of demands that are important, not only for them, but for the University community as a whole,” Girgis said. “The administration would do well to listen.”

Daily Staff Reporters Christian Juliano and Julianna Morano can be reached at julianoc@umich.edu and jucomora@umich.edu.


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