Now that a new executive ticket and Assembly have taken over the University of Michigan Central Student Government, The Michigan Daily sat down over Zoom with outgoing CSG President and Vice President Amanda Kaplan and Saveri Nandigama, Public Policy senior and LSA senior respectively, to reflect on their term and its legacy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TMD: When the two of you were elected, the COVID-19 pandemic had just started and classes were in the process of switching to an online format. Shortly after, all students were urged to return home. How was CSG able to relieve some of this stress?
Kaplan: We had to reevaluate everything that we said we wanted to do, because half the stuff that we wanted to do was not going to even happen anymore because of COVID upending all of our lives. … Sav and I reevaluat(ed) our campaign platform and finding ways within this online space to continue to advocate for students and address some of these underlying systemic issues, as well as recognizing the unique challenges that were posed by COVID, developing new creative solutions and things that CSG had never done before.
Nandigama: We strayed away from the event-based things that CSG normally provided. The only really major events that we had were the civic engagement week and events with representatives who were from Congress. What we instead did is provide policies and advocacy between administration and students to provide services like Produce RX or the wellness days.
TMD: Throughout your campaign, you did a lot of work advocating for disability services and accommodations for students. What do you think were the most significant takeaways from your work in this area?
Kaplan: We tried taking a more holistic approach to the student experience and recognizing how all of these different circumstances for students can affect their well-being, especially in the classroom. For example, recognizing how really traumatic events like the George Floyd murder affect people’s willingness to engage in a classroom, or how not having Spring Break affects people’s ability to engage in the classroom. Not being able to work or having family members who are sick affect students’ ability, similarly to physical disabilities that students need accommodations for. And so we tried to advocate for better classroom policies through pass/fail grading and a decreased workload in the winter semester.
Nandigama: People on our executive team advocated for getting universal transcription services on lectures. We also spoke to the (Office of Services for) Students with Disability Center and tried to get at least some form of understanding on how we can streamline the process of getting visa accommodations for international students.
TMD: Traditionally, CSG meets once a week in-person, but throughout your entire term, meetings were held completely virtually. How did the virtual format of every CSG meeting affect what the Assembly was able to accomplish? Are there any aspects of this format that you think should stay the same?
Nandigama: Honestly, we (as an executive team) operate pretty differently than Assembly does. We meet with people irrespective of the weekly schedule, and I think for us personally (the online format) worked a lot better. We were able to quickly get into someone’s calendar for 20 minutes, have a productive meeting and then move on with the rest of our days. It would’ve taken weeks to schedule that same meeting (in an) in-person format. With respect to assembly, while a lot of people knew each other already coming into Assembly, the loss of in-person interaction distances people from each other. This made it a lot easier to assume the worst in people, whereas I don’t know if that would have been the instinctual reaction if we were in-person.
Kaplan: In-person, it’s harder to disagree with people and be mean, and it’s easier to have understanding and empathy. I think that’s something that the Assembly missed this year. But, at least from an executive perspective, we really benefited from the increased accessibility of an online format.
TMD: Are there any initiatives that you’re both especially proud to have turned into realities? Which ones are they and how did they help students?
Nandigama: She (Amanda) did a lot of advocacy around getting Election Day to be a holiday or have no classes (on Election Day). We actually were able to push the needle forward a little bit on that, and she served on the debate committee for election activities. We did a lot of civic engagement stuff, but obviously pass/fail grading and the wellness days are a big one.
Kaplan: One of the big things Sav and I did was increased (COVID-19) testing for students. We literally got into email fights with top administrators at this university, sacrificing everything else that we wanted to do just because we knew testing was important. It was such a big accomplishment to have free testing for all University community members second semester. We helped get kitchen supplies and things for students in quarantine and isolation housing when we found out they didn’t have basic necessities. We helped create the idea of the COVID-19 hotline, which has been used to decrease the presence of police on campus when social gatherings are taking place.
Nandigama: We also continued the tradition of giving out free grad gowns, even if we can’t have a fully in-person graduation, and started the Produce RX program, which gives people money for groceries.
Kaplan: People also have been dying for a centralized room reservation system at the University, because all the individual schools and colleges do it separately. Every year IT (tells us), “No, we’re not going to do it,” yet we worked with them and within three weeks there was a centralized system. Over the course of the next couple of years, every individual school and college is going to transition to this main website. We also had our virtual civic engagement series put on by our Government Relations Coordinator Morgan Solomon that hundreds of students attended. We hosted both Michigan senators, representatives from local, state and federal government, people who are going into the Biden administration and local climate activists.
Nandigama: We worked with the Student Sustainability Coalition to hold the listening sessions for the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality recommendations, which was really nice. We also really tried to advocate against the tuition increase, because it wasn’t fair to do that during a pandemic.
TMD: One thing that your administration was able to accomplish was the addition of two wellness days in light of the absence of Spring Break, but many students did not feel that this was enough. Was this the reaction you anticipated, and what do you think CSG and the University learned from this?
Nandigama: It definitely was the reaction we anticipated. We actually wanted one week of no high-stakes assignments or tests really, so people would just need to go to class. But that was not what was going to happen. This was like a “this the best we can do” type of situation in the midst of asking the administration for pass/fail grading as well, which was fine with us. But we really would have liked to see something more come of it.
Kaplan: We thought if we have to sacrifice the wellness days in order to make sure people don’t flunk out of school, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. Obviously, we would have preferred both, we’re students too and we felt the effects of not having Spring Break. We thought those two wellness days were better than nothing. At the end of the day, it was the underlying (pass/fail) policy and the recognition of the unique circumstances of the year that allowed people to graduate and stay on track.
