VP Harper: "It has been such an honor"

Sunday, September 29, 2019 - 2:31pm

E. Royster Harper, Vice President of Student Life, speaks on the student activism and university healthcare at in the Fleming Administration Building Friday afternoon.

E. Royster Harper, Vice President of Student Life, speaks on the student activism and university healthcare at in the Fleming Administration Building Friday afternoon. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

The Michigan Daily sat down with E. Royster Harper, Vice President for Student Life at The University of Michigan, Friday afternoon to discuss the Sexually transmitted infection testing policy controversy, the recent climate strike, fraternity and sorority life housing complications with the transition to winter recruitment and Harper’s announced retirement from the University.

The Michigan Daily: After backlash from the University community, University Health Services reversed its policy so STI exams are once again covered by tuition through the health service fee. From your perspective, why did the University change the policy?

E. Royster Harper: I know it's hard for students to believe, but when students give us feedback, and we hear it, that causes us to reconsider what it is we’ve done, and we’re quick to do that. So here’s our concern: We have two legitimate competing needs, keep costs of attendance down and make sure the students are getting the health care that they need. Part of the decision to keep the cost down was that insurance that most students have, were already paying for it. So the folks that were benefiting the most from the health service fee were the insurance companies because we were paying for stuff they would pay for. But students said, “Look, if there's any chance that my parents are going to know (about STI examinations), then I'm going to be less likely to get the services.” We didn't want anything to get in the way of students getting the healthcare they need. What wasn’t comforting enough, students didn’t believe it, whatever the rationale was, it was clear to us that some students would choose not to get tested. Our commitment is to make sure that our students are getting good health care. So once that was clear to us, we just said, “Okay, this is not the right decision for us”.  So what students did is they helped us understand the impact in a way that we had not understood it before. That's why we changed our minds.

TMD: Why did student activism work in this case?

Harper: I think usually when the University makes a decision, there are multiple things that they are trying to get accomplished. In this case, money and making sure the students get good health care, that it didn’t have a chilling impact. Students are seldom protesting about things that don't matter. But lots of things matter. So what the University is weighing is when we consider everything, where do we need to be? Sometimes what we decide is, we can’t change. This is not one of those, because when we put everything together, it makes sense to change. I do think that sometimes all of us think if I just raised my voice, or I just protest, what I want, will occur. But when you are in a leadership role, you’re always weighing a lot of points of views and a lot of different facts. Then you make a decision about which one needs to prevail, and we do the same thing. We’re trying to balance the best interest of students, faculty, staff, and as a public institution, you’re weighing all those things. The points of view are valid, and the job is to weigh them and figure out in the long run, what's best. What I love about the University is that we do respond when issues are raised.

TMD: International students began paying an additional $500 fee this semester on top of tuition, and some have voiced displeasure surrounding the transparency of why this fee was instituted and what it will be used for. Can you provide some clarity on the issue?

Harper:  The challenge with the international fee is that not all the needs and what the calls will be for those have been worked out. So we are in the process of trying to figure out, given these resources, how do they need to be deployed in a way that benefits international students? And so students, if I hear you right, some of them are asking, ‘What are you going to do?’ And the answer is, that's part of the work we have to do. So some students might say, ‘Well, then why are you requiring the fee if you don’t know?’, but what we do know is that there are needs for international students that are not being met, and we want to be able to meet those needs… The services that they need that might be unique to international students, that's how the fee is going to be used. And we are in the process, then, of deciding what's the best use, whether it is to help with internships, whether it's a deeper, stronger orientation program, whether it is we need to do more send-outs where we actually go to the community and prepare students better for the transition, whether or not there are things that the International Center provides that they also will need. So there is an array of services that we want to make sure we have the resources to provide, so students have a fabulous educational experience here. But this is one situation where you’re trying to do both. You’re trying to make sure that the students’ needs are met, and we don’t want the cost to be so prohibitive that students can't come. I think the challenge is for us, the administration, is if we stay open and allow international students to participate in the process of what would make the most difference to strengthen your experience here, then I can’t have the answer to exactly where it is the money's going to go right now… So it’s much more of a give-and-take process that we're using. So, I'm glad we have the resources to make sure that international students have a really exciting and robust education experience.

TMD: Last week, students once again participated in a Climate Strike, joining strikers across the world to demand bolder action on climate change. Last year, 10 demonstrators were arrested at the Climate Strike, and six of them just recently appeared at pre-trial for trespassing. How important is student activism to the spirit of the University, and what advice do you have for students who want to make their voices heard?

Harper: I think students protesting — and for me, protest means having a voice, whether you decide to have that voice with the sign or by sitting in — I think that’s critically important that the students think about what's important to them, think about the kind of University they want to have because this is your University, and then give voice to it. I believe the climate work and the work we need to do around climate is going to change, but it’s going to change because students are talking about and advocating for right now. Here’s where I would pivot. It’s critically important that you have an orderly structure and organization. And if the time and if you choose to speak is in a building that closes at five, say, ‘Okay, I'll be back in the morning to speak again’. This idea that I can speak my mind anytime, all the time, anywhere in any way, that's where I think the fault lies. It’s not in the speaking of the voice, but doing it in a way that honors other voices, too. And to be quite frank, if you want me to hear you and you want me to think about what you’re saying, then you have to think about how am I doing that, in such a way that what’s so important can be heard. Some people speak for the theater of it, and sometimes students and community members speak because they’re really trying to have another point-of-view heard… So I think the strikes are important and I think the different points of views are important. The major changes I know about have come because somebody had the courage to open their mouth. There was a time when I would have had to sit in the back of the bus… So the issue is not in speaking the voice. The issue is not in the protesting. I think sometimes the tension comes when those who are speaking or want to have a voice don't think about what the impact of that voice is on others. None of us listen, when we're being yelled at. Very few of us listen if we are being called names.

