GEO members protest for ‘safe and just’ pandemic response

Sunday, August 9, 2020 - 4:24pm

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Photo Courtesy of Kristina Zheng

About 30 members of the University of Michigan community convened on the Diag Friday afternoon to rally for greater protections and transparency with reopening policies this fall. The protest was organized by the Graduate Employees’ Organization amid negotiations with University administrators. 

Rackham student Ryan Glauser, GEO’s COVID-19 Caucus co-chair, said the union has overwhelmingly approved a new platform called “A Safe and Just Pandemic Response.” The platform includes demands for the option to teach remotely, support for international students, extensions to degree funding and transparent campus testing and safety plans. 

“It’s gotten to the point where our last step is to do something that is very visible, to take this space that is our University space, to make our demands public to not just members of union, but also the general public and to have conversations to show U-M that it works because GSIs (Graduate Student Instructors), we work,” Glauser said. “It’s about trying to create this dialogue, and if you’re not going to, this is what we have to do.”

GEO invited a number of speakers to address the crowd and passerbys. Steven Toth, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry on the U-M Flint campus, spoke about the particular difficulties lecturers have dealt with, specifically how over 40 percent of lecturers on the Flint campus were recently let go because of the pandemic. Furthermore, the lack of communication from the University, Toth explained, has led instructors to rely on hearsay for critical information.

“We are less than a month from classes starting, and there's still many unanswered questions about cleaning, safety and what to do if and when an instructor or student tests positive for COVID-19,” Toth said. “I hear new rumors from faculty almost every day, because in the vacuum of a defined plan, gossip has become the new currency.”

Rackham student Elizabeth Harlow found 94 percent of graduate students surveyed in the English department have had their research negatively affected by the pandemic. 77 percent listed a one-year extension to degree funding as one of their top three priorities for the University’s pandemic response. Harlow said though administrators might be well-meaning, they are looking at revenue before people.

“They have forgotten that the people are the points,” Harlow said. “They have forgotten that students, teachers, researchers and graduate workers, who are all three at the same time, are central to the University’s multifaceted mission.”

Ian Robinson, Lecturers’ Employee Organization President, is a sociology lecturer and associate research scientist. He said the School of Art & Design is mandating some classes be taught in person, forcing faculty on the lowest rungs to risk their health.

“There’s a particular problem in that school with sticking to the principle that many of us have been told will be followed,” Robinson said. “That is, if you don’t want to teach in person, you won’t have to. That is not what the way it’s looking in the School of Art & Design."

Robinson read a statement from an anonymous Art & Design faculty member who is frustrated with having no option to teach remotely. 

“Teachers must have a choice that is freely made, and their choice should not depend upon the compassion of our leaders,” the faculty member wrote. “That choice should be part of what the University stands for, that the people who teach at this University are the heart of the University, and that their health is truly important enough to allow this flexibility.”

While GEO predominantly advocates for graduate student protections, undergraduate students also attended the protest in solidarity with many of the same concerns. 

LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Andrew Gerace, a speaker at the rally, said undergraduates are facing multiple challenges alone for the first time, and as such, should be carefully considered within the University’s administrative decisions for the fall.

“To put it bluntly, the undergraduates at the University feel abandoned by the administration on so many fronts,” Gerace said. “... As students dealing with the vulnerabilities of living away from home for the first time, advocating for ourselves and adulting, we deserve a University administration that has our best interests, safety and well-being at the core of their decision making."

LSA junior Luke Dillingham was planning on attending the protest to show solidarity with graduate students, but he took the microphone after listening to the other speeches.

“I wasn’t prepared to speak today, but this just bothers me so much,” Dillingham said. 

He pointed to unrestricted funds in the endowment that he says should be used to keep staff and students safe in the coming semester.

“The entire point of the endowment is to protect us on a rainy day,” Dillingham said. “Well, it’s raining.”

After the speeches, the group marched from the Diag to the intersection of State and East Liberty Streets, chanting things like, “I say trust. You say workers,” and “Hey Schlissel, you’re no good. Treat your workers like you should.” 

As the group made its way back to the Diag, one thing remained clear: GEO’s work has only just begun. 

“As much as the University wants to keep dividing us — much as it wants to say undergraduates over here, graduate students over here — we all come together at this point. This is our space, this is where we hold events,” Glauser said. “... We at GEO are a part of that community and we feel that this space belongs to all of us regardless of what the University administrators say about undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff. It’s our University, it’s our space, it’s our time.”

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu. Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.