Toward a Real Culture of Care

Against the Current No. 208, September/October 2020

Kathleen Brown

IN JUNE, THE Office of Student Life released the “Wolverine Culture of Care Pledge” as part of the “community’s shared responsibility” to limit the spread of COVID-19. The pledge calls on students to wash their hands, wear face masks, and practice social distancing while on campus.

“Shared responsibility” is invoked again and again in times of crisis, encouraging us all to pitch in. The University runs because of the effort of workers and students. Yet talk of “shared responsibility” only goes one way. Despite invoking rhetoric of care, the University’s actions demonstrate that it values its endowment over workers’ livelihood and students’ needs – causing hardship and harm.

The University’s decision to hold a residential semester puts workers in harm’s way as the pandemic rages and no vaccine is available. And it is the University, despite its immense wealth and well-paid administrators, that socializes pain – forcing those of us with the least to give up the most.

The University claims that it has no alternative but to fire workers due to loss of revenue. This leaves workers with no income and no health care in the midst of the most severe economic recession and public health crisis of our lifetime.

Workers who remain on payroll face reduced futures through frozen wages and an end to retirement matching, ensuring this current crisis will extend into the future. We need to be clear: these are firings and cuts are not necessary. The University of Michigan has abundant financial resources to protect it from this crisis in the form of $6.7 billion in unrestricted reserves.

Before the layoffs, Michigan Medicine nurses demonstrated for the PPEs they needed. Photo: Jim West

These cuts are unconscionable, but even more so given the University’s administrative bloat of hundreds of highly paid administrators who make six figure incomes while safely ensconced in their homes.

In the University’s talk of shared responsibility, we must ask why Marschall Runge, CEO of Michigan Medicine, still makes $1.4 million a year when workers have been laid off. We must ask where Michigan Medicine’s and $178 million surplus in 2019 have gone. These funds have certainly not been “shared” with workers.

According to the information released at the Regents’ meeting on June 25, Michigan Medicine’s losses due to COVID were much less than anticipated and MM is projecting a surplus for FY20-21 of $44 million. As the slide demonstrated, this amount was secured by literally taking the money out of workers’ pockets through $70 million in labor cuts.

What’s Needed Now

If the University believed in a real culture of care, it would immediately reverse layoffs of lecturers, custodians, and medical personnel. Indeed, the University should greatly expand employment to counter the effects of the pandemic and to create a safe workplace.

We need more lecturers and instructors to expand the number of low-enrollment classes. We need more custodians to keep buildings clean and virus-free. We need more medical workers to set up a robust testing infrastructure.

We need more support staff to assist students struggling with homelessness, hunger, and mental health crises. And as the epidemic of racism limits and steals the lives of Brown and Black people, we need more resources to invest in students and workers of color.

Against UM’s manufactured scarcity, there is a real culture of care — from below. I see it when Michigan Medicine emergency room workers crowdsource $52,000 for their laid-off coworkers on GoFundMe. It is graduate workers fighting to protect international grads against ICE rulings, but also against UM’s discriminatory international fee.

It is graduate students fighting for our fellow parent members to be able to use the childcare subsidy, or disabled graduate students fighting for the right for all of us to work remotely.

A real culture of care is Black students raising awareness of ongoing racism in order to create a welcoming environment for students of color; it is undergraduate students organizing to disarm and defund campus police, reverse tuition increases, and fund all three Michigan campuses equitably.

If the University believed in a real culture of care, it would recognize how the pandemic has negatively affected graduate students’ research and job prospects, and would engage Graduate Employee Organization and Rackham Student Government’s requests in our open letter, which include extended funding and time-to-degree. Even though 1800 signatories support our demands, the University refuses to meet with us.

The University has the resources to absorb the financial shock of the pandemic. Regular workers do not. Until the University truly shares responsibility – starting by using a higher percentage of the endowment and cutting pay for top-paid administrators to share with low paid workers — its rhetoric of “care” rings hollow.

September-October 2020, ATC 208