1. Engaging with our community during challenging times

    September 11, 2020

    Dear Students and Colleagues:

    We write to you today out of a deep concern for our university community – one that feels fractured, with some expressing frustration, anger and distrust.  This comes in the context of an extremely high level of anxiety and uncertainty due to the many national crises we are grappling with – from the pandemic to the economy to structural racism – all in the midst of a contentious national election landscape.

    We thank each of you for the questions, concerns, and fears you have brought to us about the health and safety of the campus community.  We recognize that we must do more to engage with and include members of our community as we grapple with the complex decisions to be made going forward. Working, studying and living through a global pandemic requires all of us to manage a host of challenges and we, like you, are working tirelessly to provide resources to support you, to help you pursue your ambitions, and to keep our community safe.

    Many of you are following the strikes on campus – by our graduate students and resident advisors– and are concerned about the issues they are raising. Health and safety are fundamental human rights, and our foremost responsibility as leaders is to ensure that everyone, with no exceptions, feels that they can succeed and thrive in our community. We want our students to have the best educational experience possible.

    It is for this reason that we have remained adamant that all work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely. We have made repeated efforts to ensure that the faculty and GSIs were treated similarly and equitably in fulfilling the needs of our curriculum so that all requests could be accommodated. Given this, about three-quarters of the GSIs teaching this term are doing so remotely.

    The result is that only 22 percent of our undergraduate credit hours are being delivered with some in-person component, based on decisions made as locally as possible by schools, colleges and departments based on pedagogic needs and instructor preferences. By providing more flexibility for students who choose to take classes fully remotely, we reduced density in our residence halls by a third. In addition, we gradually and successfully ramped up our research operations, while keeping the density in our labs low. As measured by network logons, activity on campus is only about 40 percent the level that it was last year at this time.

    Representatives from the university and the Graduate Employees’ Organization worked diligently to reach resolution over the Labor Day weekend and through the first two days of the strike.  GEO leadership supported a comprehensive university proposal to meet the interests of GEO and end the strike, but it was rejected by a membership vote late Wednesday night.  A detailed summary of the university’s proposal is available here.

    GEO has raised a number of important issues, and many members of the community have asked for additional information about the matters under discussion.  The university’s proposal addressed nearly all of the issues GEO raised under the contract. For example:

    • GEO and Academic Human Resources teams worked together to enable a mechanism for GSIs and GSSAs to address very quickly any health and safety concerns in their classrooms related to COVID-19.
    • The proposal also clarified the availability of supplies, such as face coverings and hand sanitizer.
    • The university agreed to provide additional details on testing through the Campus Maize & Blueprint website.
    • The university also provided clarification and guidance on mask enforcement in the classroom, including clarifying the right of all instructional faculty, including GSIs, to cancel class in the event a student refuses to wear a mask after being asked.
    • We affirmed that the U-M International Center would enhance its outreach to graduate students.
    • For parents, the university agreed to provide temporary enhancements for this academic year to the student child care subsidy through the Office of Financial Aid, including offering additional funds for unlicensed child care in the subsidy to all students.

    The university is ready to continue discussions with GEO so that all students are able to continue their studies without further interruption. It is certainly our preference to resolve concerns with productive discussions rather than outside appeals.

    The university’s Division of Student Life continues to engage with resident assistants to resolve the concerns they have expressed. Student Life leadership has been in continual contact with RAs, and summary of the division’s work to address the latest concerns is available here.

    We’re also addressing concerns about the quarantine and isolation housing we’re providing to students. Our commitment to providing meal delivery is continuing, and Student Life staff check in with each student daily. From now on in response to feedback, we will be providing microwaves, and all Michigan Dining meals will come in microwavable packaging.

    One of the major issues raised by GEO and many others in our community is policing. We would like to be extremely clear that we, too, are passionate about the need for police reform across our country. The egregious acts we have all seen in the past months shine a spotlight on structural racism.

    Both of us, along with Division of Public Safety and Security (DPSS) Executive Director Eddie Washington, are committed to immediately address any areas of concern that arise in our community. This is a part of our ongoing efforts to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion across campus. Engaging with faculty, students and other community members, the University of Michigan should be a leader in finding ways to address policing problems more broadly.

    Policing concerns are not readily resolved through union negotiations. Instead of a unilateral strategy – such as defunding the police – or addressing these critical issues through a bargaining contract that applies only to one group of employees, we endorse thoughtful engagement with the broader university community to surface both problems and opportunities.  For instance, when community members raised concerns about armed police in the Michigan Ambassador program, the university changed the composition of the teams so armed officers were not part of the patrols. A goal of the program has always been to enhance health and safety without requiring calls to law enforcement.

    Recently, our public health experts met individually with members of GEO to address their concerns, and we plan to have similar avenues for faculty and staff to hear directly from these individuals.  This is just one example of how we are working to improve our dialogue with you.

    It is clear this is just the beginning of the work yet to be done to rebuild trust and confidence in this community. We welcome suggestions on other mechanisms for hearing from our community, and suggestions on how we can increase transparency in decision-making. Our commitment to you is to engage and to listen.

    We know that you share our deep commitment to this great university – from the health and safety of each of you, to our shared values of transparency and to the research, teaching, learning, service and patient care that are the reasons we all chose U-M.

    Let us work together to address our differences, even those that are strongly held, and to leverage our passions and our shared values.

    Sincerely,

    Mark S. Schlissel
    President

    Susan M. Collins
    Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs