COVID-19 updates to University Housing contracts raise concerns for graduate student residents
Rackham student Aya M. Waller-Bey was sitting in her room in Munger Graduate Residences when she heard someone else moving around in her suite. She got up to find a maintenance man, who told her that work would be done on two rooms inside her suite. Two new residents were expected to move in in a few weeks.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, there’s two rooms here we’re going to work on today and also tomorrow,’” Waller-Bey said. “‘We might be getting two new people here on June 1.’”
Waller-Bey said this was the first she was hearing of it, and thought it was odd in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was actually the maintenance guy who told me I should expect to see two new people on June 1,” Waller-Bey said. “Not even, you know, the building (administration).”
The following week, on May 26, Waller-Bey received an email from University Housing, confirming that new suitemates would be arriving soon. The email also detailed the updated move-in procedures for incoming Munger residents, specifying that students would have to make appointments for arrival and check-in. Additionally, the email specified only one person would be allowed to help residents move in and required all personnel involved with move-in to wear masks and face protections.
University Housing later expanded to include additional protocols regarding health screenings for incoming residents and sanitation of assistive move-in bins and other “common touchpoints” in another email to residents on May 28. But Waller-Bey’s concerns started a few weeks before any communication regarding incoming suitemates, when, on May 12, University Housing sent her an updated contract.
“You agree to release the University, its agents, and employees from any and all damages, liability, claims, expenses, or loss (collectively, “Claims”) resulting from or arising out of your use of space within University Housing, including those related to the potential exposure to contagious viruses like the coronavirus,” the clause reads.
Waller-Bey called the clause “disturbing” and described how this clause seems to clash with University Housing’s commitments to their residents.
“I’m no lawyer, but it just doesn’t make sense to … on one hand talk about equity and safety and promoting … a safe environment for your students, and then on the other hand, say, ‘Nevertheless, if you get sick, we are not liable or responsible,’” Waller-Bey said. “And again, meanwhile, you are exposing residences, to new people in the places where they live.”
Residents were asked to return the contract within a week, but Waller-Bey has yet to do so, stating that she did not feel like she had enough information to make an informed decision.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization has also taken issue with updated provisions in the contract. GEO president Sumeet Patwardhan, a Rackham student pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, discussed GEO’s response to the contract updates in an interview with The Daily.
“So GEO, as you know, is a labor union for graduate employees on campus, but our mission is to protect all graduate students on campus,” Patwardhan said. “The reason this (updated contract) relates to … GEO’s purpose in its organizing as a whole is because these concerns of graduate housing directly affect our members who reside in housing, or who might reside in housing in the future.”
Patwardan added that GEO’s COVID Caucus, which is the body responsible for a recent open letter to the University outlining the demands of graduate students, is taking the lead on organizing in response to these concerns with the CLAM.
In addition to the “Hold Harmless” clause, Patwardhan voiced GEO’s concerns about the implications of a “Termination” clause under the CLAM’s “COVID-19 and Public Health-Informed Policies” section. The clause states that “M Housing reserves the right to terminate housing contracts due to public health emergency needs, including COVID.”
“GEO’s concerns about this is that the generality and the vagueness of the language, specifically ‘public health emergency needs,’ seems to imply that residents could be evicted if they contract COVID,” Patwardhan said. “That's a really big concern because what it means is that there could be a student in University Housing (and) in the middle of the year, through no fault of their own, they get coronavirus. Suddenly, they're out on the street without housing … which is a really bad situation to be in.”
Partwardhan said GEO is calling upon the University to address graduate students’ concerns and further update language in this clause, clarifying whether this clause will be applied to individual students or entire residences in the event of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amir Baghdadchi, senior associate director of University Housing, responded to some of these concerns in an email to The Daily. He shared a more detailed list of protocols for the June 1 move-in, including a health screening questionnaire new residents must complete two days prior to check-in and a required 14-day quarantine for residents arriving internationally.
“The process for Munger Graduate Residences move-in this week follows public health guidelines, and has been approved by University public health officials,” Baghdadchi said.
Regarding updates to the CLAM, Baghdadchi added that University Housing is responding to individual residents’ concerns.
“We have asked residents to take time to review and affirm the updated CLAM,” Baghdadchi said. “We have been reaching out and calling residents individually who have questions, so they can make well-informed decisions.”
According to a tweet from Waller-Bey, University Housing has indeed responded to an email in which she listed her concerns about the contract updates. In the May 28 tweet, however, she expressed skepticism about the accountability of off-the-record statements over the phone.
I received another email from 〽️ Housing for another PHONE CALL today to address the concerns outlined in my email(s). Is this normal? I responded with three alternatives to a phone call that would enable a written/recorded record of the conversation and accountability. — Aya M. Waller-Bey, MPhil (@Aya__Marie) May 28, 2020
I received another email from 〽️ Housing for another PHONE CALL today to address the concerns outlined in my email(s). Is this normal? I responded with three alternatives to a phone call that would enable a written/recorded record of the conversation and accountability.
— Aya M. Waller-Bey, MPhil (@Aya__Marie) May 28, 2020
Baghdadchi further clarified that while undergraduate contracts extend for the academic year, graduate residents sign 12-month contracts. The updated policies could carry implications for future residents, both graduate and undergraduate.
“The updated 2020-2021 CLAM applies to all residents, undergraduate and graduate,” Baghdadchi wrote. “The ‘Hold Harmless’ section is not new and has always existed in various formats within the CLAM, including in the 2019-20 version. It is not particular to Munger Graduate Residence.”
The University community still awaits a decision on whether the fall term will include an in-person, residential experience, which University Public Affairs tweeted would be available by the end of June.
Summer News Editor Calder Lewis contributed reporting to this article.
Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.