Opinion: WU emergency response is inadequate
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Note: the ROC issued a reply to the emergency response criticism, which can be found [here].
This year, Valentine’s Day weekend was much icier than the typical chill of unsatisfied partners and unhappy singles. Rather, a historic [ice storm] knocked out power for more than 142,000 households in the Mid-Willamette Valley and Salem area alone. The mass outages impacted students living in off-campus housing as well as faculty and staff, while the University campus itself remained with working power throughout the aftermath of the storm. A slew of emails, malfunctioning listservs, delayed responses and conflicting messages from Willamette authorities left many students feeling even more in the dark. In times of crisis, the Willamette community deserves a consistent response and concrete action that prioritizes the wellness and safety of students. Willamette leadership’s reaction to extreme weather events in this academic year alone clearly demonstrates a lack of organization and care for students and staff.
In an email with the subject line “Ice Storm Follow Up” sent out to the Willamette community on Sunday, Feb. 14, Dean of Students Lisa Landreman and the Reopening Committee explained that “We understand that many of you remain without power and know how uncomfortable and difficult these conditions can be.” After sharing this message, they went on to explain that Willamette could not provide housing for students living off campus without power, nor did those students have the option to stay with other students on campus due to the no-guest policy in the residence halls this year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, classes would continue as scheduled despite safety warnings from officials not to go outside and many students lacking a reliable internet connection or a working outlet to charge the devices necessary to attend a Zoom class. The email also noted that “If you are unsure whether it is prudent to travel to campus, you should use your personal judgment and make the right decision for yourself regarding coming to work or attending classes.” Forcing community members to use their own “personal judgement” to decide between their safety and not falling behind at work or school when such basic necessities as food, heat and internet are scarce is entirely unfair, especially for those who are in vulnerable positions. This rhetoric around personal responsibility suggests that community care is secondary to the individualistic notion of every person for themself in these “difficult times.”
This cognitively dissonant email, sent during the crux of the outage, immediately sparked pushback from students. ASWU President Claire Mathews-Lingen expressed her disagreement with the decision in an [email] to the student body, conveying ASWU’s majority opinion.
Dean Ruth Feingold later confirmed that classes on Monday would indeed be cancelled. While it was clear that the outages would continue for at least the first two days of the week, it was not until Monday evening that students learned that their classes on Tuesday would be cancelled as well, and students were informed Tuesday evening that Wednesday classes were also cancelled. While the decision to cancel classes was the right one, it was communicated to students in a disorganized and conflicting manner during a time when many were struggling to access means to survive.
Landreman sent out an email asking students without adequate heat to fill out a sleeping accommodation form on Tuesday, with the accommodations to begin on Wednesday night, and offered free dinner service for students without power on Wednesday. These meager offerings arrived after much of the power had been restored, and after students had been living without power for many days.
During this entire fiasco last week, I could not help but be reminded of the wildfires that Oregon and a significant portion of the country suffered during the fall. Smoke from wildfires led to hazardous air quality conditions in Salem, impeding student’s abilities to go about their day to day activities. Students [expressed] their discontent with the way the administration handled the crisis, citing unclear communication between administration and students as well as a general lack of urgency surrounding the emergency at hand. Despite the loud expression of valid student concerns and frustrations, classes were moved online rather than cancelled. The attempt to maintain a semblance of normalcy in abnormal times is not helpful, it is illogical. Students will not perform well in their classes while simultaneously caring for their safety in extreme weather events and dealing with an inadequate response from their institution.
The Collegian has reached out to the Reopening Committee for a statement regarding the nature of the emergency decision making process and has not yet received a response at the time of publication.
I am sympathetic to the difficulties of running a University during a pandemic whilst dealing with the rapidly escalating consequences of climate change. The task at hand is certainly a hefty one. However, responses to recent crises show that the University is desperately in need of a consistent and readily-enacted protocol that outlines the University’s immediate actions and communicates that to students clearly. Natural disasters and freak weather events will only continue to escalate and impact students in the coming years, further emphasizing the necessity of such a protocol. I criticize not for criticism's sake, but to emphasize the need for emergency actions that are caring toward members of the community rather than appealing to individualism and a desire to maintain a “normal” which no longer exists.