Back in March, when COVID-19 hit and it became clear that schools would have to shut down, I remember thinking: well, at least I go to the University of Michigan.
I was lucky, I thought, to go to such a cutting-edge school. Our president is a physician. We have a faculty of incredibly knowledgeable researchers and professors. We have one of the best medical schools in the nation, as well as a stellar public health program. More than that, even: This university is run by good people. They’ll figure this out. Whatever the best policies are, Michigan will find them and put them in place as needed. They might stumble, as anyone does when facing a novel threat, but certainly they won’t lag behind other universities or organizations. At the very least, I thought, I can trust them to act in a morally upstanding way.
How wrong I was.
In June, tuition hikes and a “COVID fee” were approved for the 2020-21 school year, despite the economic crisis gripping America and the University’s growing endowment. Then, in August, the University reopened campus for fall semester, despite a recommendation from their own COVID-19 safety team that the University stay shut down. Instead of offering testing surveillance systems like other major universities, University President Mark Schlissel made controversial comments claiming that testing can create a false sense of security, as, he argued, it did during the HIV epidemic. He was lambasted for the comments and quickly retracted them, but he and other administrators failed to significantly change the University’s testing policies. They insisted they simply did not have the capacity to test more students, while working with sports teams to ensure student-athletes received daily testing through the Big Ten Conference.
In September, the University’s Graduate Student Instructors went on strike to protest the lack of COVID-19 protections. They were quickly followed by the RAs, who criticized the University’s safety policies in dorms. Both strikes were treated with complete disrespect by the University administration, who filed an injunction against the Graduate Employees’ Organization and threatened to fire striking RAs. Dining hall workers had to cancel their own strike when they were told the University would retaliate against strikers.
Only in the last few weeks, following a Washtenaw County stay-in-place order targeting University students, has the University finally walked back some of its policies. So far, the University has limited the number of students who can return to dorms next semester and asked all students to stay home come January if they are able. But the University is still holding in-person classes next semester, and administrators like Schlissel have refused to apologize for their missteps, with Schlissel saying in a recent The Michigan Daily interview that he doesn’t regret how he chose to handle of the virus.
Things are, to put it lightly, a total mess. I’ve watched it unfold from the safety of my parents’ homes with a small measure of awe and a large measure of fury. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I truly am disgusted by how the University has handled this crisis. At every turn, they have placed profits over safety, and chosen to place the whims of young adult students above the advice of educated experts. In doing so, they’re not only putting the health and safety of their students, staff and faculty at risk — they’re also endangering the greater Ann Arbor population, a community which has always supported the University. This type of selfishness is frighteningly similar to the attitudes we see at a national level, with the Trump administration’s abysmal response to COVID-19, and it makes me ashamed to say I go to the University of Michigan.
I know I’m not the only student who feels this way about the current administration, but I think students who are seniors, such as myself, are put in a uniquely frustrating position because of it. This is my last semester at the University. Next semester, I’m taking part-time classes from home, and then I’m graduating. My college career is rapidly wrapping up, and I’m stuck in the frustrating position of wondering: Is this it? Is this how I’m going to remember college?
As a graduating senior, I get asked often about my time at the University. Recruiters, relatives and friends want to hear about my college experience — often, I suspect, expecting that I’ll wax poetic about how amazing the University is as a school. That seems to be the expectation from alumni, and part of the reason the University has such a stellar reputation. Objectively, I know there’s a lot I could talk about: I had a very good experience during my first three years at the University doing all the stereotypical college things — going to football games, getting surreptitiously drunk in dorm rooms, even studying in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. But in the moment, my frustration with the administration overshadows everything else. I don’t want to talk about how fun it was to go to football games two years ago. I want to talk about what the administration is doing now, and why it makes me so pissed off.
An obvious response to this is that perhaps I shouldn’t let the actions of a select few administrators taint my view of something as broad as my experience in college. To say I’m ashamed of my college administration doesn’t necessarily mean I need to be ashamed of my college: The student body is, after all, not the administration. I didn’t choose the administration’s actions, so they’re not my responsibility.
But I think it’s an oversimplification to say we can so easily draw a line between the student body and college administration. In conversation, we constantly identify ourselves with the faculty and administration of our college. When our school is ranked one of the top public universities in the United States, we tend to feel proud of that, even though we had no part in creating that ranking; when we win at football, we gloat to all our friends that Wolverines are simply a superior bunch, and when we lose, we feel embarrassed and make excuses for why our team is still the best, really, but just having an off week. We use phrases like “we won” because it feels like a collective achievement: It is a thing we are told to feel a part of. The University of Michigan, like many other colleges, champions a narrative of community among its students — that we are the Leaders and Best together. We are all a part of the University, the story goes, and so we do identify ourselves with the actions of the institution, whether we actively participated in them or not.
It reminds me of 2017: Shortly after I graduated from high school, I went backpacking in Europe. I met a lot of people on my trip, people from all over the world, and they all asked me the same question: “So, you’re American? Do you like Donald Trump?”
I was always quick to assure them that, no, I didn’t support Trump; and in fact, there were many Americans who didn’t. “I promise,” I said, “We’re not all nuts.” That I had to say that — and that they had to ask the question — embarrassed me. Electing Trump felt like the most irresponsible collective action our country could have taken. I was ashamed to be an American then in the same way I’m ashamed to be a Wolverine now.
Maybe we shouldn’t define ourselves by the institutions that lead us, but to me, that feels like the path to complacency. If the institutions that lead us don’t represent us, we have no obligation to make sure they do good. In that sense, maybe feeling ashamed when an institution messes up is a good thing because it keeps us accountable. It might be why Trump is on his way out of office. Maybe, in a few months, it’ll be why U-M administrators finally apologize for the mistakes they’ve made. After all, student outrage is what catalyzed the few changes that have arisen so far, including the concessions made to GEO and RAs — student and alumni outrage might be all that can continue to cause change moving forward. For my part, I know I won’t forget the missteps of this administration quickly. Though I may not be in Ann Arbor moving forward, you can bet I’ll be watching the University from a distance, ready to step in with a pointed email or passive-aggressive Twitter reply when the situation calls for it. Accountability may look different for alumni than it does for students, but it does still exist.
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