Opinion: NMU must provide accessible and sustainable healthcare to graduate students

Picture+of+students+wearing+graduation+cap

Sam Rush/NW

Hannah Cajandig-Taylor

If you’ve searched through Northern Michigan University’s Twitter page recently, you’ve likely seen the concerns of graduate students raised with the hashtag #sharenmu. Like many graduate students around the country, we stand in the tenuous yet rewarding position of being students, instructors, and university employees concurrently.

We embody three unique roles wrapped into one. We run whimsical activities in our classrooms while devoting countless hours to lesson-planning, reading papers, and writing our own manuscripts or conducting groundbreaking research in our fields. Unfortunately, some employees at our university are being forced into face-to-face instruction while simultaneously not being provided with healthcare. Amidst a volatile global virus, this act is irrefutably dangerous and wrong. Metaphorically speaking, we are wobbling on a tightrope above a pit of flames with nothing to catch us because it appears our institution believes a safety net is too expensive.  

Though NMU has promised to cover the cost of consultation at the Vielmetti Health Center for the duration of the pandemic, this guarantee only ensures access for a limited time and only covers a general appointment and treatment that can be done at the center, according to Dr. Lisa Eckert.

Due to a lack of transparency about what this means, I called the Health Center myself to get the inside scoop. While treatment and visits are covered, there are limitations. In other words, medical prescriptions and outside referrals will not be covered by the university, so if you’re a graduate student in need of medical help that can’t be resolved at the center, you’re in a tight spot. Luckily, accommodation notes for online instruction can be obtained at the health center, along with other treatments. However, the health center can be backed up with other appointments and will most definitely be busy as COVID-19 cases continue to rise on campus.

Affordable access to these care options free-of-charge can and should be available at a minimum, with or without the presence of COVID-19. What if we end up in the hospital after contracting COVID-19? Will the university be covering our ICU bills? We aren’t sure, as nobody within the administration will answer this question for us. 

Furthermore, how are we to receive accommodations for teaching remotely when many of us do not have a primary care physician or a healthcare provider with the availability to fill out HR paperwork during a pandemic? Though these accommodations can be received through the Health Center, this information was not communicated to graduate employees.

In fact, I had to call and ask about it to find that out. On top of that, we have yet to see an official document that specifies what services are and aren’t covered. And furthermore, we return to the issue of an overworked Health Center while grappling with an administration that believes that we only deserve basic health access during a pandemic. In other words, our protection is only temporary, and our safety only matters when it’s convenient.  

 Upon administration hearing our discussion of these complicated implications, we were given a list of outside places from which we could purchase our own healthcare. Unfortunately, rent can swallow half of our meager paychecks while we struggle to pay for groceries, transportation fees, medical expenses, and other costs of living. Because of this, most graduate employees find themselves working second jobs while juggling our own studies, thesis projects, teaching, and personal life. 

When deliberating potential solutions for this predicament, a colleague of mine (who wishes to remain anonymous) noted that “This isn’t just about us. It’s about our students, janitorial staff, residential advisors, cafeteria workers, and the community at large. Our concern isn’t just for ourselves, but for our students and colleagues.” 

This statement articulates the disastrous potential of NMU’s decisions and restrictions on face-to-face instruction. While perpetuating this injustice, NMU ultimately puts their own community members at risk. This spans beyond the graduate students and contingent faculty members that struggle to make ends meet through teaching without benefits, but also creates a myriad of safety issues for the students, staff members, campus residents, and on-site workers.

I am writing this on August 14th, and there are already 16 active cases before the semester has even begun. Students who have not yet received test results are told to go to class anyways. Let that sink in: potentially positive students aren’t supposed to stay home. If our university truly cares about the wellbeing of our community, they wouldn’t allow those without test results to step into a classroom. Really, putting people who are personally vulnerable, whether be economic or otherwise, into crowded dorms or small classrooms is the prime concoction for student and faculty deaths. That might come across as grim, but we cannot be flippant with these difficult topics. We love the members of this community and want to ensure that everyone can learn in a safe environment while being provided with the necessary protections. 

This brings us to one of the current demands of graduate employees at NMU: to be provided with health insurance, not only because of COVID’s potential to ravage our campus community but because we recognize the right to medical care as a human right. Additionally, we call for graduate students, contingent faculty, and other unprotected employees to be given the right to choose between virtual and in-person instruction without a need for medical documentation or further reason beyond personal discomfort, regardless of the looming pandemic. And of course, the ever-growing need for further financial compensation rears its head as we potentially put ourselves in harm’s way for the sake of affording housing, meals, textbooks, and other necessities.

We should not have to be imploring our state governor to intervene in this situation through a byzantine process when it appears that NMU has the resources to treat their employees and students with baseline decency and a respectful regard to the safety of all. If the university can afford to spend money on maintaining a positive public image, in doing things like watering the campus lawns during rainstorms and paying President Fritz $385,000 per year, then why can they not afford to give graduate employees a living wage, health insurance, and flexible teaching options?

Our university mission statement found on Nmu.edu declares “Northern Michigan University’s distinctive academic and career programs are nurtured by exceptional teaching and extensive opportunities for scholarship, creativity, and engagement. Our supportive, connected community empowers students, graduates, faculty, and staff to contribute to a diverse and sustainable world.” 

The Graduate Student Advancement Committee has formed to address these concerns. As an organization committed to furthering the development of our graduate programs by fighting for healthcare and livable wages, we make these demands because NMU has the ability to remedy this problem.

In fact, their own declaration insists upon it. We cannot conjure an environment for exceptionality and proper engagement under these conditions. Empowering those around us becomes difficult when we are not empowered ourselves. We hope for our institution of learning to act swiftly in rectifying this problem that plagues many educational systems beyond ours. In the meantime, we will continue to speak out. Somebody has to.

Here is the letter sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer regarding the graduate situation.