‘U’ faculty organize 3-day protest, demand transparency from administration

Wednesday, August 19, 2020 - 10:25pm

University of Michigan faculty, staff and graduate students protest the University’s reopening plans regarding COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon.

University of Michigan faculty, staff and graduate students protest the University’s reopening plans regarding COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

More than 60 University of Michigan faculty, staff and graduate students protested the University’s reopening plans regarding COVID-19 on Tuesday. The protest, held in front of the Fleming Administration Building, was part of a three-day long demonstration. 

About half the group marched through the Diag and University President Mark Schlissel’s house, where they continued to chant in opposition of the University’s reopening plan.

Information Professor Kentaro Toyama organized the protest after the administration did not respond to an open letter sent to faculty and staff members with concerns regarding reopening.

“As instructors, we are really putting in overtime… to adapt our courses to this very difficult conception of a hybrid instructional style,” Toyama said. “I would say I'm just sorely disappointed in the administration fundamentally not treating us with respect, or not treating us as the faculty peers that we are and making decisions almost entirely without significant community (feedback).”

The group has three main demands of the University: allowing graduate students to opt out of in-person teaching for any reason without retaliation, “dramatically buttressing” its plans for testing and being more transparent in their reasoning for opening campus in the fall.

Later on Tuesday, Schlissel sent an email to all faculty and staff providing more details on the University’s plans for testing. Testing will still be limited to symptomatic individuals. A surveillance testing program will also randomly test about 3,000 people, both on- off-campus, per week. 

The protesters also want the University to specify what conditions would cause the transition to fully online instruction.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald did not provide specific numbers when The Daily asked what thresholds would justify closing campus. Fitzgerald also confirmed Tuesday that the University still plans to reopen with a hybrid approach despite the spur of colleges moving online in recent days. 

On Tuesday, the socially-distanced protestors chanted slogans such as “If we’re the ‘Leaders and the Best,’ our slogan should be: Test, test, test.” They repeated the phrase “No Swiss Cheese,” referring to the "swiss cheese metaphor" created by the School of Public Health regarding the University’s “multi-layered” preventative approach that will supposedly cover gaps of any one safety technique. 

Ryan Glauser, caucus chair of Graduate Employees' Organization, attended the protest to support faculty and staff demands and shared how the lack of response from the University has led GEO to the alternative methods of impact bargaining and protesting. He said GEO has previously met with University Deans, but when the groups scheduled follow-up meetings, the Deans canceled them.

“When (the Deans) don’t want to talk to us, (they) force us down a path that we try not to go down,” Glauser said. “It’s one of escalation and protests, actions and demands, which we don’t want to do but if you force our hand then we’re going to do (these actions).”

Schlissel said in an interview with The Daily last week he is a “little insulted” when people say students will not safely social distance and follow other public health protocol.

However, Rackham student Gabby Sarpy, who is also a graduate student instructor, said she has seen a lack of social distancing happening throughout the summer from other University students. Sarpy said she does not believe some students will choose to social distance on campus once classes start. 

“Even the University itself knows that it’s not realistic that we’re going to reopen,” Sharpy said. “It’s not realistic that students are going to come back on campus and not bring COVID with them and spread it amongst themselves.”

Washtenaw County Health Department announced a new order Wednesday limiting gatherings to 25 people for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas, but the general State of Michigan’s policy for outdoor gatherings remains 100 people. The FAQ portion about the order cites the return of college students being the main reason why these restrictions are being set.

Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak told The Daily she was concerned about the safety of lecturers since the majority of first-year Art and Design classes will be taught in-person. Modrak said the University’s decision to implement in-person fall classes shows a lack of public health-informed policies.

“I’m amazed we’re not completely online by this point,” Modrak said. “Watching every other school in the country that opens up and shut down within a few days — like the University of North Carolina shut down yesterday only after four days. We have a president who is a scientist and he’s not paying any attention to the evidence or using it to inform decisions. It’s sort of all on a hope and a prayer.”

Art and Design professor Nick Pobier is also an Ann Arbor Public Schools parent and speculated that students returning to campus is a major reason AAPS are going online in the fall. Pobier said he believes the University can take better action in reopening to ensure the safety of the Ann Arbor community. 

“As a parent of Ann Arbor Public Schools children, one of the reasons why our public schools are not open in the fall is because of the fear of U of M students coming to campus,” Pobier said. “So as a good neighbor, the University could do a much better job thinking of the impact of a mass migration of thousands of young people to Ann Arbor. I think we can do a lot better than this.”

Sarpy also discussed the funding that students bring to the University by staying on campus, which she said she believes the administration is valuing more than the health and safety of its community. 

“It doesn’t even matter that Michigan numbers aren’t as bad as some other places in the United States right now because we have students coming from everywhere and all of that travel, all of the things that go along with that, they’re going to bring back COVID … They want students to come back because it makes financial sense to them,” Sarpy said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu