With almost a month into the fall 2020 semester at most universities and colleges, graduate students and resident assistants at the University of Michigan are “close to revolt” about the university’s coronavirus pandemic response and procedures.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the University of Michigan gave students the chance to decide whether to attend in-person classes or do online classes, offered at least three-fourths of its courses in an online format, and its on-campus housing is open to students if they opted to return to campus. But the main problem in critics’ eyes is the university’s coronavirus testing, which focuses on students who reported symptoms.
President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins acknowledged that students and staff members are distrustful of the university administration over their response to the pandemic. The union for the university’s graduate students went on strike on September 8, followed by student resident assistants (known as RA’s). Student dining workers and faculty members are also taking action to protest the administration, with faculty members holding a no-confidence vote this week.
One professor, Silke-Maria Weineck, said that the university’s reopening plans were not “well-conceived” and that “what you have right now… is a campus getting close to open revolt.”
Graduate students’ demands range from more coronavirus testing and contact tracing, the ability to switch to remote classes, rent freezes for university housing residents, and slashing university ties with local police and federal immigration agencies. Meanwhile, RA’s demands included hazard pay (i.e. raised wages for working during a pandemic), regular coronavirus testing for RA’s, university-provided personal protective equipment and enforcing safety measures.
Just as with most left-wing student demands, the union has not come up with an alternative security or law enforcement measure if a university cuts ties with local police departments. For example, a university hires local police officers to provide security for events and cooperates with local police departments if crimes fall under the local police department’s jurisdiction.
The graduate students’ strike has interrupted at least 3,500 courses because they often teach classes, conduct research, and do other types of work for the university. The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) called on undergraduates and faculty members to not attend class nor teach class as a show of solidarity with graduate students. This also led unionized construction workers and truck drivers to not comply with on-campus work.
But the graduate students’ strike is technically illegal in Michigan because Michigan law does not permit public employees to conduct a strike. The GEO also has a “no-strike” clause in its contract with the university, which it is violating by striking.
In the legal system, the university filed an unfair labor practice charge against the GEO, and if the state court grants the university a preliminary injunction, the union could face civil damages and see its union members ordered back to work.
The University of Michigan is not the only university to face internal dissent and protest about coronavirus pandemic procedures. Students at the University of Iowa staged a “sickout” protest and demanded that the administration reverse its decision to hold in-person classes.