TMD: With Winter Recruitment for fraternities and sororities beginning this year, some students have raised concerns regarding how this could create complications with finding housing. How does the University plan to help students if they find themselves without housing for the following school year due to rushing?

Harper: This is an issue that comes up for students all the time, this issue of, “Will I be able to find housing?” And so last year, before we put this in place, as part of the reason we started so early, we actually had staff in the office of Fraternity and Sorority Life do some work around housing. So housing is available, it will be available up until school starts. This place is never without adequate housing. So one of the things, we have changed the signup period in the residence halls with this in mind, so we have done that. And, we also last year, we, meaning the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, did some surveys to make sure that vacancies and housing is available for students further on into the term. So there will be plenty of housing in February, plenty of housing in March, plenty of housing in April, plenty of housing in May. There's a little bit of a dance going on, and here's the dance: if I'm a landlord, now think about what happens, you give me your money in November, to secure a place 11 months from now. So for 11 months, I have your money to secure a place. I like to get it in October, so I can have it. So there's a narrative out there that there is not going to be enough room and not enough space, so you better get there early, and it's not true. However, because we know students still get anxious about that, we have made some accommodations in terms of the residence halls, which is the piece we can control, if students find themselves in a situation where there is no housing. We’ve taken a year to take a look at that; we do not believe that is true or the case. You can get housing right now for this year, people come in the winter, start school in the winter, and they find housing. So we know that the housing issue is not going to be a challenge for students. It may be a challenge if you want to live right there. But there will be housing for students next fall that decide that they are not going to join a fraternity or sorority.

TMD: We have heard from students they do know it's true that they can find housing all the way until the following school year, but they have voiced concerns that the housing they might be able to find closer to next school year would be more expensive, which raises affordability issues, or far from campus, which would cause accessibility issues if they didn't have a means to commute to school. How do these factors come into play?

Harper: So, [for] accessibility and cost, the residence halls will be there. What I typically hear from students [is], ‘But I don’t want to live in the residence halls.’ What I would say is, ‘I can't meet all those needs. I can't guarantee it’s going to be the house you want, close to campus that you want, at the price that you want. I cannot meet all of those needs.’ We couldn't have met all of those needs before we put deferred recruitment. So I understand the desire, it’s not a desire we can guarantee for anyone. We never could, and we certainly can't now, because it is possible right now that you might not be able to find the house that you want, in the space that you want, for the price that you want, even now. There is no guarantee that all of those things will occur, unless you want to live in the residence hall. And some students don’t want to live in the residence hall, because we know the residence halls are accessible, and that they are, in terms of costs, they cost less than the market.

TMD: Is there a reason why students sign leases so early in Ann Arbor, and is there any solution to that? 

Harper: Yes, and you know who can control that? Students. All you all have to do is just say, ‘We're not doing it until January.’ And guess what? If I’m a landlord, why would I not have you pay early? So as students, we tell each other we're going to lose out. We’ve done some work with landlords and tried to get them to shift and then it migrates back. Because of course there is a financial benefit to that. If I’m a landlord, and everybody signs up in November for next September, I don’t have to worry, I’m going to be for it, this is a business. So my goal, if I’m in a business, is to get all of you to sign up early. I don't care if it stresses you out. You not signing up stresses me out, if I’m the business. So nothing short of students saying no to that, but then we're also afraid that the other person won’t keep their word, that we won’t trust it. I suspect at those other schools, students just don’t have a culture of doing this. Now the other thing is to literally go to the city, and then ask the city to make rules and enforce rules that pushes back the deadline.

TMD: You are retiring from the position of Vice President for Student Life after 20 years in the position. What about your legacy are you most proud of, and what advice do you have for the next vice president?

Harper: So I am most proud of a culture that exists among students, where what I admire about all of you, is every question that you’ve asked has been about something to improve the experience for students. It’s that part of the student body, that culture of caring — not perfectly — that I'm most proud of. The second thing I’m most proud of is that this is a responsive administration. It always has been. So there are students, sometimes when I’m out that will say, ‘Well, no, we don’t raise hell, we don’t protest because nobody's going to listen and do anything.’ So I am very proud that we respond. Sometimes imperfectly, sometimes we respond to things because we just got it wrong. But when we get it wrong, we’ll change our mind. I think for a new person coming, I would say to them to embrace our students and spend time with our students, because they will be honest and tell you what they need. That is important for students to be heard, it’s important for them to be listened to, and it’s important for them to be respected. And that’s what we’ve tried to do. Sometimes clumsily, but that’s what we’ve tried to do… I think it’s hard for you all to see how good you are. It has been such an honor. I feel like the gift for 20 years has been to me, not the other way around.