KU Undergrads on Strike!

Solidarity is a verb.

Dear Comrades,

On Monday, August 31, 2020, KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer emailed the entire Jayhawk community with a statement called, “The Need for Certainty and the Need for Understanding“. In this email, Bichelmeyer accuses our entire community of being unreasonably attached to a desire for “certainty” and claims that the faculty and graduate workers at the University of Kansas – who are actively engaging in research to understand the world around us – are simply “not motivated to seek understanding”.

This is not the truth. We do seek understanding and to achieve our understanding, we are listening to expert scientists and scholars in the areas of epidemiology, public health, disability studies, health equity, and accessibility in higher education. Their assessment was that the best choice would be to choose online teaching with built-in accessibility, and this is the foundation of our understanding.

It is true that we sought some certainty from the Chancellor and the Provost, in the sense that we wanted to be certain that decisions about us would be made with us through our system of shared governance. Instead, KU refused to include Faculty, Staff, and Student Senate in their decision making and refused to engage in impact sessions with our union, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition AFT Local 6403, until we filed labor charges against the University.

We wanted to be certain that we would have the time and ability to create accessible and quality online curriculum driven by a Provost whose area of expertise is exactly that – the pedagogy of online learning. Instead, we have first year GTAs, in some cases only a summer away from their own time as undergraduates, creating coursework on the fly, with no training in pedagogy, classroom management, or even in using the most basic tools to ensure accessibility for our students.

We wanted to be certain that the people responsible for the day-to-day management of our University would take early, proactive, science-informed action to reduce unnecessary harm to our community and to our lives. Instead, we see that Chancellor Girod and Provost Bichelmeyer have chosen to believe that our lives – especially Black and Indigenous lives – are disposable. Even today, they refuse to tell the public how many deaths would trigger a shut-down, or how many of us can be written off as an “acceptable loss” in comparison to a possible loss of tuition dollars (which have turned out to be just as eagerly produced for online courses).

Now Bichelmeyer suggests that those of us at KU who concurred with the well-sourced position of the top experts in their fields are just hampered by anxiety and naively attached to facile certainty. For the Provost of our University to dismiss entirely the scientific and ethical position informed by scholarship is to negate the entire mission of our University. For Provost Bichelmeyer to dismiss fact-based concerns about a global pandemic as a desire for “certainty” is reductive and unacceptable.

Within the past week, Lawrence, Kansas made the list of top ten areas of rising Covid-19 cases in the United States. Three days ago, KU reported that 474 students have tested positive for the coronavirus, putting the overall campus positivity rate at 2.18%. Among our greek life members, there is a 5.17% positivity rate. This exponential increase led Douglas County health officials to intervene and order 10 fraternity and sororities to enter mandatory quarantine.

Meanwhile, Barb Bichelmeyer and Doug Girod are forcing workers and students to interact in-person prior to receiving negative Covid testing results; Watkins Health Clinic is turning away people who have had close and extended contact with those infected with Covid-19; and despite Girod and Bichelmeyer’s endless crowing about mass testing, workers and students have experienced testing errors, lost or delayed results, and this past weekend, an entirely unstaffed KU testing site, where people with testing appointments were met with an empty parking lot.

This is the reality in which we must live and move and – thanks to Girod and Bichelmeyer  – interact in-person with our students, campus workers, and the greater Lawrence community, who had no say in the decision to reopen campus.

Rather than addressing this reality, the Provost emailed over 30,000 people to bask in the praise she claims to have received from an anonymous faculty member. This faculty member, she says, is grateful to be teaching in person, and rather than sharing a position based on science and ethics, Barb instead attempts to use this unsourced praise as proof that she made the right decision in choosing to reopen in-person, rather than online. But just like the fraudulent “survey” results, this anecdote is not evidence.

Members of GTAC AFT Local 6403 are appalled that KU administration has chosen time and again to strategically manage their image instead of strategically managing public health and quality education. Rather than providing us with critical information about the campus they forced us onto, they offer only self-serving pontification to justify their ineffective and negligent response to the pandemic. The administration is not responding to a threat to public health and safety – they are a threat to public health and safety.

Although we are responding to a specific email, this is not merely a distasteful misstep by our University. This is an issue of life or death. Mass emails are one of the very few places GTAs receive critical knowledge about KU’s response to the pandemic. When our administrators send public relations positions rather than meaningful information, they increase our mistrust of this administration and their messages. It is not enough to simply block out, ignore, or dismiss these messages. Because they hold so much power, we rely on them for communication that directly influences our daily lives. In times of crisis, communications from our administrators should be used to help us understand the ongoing risks from the pandemic and the university responses to help mitigate that risk. Correspondence about Covid-19 should be strictly limited to essential information about policy changes, infection rates, and other risk mitigation solutions.

Looking back on the past week, we do not see “Jayhawks Rising.” We see Covid-19 levels rising because Barb Bichelmeyer and Doug Girod have chosen to risk the lives of the students and workers they’re paid to serve.

For these reasons, our undergraduate students will be engaging in a Labor Day student strike as well as circulating a petition to demand that KU administration – or at the very least, county and state health officials – close this campus.

GTAC stands in solidarity with student demands, which includes free testing, housing provisions, hazard pay, and quarantining procedures. For months, KU administration has relentlessly touted an “overwhelming” student desire to be on campus, and yet here we see an organized undergraduate response demanding the opposite.

GTAC is especially moved by their call to abandon harmful individualism and “sacrifice our individual interests for the greater good of the community by demanding that campus closes.” This is not just about KU, but also about the larger Lawrence community, who did not consent to host needless Covid-19 risks. While there has been documented abhorrent behavior by some undergraduate students, GTAC refuses to blame any undergraduate for the spread of Covid-19 in our community – these students were brought here with false promises of safety and normalcy from KU administrators. Now is the time for Barb Bichelmeyer and Doug Girod to follow our undergraduates’ leadership by closing our campus.

GTAC workers will be supporting our undergraduate students by signing and circulating their petition and by refusing to reprimand and/or count as absent those students who are now shouldering the burden entrusted to Doug and Barb. Please reach out to your students with your course policy regarding this student strike. In addition, while GTAC cannot legally advise GTAs to withhold labor in a concerted action, we do want to reassure any GTAs who choose to take part in this action that we will fully represent and defend them against any retaliatory discipline they may experience afterwards.

Solidarity is a verb. Human lives are not disposable.

In solidarity,
Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition
AFT Local 6403

GTAs are not disposable.

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