Dean of Engineering, Student Life explain fall semester announcement, address unanswered questions in student town hall

Monday, June 22, 2020 - 11:16pm

Screenshot of the town hall

Screenshot of the town hall Buy this photo
Courtesy of Claire Hao

Alec Gallimore, University of Michigan dean of engineering, and Laura Blake Jones, dean of students, held a town hall with various student groups involved in plans for the upcoming school year on Monday afternoon following University President Mark Schlissel’s announcement regarding fall semester earlier in the day.

After walking through information presented in Schlissel’s email and the new website, Gallimore and Jones answered student inquiries in an event moderated by Public Policy senior Amanda Kaplan, Central Student Government president.

The town hall was primarily intended for the more than 600 students involved in the COVID-19 Campus Challenge, a student-created competition to brainstorm solutions for various problems that may arise in the fall. Kaplan said students in the Campus Climate Advisory Council, a group of about 40 students from various boards, organizations and student employee groups advising on fall planning, were also invited.

In an email to The Daily, Jones wrote the town hall was meant to highlight key elements of Schlissel’s announcement as well as to continue seeking input from challenge participants.

“The Challenge participants are a large representative group of undergraduate and graduate students from a wide variety of schools and colleges,” Jones wrote. “Their keen interest in the COVID Challenge and commitment to planning for a safe residential experience made them an ideal constituent group to talk with.”

According to Gallimore, the original timeline planned for a decision about fall semester was to be made in July. The timeline was moved up one month, allowing for the decision to come at the end of June.

“What we will do actually is in some respects use June and July and August to do a number of things, to do some practice sessions, dry runs et cetera, so that we’re ready for you when many of you come back in late August for a wonderful semester of mixed educational experiences,” Gallimore said. “We will use the fall term to evaluate how things worked and improve upon them for winter 2021.”

Gallimore emphasized the hundreds of administrators, faculty, staff and students involved in planning efforts by pointing to the numerous committees working on issues ranging from testing to transportation to student mental health. Similar to the new Campus Maize & Blueprint website, Gallimore said success of the school year would depend on “stacking” measures from physical distancing to administrative controls on density.

Generally, classes with over 50 people will be conducted remotely, while classes with 10 to 15 or fewer students will be held in-person, subject to space availability, Gallimore explained. Classes in the in-between range may be offered in-person if physical distancing is possible in the learning space.

Jones focused on the need for students to be responsible, which both she and Gallimore expressed was one of their greatest worries about the upcoming semester. She shared a draft of a behavior pledge which includes current public health guidelines such as wearing masks, maintaining social distance and limiting social gatherings. 

To encourage individuals to follow the pledge, Jones said there will be education efforts and social media campaigns to emphasize its importance. Jones said she hoped the University community would embrace a “culture of care” in which everyone acts according to the well-being of those around them — particularly those most vulnerable to the virus — and beyond their own desires of what they want to do. 

According to Jones, this “culture of care” will require peer accountability.

“We’re not there keeping an eye on you, but what we’re asking is you keep an eye on each other,” Jones said. “That if someone is planning an event that easily has the potential to grow to be too large and cause potential harm, that someone in that circle of peers would say, ‘That’s really not a good idea right now.’”

Gallimore emphasized that a few people on campus setting a bad example could lead to a major problem on campus.

“I go on long walks all the time and I see groups of students socializing, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say the pandemic is over, and so that’s the challenge, the complacency,” Gallimore said.

Gallimore said the planning team recognizes the plan may change and may change drastically as the situation surrounding COVID-19 develops. According to Gallimore, scenario planning and emergency response planning will be continued throughout the summer.

Several questions touched on reopening libraries, laboratories, studios and other teaching, work and study spaces. According to Gallimore, the planning team is “pretty close” to coming up with draft guidelines on how to use space, which may include lowering densities and adding Plexiglas barriers, and may release those plans in around two weeks.  

Gallimore said spaces hosting in-person experience for classes in which it is most needed will be prioritized for reopening. Labs may need to stretch out their operational timelines and density. Gallimore also explained a potential idea in which one person such as a Graduate Student Instructor runs an experiment with a body camera as others watch remotely. 

In response to a question asking when student organizations can expect restrictions and guidelines on their activities to be released, Jones did not specify a date but said the greatest challenge is scaling down large organizations all throughout the University.

“The notion that it will be a combination of doing things we’ve always done in-person differently in-person at a greater social distance in smaller groups, or being creative and doing things we’ve done formerly in-person in a remote format, and the flexibility of hybrid-flex in between is all being applied to thinking about the functioning of Welcome Week activities, student organizations, planning the ability to have a small group get together but put it in a larger room,” Jones said. “So all of that is a work-in-progress right now.”

Jones encouraged students facing additional financial challenges due to COVID-19 to get a new evaluation with the financial aid office and potentially qualify for more financial aid. She said the Dean of Students office is also helping to administer emergency funds for students and also mentioned the University hopes to preserve as many on-campus student jobs as possible.

“I would even add, I know this is the case in Student Life, with the hiring freeze that is understandable given our budget circumstance, we’re going to be even more reliant on student employees, perhaps even filling gaps where we can’t make other hires,” Jones said.

Specifically addressing the audience of the town hall, Gallimore said student ideas from the COVID-19 Campus Challenge will be valuable in fleshing out plans for the fall, particularly around the issues of transportation and mental wellness where much is still unresolved. Jones told students in the challenge to stay tuned.

“President Schlissel’s announcement today is a starting point for us all, we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Jones said. “I know from talking to some of the judges that they’re already chomping at the bit to talk about some of the ideas that they saw and how it aligns with plans departments or units have been making.”

Recent University alums David Chang and Sujai Arakali, the creators of the COVID-19 Campus Challenge, said they aren’t sure how student ideas from the Challenge would be taken into consideration or implemented in the fall. They said ideas from the Challenge would be especially useful in addressing more niche issues that may arise.

“There are so many problems that are going to occur in the fall, and it’s impossible for just a few administrators to come up with all the solutions,” Arakali said.

Even if students are not selected for the top 30 showcase, or if their ideas aren’t incorporated at the University, Chang said he hopes to publicize student proposals as their solutions could be helpful for other universities with similar problems.

In an interview with The Daily, Kaplan said she and LSA senior Sav Nandigama, CSG vice president, have been involved in many conversations with administrators, including a weekly meeting with the Dean of Students office.

“I think they’ve done a really good job of reaching out to existing structures of student leadership on campus and making sure their feedback is incorporated,” Kaplan said.

LSA sophomore Nina Yang is a student on a COVID-19 Campus Challenge team addressing housing, specifically creating suggestions surrounding student move-in. She said she was really interested in the amount of student involvement going into plans for the fall.

“To know what students are thinking is really important, especially since a lot of the responsibilities fall on students individually to make the process smoother so we don’t have another outbreak,” Yang said.

Senior News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at cmhao@umich.edu.