The Graduate and Professional Student Federation Senate held an emergency meeting Tuesday evening via Zoom to discuss concerns about UNC’s reopening plans for the fall and advocacy efforts since the spring semester. The senate also adopted three resolutions that call for University leadership to take specific actions to protect graduate and professional students, campus workers and international and undocumented students this fall.
Kat Furtado, vice president of GPSF, said in an email that the emergency meeting was called after several current and former senators petitioned for it in accordance with the formal GPSF procedure to request emergency meetings. While emergency GPSF Senate meetings have been held before, she said that an emergency meeting has never been called in the middle of summer, when the senate is typically in recess.
“Our concern was that by letting the GPSF president speak on behalf of us without having any kind of current conversations with us, that the needs of senators and the needs of constituents weren't being well-represented,” said Danielle Dulken, a former GPSF senator who was involved in petitioning for the emergency meeting.
All three resolutions were introduced by former GPSF senator Jennifer Standish and current GPSF senator Devin Case-Ruchala.
“I come here with these resolutions because I think GPSF needs to be an avenue to fight for the most at risk on campus, and to join other graduate students who have already exhibited the bravery, morals and imagination that is required,” Standish said.
Endorsement of graduate worker petition
The first resolution states GPSF will formally endorse a petition published June 12 in response to UNC’s Roadmap to Fall 2020 by a collective of graduate workers — now named the Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC — that expressed concerns about the safety and logistics of returning to campus for in-person instruction. The petition has been signed by nearly 500 people to date.
The initial resolution brought to the senate, which advocated for an “online-only” mode of instruction this fall, was amended by the senate to advocate for “online” instruction. This modification was made in consideration of specific populations that would be negatively affected by online-only instruction, primarily international students who could face deportation for taking an entirely remote course load under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's recent policy changes.
The resolution calls for a hybrid model for international students while the ICE policy is in place, and online instruction for all students who desire remote learning without requiring a statement of need or reason.
The resolution also asks that Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin and others involved in the Carolina Roadmap publicly respond point by point to the demands outlined in the petition. The resolution also states that a failure to respond will be considered an “implicit rejection of campus community input into plans for the fall.”
University leaders have yet to directly respond to two petitions written by the collective of graduate workers, but Dulken said she is interested to see whether this petition will be addressed since it has been endorsed by GPSF, the official governing body for UNC’s graduate and professional students.
Support for international and undocumented students
The senate also passed a resolution that calls for the University to ensure funding and the retention of visas and immigration status for all international and undocumented graduate students. The resolution urges UNC leaders to reiterate their non-cooperation with ICE and lobby for the repeal of the new policy.
According to the resolution, over a quarter of UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate student population is international, and many graduate students are undocumented.
Shelly Pan, an international student and a former GPSF senator, emphasized the contributions made by international students to UNC's diverse culture.
“We contribute significantly to the academic achievements of UNC, offer tuition and fees that support the school in this complicated time, some of us have put our safety aside and are actively participating in the COVID research for both UNC and the U.S.,” Pan said.
Many senators voiced concern during the meeting for international students and their visa status if UNC transitions to fully remote instruction mid-semester. The resolution was amended to include a call for University leaders to present a plan before the final enrollment date for the fall semester for how international students will maintain legal status in the United States and be protected from deportation, should a course delivery change occur.
Solidarity with campus workers
The third resolution passed by the GPSF senate calls for a freeze in layoffs of campus workers due to COVID-19, the reinstatement of employees who have been laid off due to the pandemic and for no cuts to be made to any University employee salary below the Orange County living wage. The resolution also calls for hazard pay for all essential workers.
The resolution asks that University leaders transparently solicit and incorporate feedback from all low-paid campus workers at each step of UNC’s fall plans.
All three resolutions will be sent to various UNC administrators, as well as Richard Stevens, chairperson of the UNC Board of Trustees, and interim UNC System President Bill Roper.
Furtado said that a lot of the rationale for calling the emergency meeting stemmed from the senators not knowing what the GPSF Executive Branch had been doing over the summer to advocate for graduate and professional students. Furtado and GPSF President Ryan Collins both admitted there were shortcomings in the Executive Branch’s communication over the past months, but reaffirmed their commitment to transparency and to sharing information more intentionally in the future.
Collins provided a summary of GPSF’s work over the past few months and its conversations with University administration at Tuesday's meeting. GPSF conducted a survey in June, and Collins said in an email that responses showed that many graduate and professional students are opposed to a return to on-campus instruction due to the threat of COVID-19. Some of the biggest concerns expressed in the survey included access to transportation given reduced capacity on Chapel Hill Transit buses, access to COVID-19 testing and the need for extended time to complete degrees.
The survey results have been shared with the Chancellor’s Office and the Graduate School, Collins said.
GPSF Secretary Chad Lloyd also presented the survey results at the Campus Safety Commission’s July 2 meeting.
“We were initially surprised by the number of students who preferred to continue with remote instruction, given the academic requirements that require a presence on campus, as well as dissatisfaction with the quality of online instruction in the spring semester, but it is clear that concerns about the continued threat of coronavirus remain paramount in many students' minds,” Collins said in an email.
Several individuals at the emergency meeting shared why they opposed reopening campus, including a lack of specificity for off-ramps, fears that social distancing and mask-wearing would not be followed and personal experiences of losing a relative to the coronavirus.
“Speaking as a senator and a grad student who has lost a family member due to COVID-19, reopening the campus is inconsiderate of our other community members who are grieving the death of family members due to the pandemic by putting them at risk of contracting the same virus, and existing in similar structures that killed their family member,” Ariana Avila, a GPSF senator representing anthropology, said.
Collins said that GPSF’s survey results have informed all communications about the fall semester between members of the GPSF Executive Branch and University administrators .
A Twitter account managed by members of the Anti-Racist Grad Worker Collective at UNC and not affiliated with GPSF has been publicizing the survey responses with daily tweets. Dulken said the collective felt like GPSF had quietly published the survey results, so the goal of the account is to publicly show that students are “fairly overwhelmingly opposed” to reopening and provide explicit examples of their opposition.
Collins said that the GPSF Executive Branch has been a part of many meetings related to the fall reopening and will continue to press the issues raised in the survey responses and in the senate resolutions. Collins also said that he is working to ensure that the voice of graduate and professional students is heard in equal parts alongside undergraduates as fall planning and decision-making occurs.
“It's not simply about being at the table, but it's about bringing solutions and input to the table by continuing to be present to push for that, continuing to engage in the ongoing dialogue and building these connections, building these avenues through which our voice continues to be heard,” Collins said.
Collins said he is currently talking with the Chancellor’s Office about hosting a webinar in July that will be exclusively for graduate and professional students as a follow-up to the student webinar held in June to continue direct conversations about the fall semester.
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