Residential staff concerns go unanswered at town hall with 'U' administration

Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - 12:26am

Residential Staff shares grievances with University administration in town hall Monday night

Residential Staff shares grievances with University administration in town hall Monday night Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

University of Michigan leadership held an impromptu town hall with resident advisers Monday night in response to an open letter RAs sent Sunday night with a list of demands and safety concerns. At its peak, 118 people attended the meeting and almost 100 stayed more than half an hour past the scheduled end time to continue airing their grievances with administration.

Throughout the town hall, residential staff continuously asked questions and raised concerns with the current safety policies, receiving few specific answers.

RAs are currently helping with student move-in, which started Monday morning and will continue throughout the week.

In their Sunday night letter, RAs demanded stronger health measures such as plexiglass installed in bathrooms, more personal protective equipment when working with residents and increased sanitation of bathrooms.

They also asked the University for a written statement with clauses to protect the RAs from retaliation for criticizing University Housing and for the administration to be more transparent in its communication. As of Monday night, the letter has been signed by a total of 170 community members,  110 of whom are RAs.

The meeting took place on Rick Gibson’s first day as the University’s director of housing. The University has not formally introduced Gibson, who previously worked with the University of Georgia’s residential services. Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, and other several administrators were also on the call.

The meeting began with introductions from administration members, which took up more than half of the allotted hour. Amy Gauthier, deputy director of housing, began by saying that Housing Administration appreciated the RA letter.

“What all of you have taken the time to do is really be able to write a heartfelt message that identified some of the questions that you still had, some of the concerns that you have,” Gauthier said. “So what we wanted to do as a leadership team was really not waste any time but to get you folks here in front of the leadership team, not only in housing but within student life, to be able to answer any questions.”

Harmon addressed the issue of retaliation, one of most pressing worries listed by the RAs. Over half of the attendees had their cameras turned off and set their names as anonymous on the call.

“I want to make this really, really clear: Anyone expressing concerns about health and safety will not cause any reflection on your appointment, your position with Residence Life,” Harmon said. “Retaliation against any employee who expresses concerns, whether it’s formal or informal, is prohibited and won’t be tolerated.”

Some RAs said they were concerned by a lack of COVID-19 testing for RAs, especially during move-in when students are tightly packed in small spaces. Robert Ernst, director of University Health Services, said large-scale testing might not be effective. 

“We don’t test the health care workers, nurses and doctors and things, who are really seeing folks — they’re not tested, I've never been tested,” Ernst said. “(I’ve been going) to the hospital every week since March, and many of my peers also have never been tested ... Having a test doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID.”

University President Mark Schlissel has said that regularly testing all students would be “science fiction,” though schools such as the University of Illinois plans to test students twice weekly. At the same town hall for faculty held earlier this month, Schlissel said testing could give people a “false sense of security” that they might use as an excuse to party.

Ernst and Schlissel’s arguments contradict the advice of public health experts. Though testing does not prevent individuals from contracting the virus, it can help detect positive cases for quarantine and contact tracing purposes. 

Some experts have called for regular surveillance testing of asymptomatic students to monitor spread throughout the semester. One study suggested that in order for colleges to safely reopen, they must test all students every couple of days.

Jasmine Clay, director of residence education, said the administration is grateful that RAs are looking out for their residents’ health and safety.

“I know I think we say a lot that we appreciate you all, and we wouldn’t be able to do this without you,” Clay said. “But I feel like this moment would be remiss to not acknowledge what I hear is concern and pain and care and passion in your voice, whoever you are, so I just wanted to take a moment to share.”

One RA said many of the leadership’s responses deflected RA concerns, saying it seemed like administrators were filibustering for time.

“I understand why all of you are saying ‘Thank you for doing this, and thank you to the RAs for doing that,’ but it’s simply wasting time to do that when we really would appreciate it more if you would answer our questions,” they said.

As the meeting neared the hour mark, many attendees began pushing for an extension of the meeting or for University leadership to agree on a set date to hold another town hall. Students began unmuting themselves and jumping in to comment. 

One speaker requested direct answers from administration to the concerns posed in their RA letter. 

“Please just tell us if any of the action items on the letter will be met,” they said. “You are calling them ‘questions.’ They are action items, and we are just asking if any of those action items will be met. If you could please just answer that with a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ that would save a lot of time.”

The question went unanswered by leadership, and another person continued by asking administrators to set a timeline to address the RAs’ action items.

“I think I speak on behalf of a lot of staff that move-in week is one of the most dangerous conditions we’re going to face,” they said. “If we don’t figure that out now, and if we don’t have PPE (personal protective equipment) as soon as possible, we’re not going to be safe. Doing the work that we’re expected to do personally makes me feel unsafe. I’m assuming it makes a lot of undergrads unsafe.” 

Though many of the RAs spoke of undergraduate housing, graduate RAs also attended the meeting. In late May, graduate students pushed back against a “hold harmless” clause added to the Community Living at Michigan contract that released the University from liability in case students contracted the virus in residence halls.

A graduate RA said student behavior in Munger Graduate Residence Hall over the summer could predict future behavior in undergraduate residence halls.

“We’ve shut down our lounges and put caution tape up and we’re still having residents consistently in those spaces, so it’s great that you’re saying people should have personal responsibility,” they said. “But we’re the people that are actually on the ground, seeing what residents are doing, and we live in these spaces and we see very clearly that residents are not respecting the signs that we’ve put up or the safety guidelines that have been implemented.”

RAs also said they were worried about having to enforce behavioral guidelines, which they said may put them into dangerous situations. Kambiz Khalili, associate vice president of student life, said he is dedicated to ensuring students living in residential halls are following guidelines. Those who do not will have their contracts terminated, Khalili said.

“We do understand this is a dangerous situation and the restorative justice process is what we are using, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do anything about the whole thing,” Khalili said. “If folks are not complying, the contract will be terminated. So we will be working on that, and hopefully, you’ll have some more detailed, specific information for you on that matter as well.”

An RA told administrators they were disappointed with what they called the leadership’s lack of knowledge and preparation.

“We all expected our questions to be answered, and for all of you to know what was in that letter,” they said. “So it’s infuriating to come into a meeting where we have expectations, and they’re not met in any way, shape or form for at least the first 45 minutes of the meeting.”

At the end of the meeting, Harmon said RAs would receive a written statement promising non-retaliation Tuesday morning. Multiple administrators also said they would look at scheduling another meeting with RAs in the near future.

Daily Staff Reporters Francesca Duong and Kristina Zheng can be reached at fduong@umich.edu and krizheng@umich.edu