TMD: What do you hope to see happen in CSG’s future? What aspects of your campaign would you like to see continued?
Nandigama: I think we, more than anything, were really able to stick by our mission of representing students, liasoning well with administrators and community building amongst other organizations that are doing amazing work like (One University Campaign), (Lecturers’ Employee Organization) and (Graduate Employees’ Organization). In the past, CSG has had a very negative reputation amongst all of those groups, but I think we were really able to change this, and I hope CSG can continue this progress. I think I would also want to see Produce RX continue and the (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) social justice grants for organizations continue.
Kaplan: I think the biggest difference this year was the approach that Sav and I took, that we were partners. I wasn’t the president and Sav wasn’t the vice president — we were equals and the titles didn’t mean anything. Sav was there in every meeting with every single person. That’s something that’s unique that’s never happened before, and it completely shifted the way CSG operated and this ideology of community rather than hierarchy. So I hope that in the future, that’s carried out.
TMD: We saw a lot of tension this past year between students and the administration, which culminated in the GEO strike and demands that followed. The Board of Regents also has seen a lot of controversy with tuition increasing and the inappropriate and harmful behavior of Regent Ron Weiser (R). How can the University work more cohesively with CSG in the future to improve the student experience?
Nandigama: I don’t think it’s the University that needs to work more closely with CSG. CSG is a very white and financially privileged institution historically, and I think we’re just becoming more diverse. I think it’s the way CSG operates that needs to change more solidly. Oftentimes when we are asked a question and don’t have an answer, we kind of fake it ‘till you make it. But it shows maturity and leadership when you’re able to bring in experts and elevate their voice when an issue comes to the table. I started by elevating GEO’s voice — if the administration didn’t want to talk to GEO, we would literally text the GEO President and ask, “What do you want us to say verbatim to this administrator?” I think that sort of empowerment and elevation is what needs to continue in order to get the administration to listen to student demands a bit more.
Kaplan: I also think the University needs to improve on a lot of fronts in addition to CSG improving. LEO and GEO and all these orgs that are very representative, very diverse and have great models, (they) are continuously not included in University processes and decisions. Generally, the University should more meaningfully include student groups other than CSG in their decisions, especially those who are most impacted. GEO should have been in the room when they were making policy about (Graduate Student Instructors) teaching in person. The Climate Action Movement should be in the room when they’re making decisions about fossil fuel divestment. One U should be in the room when they’re making decisions about tuition increases on all three campuses, not just CSG.
TMD: As you mentioned earlier, you implemented a policy providing students with the option to take courses under the pass/no record COVID option. What do you see in the future of this policy as COVID restrictions ease up and vaccination rates increase?
Nandigama: I don’t know, honestly, (about) the likelihood of pass/fail continuing. I think it’s important to think about the students who were able to succeed in a virtual environment. What are you going to do with those students who found a more conducive learning environment virtually? You don’t need to have students constantly failing and worried about their academics for it to be a competitive academic learning environment. For many students, financial stress or family stress can impact their classroom experience. A more adaptive learning environment would define Michigan as a pioneer in education post-pandemic, as opposed to keeping pass/fail.
Kaplan: We don’t have the answers, but the University should listen to the student leaders, because they will probably have the right idea about how academic policies and grades should be approached.
TMD: In wake of the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd last spring, CSG worked on a number of initiatives to increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion among the student body. How successful do you think these initiatives were? How can they improve in the future?
Nandigama: I think there were pretty good conversation starters, but DEI isn’t something that’s a one-and-done thing. It’s a perpetual learning process, and while it is exhausting for it to be perpetual, it’s more exhausting for racial injustice to exist and impact people. So, in that regard, I would say, we started. We’re not finished, but the fact that we started is a success.
Kaplan: Sav was too modest. As a woman of color who obviously already has to go through all this emotional labor of being in a predominantly white space, she shouldn’t have had to create the DEI resolution, but obviously she did. She created incredible reforms. We revised the elections code of CSG to make it more accessible, we have a land acknowledgement at the beginning of every meeting now and we have monthly anti-racism teach-ins within CSG. She created the position of a DEI advocate that reaches out to organizations serving students of color.
She also created the DEI and Social Justice grant program, which gave over $20,000 of funds to organizations that were promoting social justice in their own communities. Now she’s trying to codify it, even though she’s retired. We created the COVID-19 hotline and made a CCI (Center for Campus Involvement) anti-racism Google Drive. We’re also continuously trying to find ways within the mechanisms of CSG to make it more diverse, so we can continue to pass social justice-oriented policies. Obviously a lot more needs to be done, but not as much would have been done if she (Sav) wasn’t in the room this year.
TMD: Lastly, what is your favorite CSG memory from your term?
Nandigama: The day we got pass/fail was a really, really fun day.
Kaplan: Yeah, we got the email early, and the provost was like, “Just want you to know it’s because of your advocacy that your name will be included in the email,” and we were running around the house like, “Yeah, we did it!”
Nandigama: Amanda and I would always wake up, FaceTime each other, we’d have our meetings, then we’d FaceTime each other. It’s like we were literally attached at the hip, and honestly the reason CSG was bearable was because Amanda was in the room with me. We’re best friends in and outside of CSG, and it really wouldn’t have been what it was without Amanda. Yes I was in the room, it was 50/50, but it took her maturity and leadership to say, ‘Sav and I don’t have all the answers, but we can point you in the right direction.’ I would definitely say doing it all beside Amanda was worth it.
Daily Staff Reporters Martina Zacker and Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.