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UW-Madison graduate student barred from COVID-19 student advisory board amid administrative miscommunication

A neuroengineering doctorate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was appointed to the university’s student COVID-19 advisory committee in January, only to find out days later that the committee had been restricted to undergraduates only.

The COVID-19 student advisory board, created by Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor and established in December 2020 in conjunction with the Associated Students of Madison and Student Affairs, is intended to provide feedback on UW-Madison’s COVID-19 response. While the committee initially aimed to have a “mix of student experiences,” a modification allegedly made to the position description after the fact barred graduate students, like Jack Phillips, from participating. 

“Feedback from graduate students is addressed through a committee affiliated with the Graduate School,” the document reads. 

Phillips, who is an ASM representative, expressed their frustration on Twitter, describing the university’s COVID-19 protocol as “genocidal.” They noted that they were told by Argyle Wade, the Chief of Staff for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, to go through ASM and get a seat on the student COVID-19 advisory committee to voice their concerns. Phillips followed Wade’s instructions and was later appointed as the only nominee.

As Phillips detailed, they were told by Wade to serve on the committee on Jan. 24. By Jan. 28, the position description had been changed. 

“Graduate workers make the university run,” Phillips told The Daily Cardinal. “Classes, research, projects, even recruitment for our programs, all rely on our labor. Despite this, we have been entirely overlooked in the shared governance process surrounding the response to a global catastrophe that’s been changing the way we live, work and relate to one another for nearly two years.”

Wade said in response to an email from Phillips that there “may be a misunderstanding on the membership and scope of the two student groups that gather feedback from students on our campus covid efforts.” He apologized for any confusion.

Phillips was ultimately encouraged to join the Graduate School Dean’s Advisory Board to voice their concerns about COVID-19 safety, but the committee is not a designated place for graduate students to specifically raise COVID-19 concerns and discuss university policies.  

“That advisory board is focused on general grad matters — it’s not specifically a place for graduate students to go to advocate for smarter, more scientifically informed public health decisions,” Phillips said, underscoring their concern with the guidance.

The university has since clarified that the student COVID-19 advisory committee, made up of 12 students and led by the ASM Vice Chair, focuses on undergraduate matters rather than the university as a whole.

“The Student Covid Advisory Committee collects feedback mainly from undergraduate students,” UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said Tuesday. “A graduate or professional student can be part of the group, but it does not address issues like teaching, research, assistantships and other matters that do not involve undergraduates.”

The Graduate School Dean’s Advisory Board predates the pandemic but has served to field discussion about the university’s COVID-19 response as it relates to graduate and professional students McGlone explained.

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Phillips that this focus is narrow and the university is “treating the symptoms rather than the disease.”

“[It] speaks to the way that admin has treated the covid response — what should be an intricate and interdependent web of personal, community and administrative responsibilities and health measures, informed by evolving scientific understanding of an evolving virus — as a set of disparate, granular issues,” Phillips said. 

According to Phillips, graduate students are increasingly concerned about the lack of COVID-19 testing availability on campus. The university adjusted its testing measures this spring semester, consolidating testing sites across campus to one single location: University Club on Library Mall.

“University Club has always been the test site least accessible by car, and many people do not bike in the winter, which makes PCR testing mostly inaccessible to anyone who isn’t regularly in the area,” said Phillips.

To make matters more complicated, the UW System is moving to remove mask requirements “with the intent to withdraw them as soon as March 1 and no later than spring break.” 

UW-Madison also announced Wednesday that their masking order would end on March 12. 

Phillips ultimately encourages graduate students to speak to their coworkers and express their worries. 

“Your fellow TAs and RAs and PAs probably have similar concerns, and once you [identify] a common problem and have a group of people willing to speak out, your departmental, college or even the university administrators who are perfectly willing to ignore one or a few people are much more likely to take you seriously,” Phillips concluded. 

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