Make UW-Madison's Smart Restart Work for Everyone
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University of Wisconsin - Madison students implore the administration to provide more comprehensive support to students and University employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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An Open Letter From Concerned UW-Madison Students
Dear Chancellor Blank, Dean Karpus, Board of Regents, Office of Compliance, and Administrative officials at UW-Madison,
As the beginning of the Spring, 2021 semester approaches, students at UW-Madison would like to reiterate the continued need for institutional support of students and employees affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the University has improved its response to the unprecedented challenges posed this past semester, there are still large gaps in University policy. Moving forward, students implore the administration to make substantive progress toward meeting the student and community demands that have been issued over the past few months. Specifically, we would like to highlight and echo the voices of those who have protested the financial hardship, Smart Restart, online academics, and racial inequality on campus.
Student and Employee Financial Hardship
Although students are grateful for the progress in addressing financial concerns, a myriad of unfulfilled demands remain. Petitions to decrease fall tuition rates and return, at least some, service and campus fees to UW-Madison students have garnered thousands of signatures. The University simply should not be billing students for resources they can no longer use. Especially in the case of $750.00 fees for services that students have “extremely limited or no access to”. The University’s Budget in Brief reports that federal student financial aid has decreased by 4% from 2019 to 2020, but UW Madison only increased its financial aid offerings by 1% to compensate. In addition, as adult dependents, many students have been excluded from stimulus payments. Especially in light of the refusal to refund students for campus and service fees or decrease tuition, the University must expand its investments in financial aid for students going forward.
Further, the Teaching Assistants Association’s (TAA) open letter to UW-Madison administrators conveys the urgent need of students and employees who have been left behind by University policy. This letter demands that the University, “provide immediate relief of all mandatory fees”; “maintain full pay for all hourly employees”; and “issue a rent moratorium for University apartments”. The United Faculty and Staff at UW (ULC) have repeated these demands advocating for employment & payment continuity and a minimum wage for all UW-Madison workers. We encourage the administration to prioritize these student and employee concerns moving into the next semester. The burden of this crisis cannot and should not be shouldered by low-income students and employees.
A Moral Restart
Concerning this semester’s plan for a ‘Smart Restart’, the Badger Herald reports that concerned ULC members who submitted an open records request in July “found no evidence of any surveys or attempts to poll student opinions on reopening”. Students are extremely appreciative of the strides made to include our voices this semester. However, as the landscape of COVID-19 continually evolves, we would like to reiterate the importance of student, employee, and community interests in reopening plans in the Spring semester. Although the University has made an effort to do exactly that with their new “UW Coronavirus Student Task Force” the TAA president has stated that she is “‘skeptical’ about how it will hold UW administrators accountable”. Canales further states it is a “huge red flag” that UW administrators did not contact the TAA regarding the task force. In light of this, the University should continue to make progress in listening to student and employee concerns. There have been multiple statements from the TAA, ASM, ULC, BIPOC coalition, and others to enact a moral and smart restart. These pleas are urgent given the impending spike in cases during the holiday season.
Students that we anonymously surveyed about their experiences with COVID-19 on campus echo the need for a moral restart. They described an extreme lack of oversight, resources, and infrastructure to handle COVID-19 on campus, especially in the dorms. The incidents reported pose serious threats to the health of the community and must be improved immediately. Chiefly, the student body advocates for continued robust and proactive investments in ensuring that, when made available, the COVID-19 vaccine can be administered to students and employees at no cost, with priority given to those with health risks and healthcare workers.
Online classes have been proven to yield higher rates of student drop-outs and dissatisfaction. The online/hybrid education we have received for the past two semesters is simply of lesser quality than previous semesters. This consensus was nearly unanimous among the students we surveyed. Petitions calling for a pass-fail option to be reinstated in the Fall 2020 semester gathered over 1,300 signatures. One remarks, “this is a kindness we can all benefit from, and one that the University of Wisconsin-Madison can easily provide” to protect the mental health of students continuing their education during this crisis. The Association of Big Ten Students released a letter reaffirming these demands in early November. They call on institutions “to implement a comprehensive P/F or S/NS policy...that prioritizes the needs of students”. In fact, the University of Wisconsin is one of the only schools that has failed to implement a P/F policy for the 2020-21 school year. This upcoming semester is presented with unique and sizable barriers to learning and should be treated as such.
Racial Inequality on Campus
During a pandemic that has seriously deepened racial divides in America, we ask the university to make headway in realizing the demands of students of color. The administration has been largely unresponsive to the contents of the “BIPOC Demands for the University of Wisconsin-Madison” petition which has gathered over 3,000 signatures. Like many organizations on campus, this petition advocated for a moral restart in addition to “the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue and Chamberlin Rock for their racist histories, the abolition of UWPD, and recognition of UW BIPOC student organizations with permanent funding”. The administration called the removal of the Lincoln statue a “non-starter” and has failed to adequately address the other demands. Inaction from the University has meant a failure to ensure that students of color feel seen, heard, and protected on this campus.
As part of the Smart Restart, the UW-Madison administration has boasted the “deployment of UWPD officers to police off-campus gatherings, a move which increases the likelihood of police encounters with BIPOC students living off-campus”. These increased risks to students of color have resulted in the ASM issuing a “vote of no confidence” for UWPD. Chancellor Blank maintained that she had not heard any specific complaints even though the Badger Herald reports that “Students have reported UWPD officers not wearing masks while on duty and have voiced their distrust in the department regarding its handling of alcohol misconduct, instances of sexual assault and mental health crises”. It is imperative for the University to consider the demands of the BIPOC coalition. Including monthly meetings, “timelines with marginalized student affinity groups'' to help reach their goals, involving more students in reopening plans, and prioritizing transparency.
In summary, we advocate that the University not shift the financial burden on low-income students and employees by decreasing tuition, refunding unnecessary fees, investing in student aid, and issuing a rent moratorium and pay continuity for employees. Further, the University needs to take steps toward a smart and moral restart by more closely listening to affected students and staff, providing more oversight and supportive infrastructure in student housing, and making proactive and robust investments in the COVID-19 vaccine. In order to prioritize student needs and mental health, the University must implement a comprehensive Pass/Fail policy this semester. Classes have not been the same and should not be graded as such. Lastly, the University must make substantive progress towards protecting the safety of BIPOC students on campus by listening to student demands, especially ones concerning the UWPD, immediately to ensure BIPOC students feel seen, heard, and respected on this campus.
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