Reopening UW-Madison: A Smart Restart or a Measure of Austerity?

By Clare Michaud

Coronavirus case counts are mounting around the country and in our community, as is a lack of leadership from both our politicians and our employers. For months, our state government leaders have been at odds over regulations intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and some protests have pushed for the reopening of businesses over what they view as the stripping away of individual liberties. Conversely, a mask mandate was instituted to mitigate the virus’s spread. 

In the midst of this, UW-Madison’s “Smart Restart” plan to bring students back to campus for hybrid instruction during the fall semester fits squarely between the requests of those who wish to return to business as usual and those who seek to manage infection spread firmly and swiftly for the safety of the community. 

UW-Madison’s decision to reopen in the fall has different implications for different campus employees. A fully-online semester with closed dorms would help keep the city from experiencing a spike in cases, but it puts campus employees, whose work relies on students physically being on campus, in a precarious spot. The newly-formed University Labor Council (the representative of the Building and Construction Trades Council, Teaching Assistants Association [TAA], United Faculty and Academic Staff [UFAS] and the campus’ two American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] locals, #2412 and #171) wrote a statement of demands responding to Smart Restart and hosted the alternative “Moral Restart” virtual panel on August 12. 

During that panel, Ellen La Luzerne, a university employee and representative from AFSCME Local 171, stated that food service workers are especially concerned about being on campus, because they work alongside students whose networks of contacts may be far larger than a given staff member’s. Their work relies on having students on campus, and a continuation of the workshare program that was implemented for these employees in the spring would be another measure of austerity from the university administration to low-paid workers. Officials who say they want to keep campus safe need to consider employee safety, too—through both health and finances. 

Some have promoted Smart Restart as a way to ensure that students without stable access to broadband internet will be able to continue their education (which is indeed a serious concern when planning for remote, virtual learning), and proponents claim that bringing students back to campus for the richness of in-person instruction is a way of carrying on the tradition of the “Wisconsin Idea.” The plan also allows the university to return to making more money. 

The absence of students from dorms and from the campus community spending money on campus is causing the university to lose a lot of money. UW officials have estimated a loss of $150 million throughout the summer semester, as campus remained closed to the majority of students, researchers and staff. 

“The cuts to employee earnings through furloughs and work-share programs have put many university staff members in financial precarity, and they have taken on the bulk of the burden of saving the university money.”

Laura Peterson, a UW-Madison employee, says, “With state level budget cuts and loss in revenue for self-funded departments like Housing, Wisconsin Union, Athletics, & Transportation Services, we’re facing significant shortfalls.”

The economic effect that the pandemic is having on the university follows decades of declining financial support from the state, including a very sharp fall during the recent Walker administration. The cuts to employee earnings through furloughs and work-share programs have put many university staff members in financial precarity, and they have taken on the bulk of the burden of saving the university money. 

Though Chancellor Rebecca Blank is taking on a 10% pay cut from her salary of over $573,000, this impact is nothing compared to a 2.3% reduction from furloughs to employees making under $50,000 per year. It should be noted, too, that Blank’s salary increased by 2% in 2020, while many employees’ stayed stagnant. 

“Custodial [employees] just returned to work full-time after being reduced to part-time and are worried if students are not on campus, there will be layoffs,” Peterson said. 

Another compounding factor to workplace precarity during this pandemic comes from former Governor Walker’s Act 10, which was deleterious to the presence and power of labor unions in Wisconsin, and which has weakened employee ability to demand fair compensation and benefits and safe workplace conditions at a moment as critical as this one. 

Graduate students will be on the front lines if UW follows through with its Smart Restart program as planned on September 2. Smart Restart’s threshold for virtual instruction is 50 students. Discussion sections are often taught by graduate students (providing those students with paychecks, tuition remission and health insurance), and they are typically no larger than 20 students, automatically deeming them viable for in-person instruction. 

“What do I do as a teacher and I see someone without a mask on putting the entire class at risk?” Goswami asked. “What do I do there?” 

The plan requires that students wear face coverings and abide by physical distancing requirements when in the classroom, but it provides little guidance for how instructors should proceed with class if a student comes in without a mask or does not adhere to physical distancing. During the Moral Restart panel, Ankur Goswami, a graduate student and representative from TAA, expressed that concern. 

“What do I do as a teacher and I see someone without a mask on putting the entire class at risk?” Goswami asked. “What do I do there?” 

Graduate students do not have the same level of authority on campus as tenured faculty members. They cannot make decisions to hold classes completely online without the worry of losing their income, tuition payments and health coverage. 

Goswami also spoke to the lack of communication between the university administration and employees, which has been notably top-down with little room for discussion. “It was really striking to me to hear from [administration] that they had not heard from any [teaching assistants], any instructors, when they were crafting plans for in-person instruction,” Goswami said.

Administration officials did not seek feedback from teaching assistants and other instructors until early August, when employees at last received a survey. A separate survey distributed by UFAS and TAA in early July revealed that nearly 87% of respondents are uncomfortable with a decision to reopen campus, and many expressed fear that doing so will contribute to an increase in COVID cases and broad community spread.

The University Labor Council has been taking direct action to fight against Smart Restart, attempting to reverse the university administration’s plan before students fully return, classes start, and cases inevitably spike. Starting Friday, August 14, the ULC is organizing weekly protests on campus that push for a Moral Restart (the next will be on Friday, August 21, again around the University Ave / East Campus Mall / Chazen Museum area). The TAA is holding a virtual event where graduate student workers will sign their wills, and ultimately deliver them to Chancellor Blank, to make the statement that reopening campus, even partially, will contribute to the COVID-19 death count in Dane County. 

The university’s plan to return to campus leaves many questions about student and employee safety unanswered, and those answers may come through the experience of bringing students to campus. The process that the administration has taken to create and communicate Smart Restart to the campus community—that is, without the early input from workers and students about their concerns—is another measure of austerity that augments the divide between workers and employers, and it is ever more important that we, as workers, do what we can to form solidarity and fight for the safety of our workplaces and communities.

Schools across the country have made headlines this week due to their reopening plans utterly failing when COVID-19 cases have immediately increased on those campuses. UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus was open for two weeks, with courses in session for one, before moving to 100% virtual instruction due to a drastic and rapid increase in cases; Michigan State University announced this week, ahead of bringing students back to campus and as a response to outbreaks on other campuses, that they will have a 100% virtual semester; UW-Madison needs to follow suit. 

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