Student organizers, administrators share different views on effectiveness of petitions

Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 6:55pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

On Sept. 2, 2019, The Daily reported on the University of Michigan University Health Service’s controversial move to discontinue coverage of sexually transmitted infection testing for students to be included in tuition. Two days later, an online petition demanding reinstatement of coverage for STI testing was in circulation — and already at 1,400 signatures. Two days after that, the University announced its plan to reverse its policy and reinstated coverage for the testing. In a matter of four days, the student organizers’ demands had been met. 

While petitions and student activism are not rare at the University, this example of swift administrative response to the demands of a petition is relatively atypical. With multiple petitions currently in circulation concerning the University’s plans for the upcoming school year that have yet to be addressed, it raises questions about what makes student petitions effective.

In a 2019 interview with The Daily, E. Royster Harper, former vice president for Student Life, commented on the varying success of student activism following the STI testing petition’s favorable outcome. Harper highlighted the many factors University administrators weigh when making decisions, including both financial decisions for the University and the needs of the student.

“I think usually when the University makes a decision, there are multiple things that they are trying to get accomplished,” Harper said. “In this case, (those factors were) money and making sure the students get good health care … 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.”

University alum Hoai An Pham, one of the authors of the petition to reinstate coverage for STI testing, said part of what made that petition particularly effective in rallying student support especially was its clear identification of individual student’s stake in the decision. As a digital organizer and author of multiple petitions in her time at the University, including petitions demanding fair contracts for lecturers and opposing Richard Spencer’s request to speak at the University, Pham reflected on the effect of privilege on student support for different activist efforts.

“I think that at times, the privilege of the student body in general, and the privilege of being a university student in general … creates a barrier for students to understand their role in certain issues, and the specific action they can take to be pushing towards any kind of resolution or justice,” Pham said.

Despite these and other limitations, including the critique that signing petitions can merely serve as virtue-signaling, Pham also emphasized the accessibility of petitions and other digital forms of engagement. 

“Oftentimes I think people view petitions as standalone, which is I think how they do get the reputation of like, signing the petition won’t do anything,” Pham said. “(But) there is an ableist component of that … As a disabled organizer I'm always like, ‘Well, digital organizing is really important, and there’s a lot of power that we can build behind it.’”

LSA senior Morgan McCaul, an organizer at the University who focuses on students’ rights regarding Title IX policies, also emphasized the role petitions play in digital organizing. McCaul authored a petition demanding the University commit to survivors’ rights in spite of the U.S. Department of Education’s new guidelines back in May, over two months into the University’s fully remote operations. McCaul elaborated on what makes a successful digital organizing strategy in an interview with The Daily.

“I think petitions are an essential tool for organizing under COVID,” McCaul said. “But what we found to be most effective was actually face-to-face communication in tandem with that (Title IX) petition. So we had our specific demands, but that face-to-face, virtual connection — using another virtual tool at our disposal, Zoom — I would say we were able to make the most impactful relationships with administrators and, from there, were able to better set up mechanisms for accountability for the demands in our petition.”

Another set of petitions that recently gained traction with the student body came in response to the University’s announcement of plans for an in-residence fall semester. LSA junior Annie Mintun launched a petition calling for a tuition freeze after University President Mark Schlissel presented — but failed to pass — a budget with a proposed 1.9 percent tuition increase at the June 25 Board of Regents meeting. The following week, when a majority of the Regents voted in favor of a 1.9 percent tuition increase at a June 29 special meeting, SMTD juniors Mary Handsome and Samantha Estrella wrote their own petition, demanding nullification of the tuition increase. The three students have since formed a coalition called Fight Back Umich, which seeks to nullify the tuition increase while pushing the Regents to take alternative measures of compensating for financial losses.

Handsome and Estrella said this was their first time organizing in college. Estrella noted that she felt mobilized by the wave of activism across the country this summer.

“A petition … was my initial, like first reaction (on) how to get a collective response … which is due to the nature of this summer,” Estrella said. “I think it’s easy to say that between the pandemic and the civil rights movement that this has been quite the summer to be vocal about our views, whether it’s regarding our health, whether it’s regarding common sense and empathy and/or politics.”

Petitions regarding University policy — including both Estrella’s and McCaul’s and Handsome’s — are almost unfailingly addressed to Schlissel, and frequently other administrators like the Regents. Not all administrators see these petitions the same way. 

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote that University administrators take petitions as seriously as any other form of input in an email to The Daily.

“University leaders take student input seriously however it may be shared,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The president’s office and other university officials carefully review each email, each petition and create other vehicles for student input such as: town hall meetings, fireside chats and office hours with President Schlissel and various student advisory groups.”

Regent Jordan Acker (D), newly-appointed vice chair to the Board of Regents, wrote in an email to The Daily that while he affirms the value of petitions, he pays closer attention to more personal appeals from students.

“While petitions are great, I think the most effective communication I receive from students and community members are personal stories about how issues in front of the Regents affect students’ and community members’ lives,” Acker wrote. “I make sure to read every email from students and respond as much as possible.”

Organizers themselves see petitions differently, however — even those who do address their petitions to Schlissel and the Board of Regents. Pham, McCaul, Estrella and Handsome all spoke about the power of petitions to raise awareness of issues and build a coalition of supporters even before it catches administrators’ attention.

“Even if they (University leaders) don’t want to listen, it at least shows students that this is a way that they can fight for what they believe in,” Handsome said. “They don’t have to just like, lie down and take whatever decision people in power are making because, at the end of the day, we know the reality of being a University of Michigan student.”

Reflecting on her own petition as a tool for building a coalition between survivors and allies, McCaul described community-building as the prerequisite to changing the institutions themselves.

“Just as important as the finished product is your practices along the way, and how we get there matters,” McCaul said. “If we can build communities that uphold our values, we can create institutions that live up to our expectations.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.