Governing in a crisis

How the Duke Student Government responded to COVID-19 this spring

Members of the Duke Student Government at a Senate meeting last fall, long before the coronavirus upended the end of their time in office.
Members of the Duke Student Government at a Senate meeting last fall, long before the coronavirus upended the end of their time in office.

On March 10, Liv McKinney was on a beach in the Bahamas. It was the Tuesday of spring break, and McKinney, then a senior and the Duke Student Government president, was on vacation. She expected things to slow down after the break as she began to hand things off to her successor. 

News rippled through the students on the beach. McKinney didn’t have cell service, so she learned when someone else told her: Classes were moving online, part of Duke’s response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.

Her first reaction was shock: “We were all like, ‘Oh… okay! I guess we’re not going back.” The people around her peppered her with questions, but this was the first she’d heard from Duke of the move online. 

When she got back to the rental house where she was staying, she had dozens of unread texts, emails and Slack notifications. She would never again take in-person classes at Duke, but the busiest part of her one-year term as DSG president was just beginning.

A link to administration

McKinney, who graduated in May, isn’t one for quiet spring breaks. Last year, she was in an Uber the first day of break when the DSG attorney general called to tell her she’d won the presidential election. 

I was The Chronicle’s student government reporter when McKinney was elected, and when I interviewed her in April of last year for a profile, she outlined her priorities for the year ahead. She wanted to expand financial resources and reveal the “hidden costs” of attending Duke, like laundry. She hoped to encourage discussion of sexual assault and mental health.

The “overarching goal,” she said, was creating a discourse between students and administrators, something she said both groups wanted. She acknowledged that students could be frustrated by how long it took to make change at Duke, as administrators tried to find solutions that worked for faculty, students and the University. 

Liv McKinney | Special to the Chronicle

Liv McKinney, who graduated in May, was the 2019-20 Duke Student Government president.

The coronavirus, however, called for rapid action. As things went south with dizzying speed, Duke’s policies changed and changed again. Students who had left campus were allowed to come back to get their belongings—then they weren’t. International students from countries with Level 3 CDC travel designations couldn’t all stay on campus—then they could. Undergraduates wondered whether Duke would ship them their belongings, how they would be graded for the rest of the semester, when campus would reopen.

In this new normal, DSG helped students’ voices reach administrators as they worked around the clock to keep up with the evolving crisis. In a time of rapidly shifting policies, the representatives of the student body tried to ensure things changed in a way this spring that would help as many students as possible.

The DSG president has standing meetings with several top administrators, and during the pandemic those meetings became a way to share students’ concerns. McKinney recalled a meeting with Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, in which she explained that students from the Duke Mutual Aid group had shouldered the burden of assisting classmates who had been impacted by the pandemic. She provided McMahon examples of universities that had set up their own aid funds.

Shortly after, Duke announced the creation of the Duke Student Assistance Fund, seeded with $4 million of University money. Administration had been thinking about a fund on their own, McMahon said, but talking to McKinney helped them determine what the fund had to accomplish and how they went about it.

“This wasn’t news to [McMahon], like it was very obvious that this was something that Duke needed, and they were working on and trying to make happen with the student assistance fund,” McKinney said. “But I think giving the examples of the peer institutions, how that looks, and also being able to provide that urgency on behalf of a student organization who had been shouldering a lot of this burden, really helped speed along that timeline.”

McKinney wasn’t the only one making sure students’ voices were heard. Shrey Majmudar, a junior and current DSG vice president of academic affairs, has been meeting with McMahon weekly during the pandemic. (Majmudar commended McMahon for her commitment to hearing student voices; when I asked McMahon about their meetings, she joked, “I work for Shrey.”)

In an email, Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote that DSG had provided administration “crucial input” during the pandemic.

“Both [McMahon] and I have spent many evenings chatting with DSG leaders, and it's helped us to make better decisions,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, other students on the student government got to work on questions of policy, funding and community-building—their usual areas of focus, now turned to address a global pandemic.

The great grading debate

The Duke Student Government is a strange hybrid creature. It is tasked with distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in student group funding. It has power to spark campus discourse and shape some parts of campus life. Yet on many policy questions, the final decision is up to Duke’s administration. Case in point: grading policy during the pandemic.

After Duke announced that grades would be satisfactory/unsatisfactory by default, with the option to request letter grades, students created petitions to demand a universal-pass or universal-S/U system. As the debate raged, Manish Kumar, Trinity '20 and 2019-20 vice president of academic affairs, and a team of senators created a survey to get a handle on students’ opinions. Almost half of undergraduate students filled it out. Respondents were split as to whether they supported the current policy or an alternative, but those who reported stressors like home responsibilities or mental health challenges were more likely to fall into the latter camp. 

Based on the results, Kumar and a group of senators from the survey team drafted a Senate resolution that would have asked Duke administration to adopt a universal-satisfactory system. But on April 8, the day of the vote, Nathan Luzum, Trinity '20 and at the time the managing editor of The Chronicle, tweeted that Academic Council Chair Kerry Haynie had told him the council’s Executive Committee supported the existing policy. Later than day, John Blackshear, then dean of academic affairs for Trinity College, sent an email to Trinity students with information about transcripts and graduate school admissions, which the team took as a sign of administrative support for the current policy.

Kumar told me the team disagreed with Haynie’s sentiment, as reported by Luzum, that no student was disadvantaged by the existing policy. Still, after seeing Luzum’s tweet and Blackshear’s email, they rewrote the resolution to call for extending the opt-in deadline for letter grades until after students had seen their final grades. It also called for Duke to “reopen conversation on non-grading policies.”

“We acknowledge support for the existing policy, while also recognizing that it fails to fully support students in difficult circumstances,” the resolution stated. 

In a June email to The Chronicle, Haynie explained why he felt students were not disadvantaged: They could choose a grading option based on their own circumstances, most other schools did something similar, and he couldn’t “imagine” graduate schools giving spring 2020 grades weight in admissions. For his part, Blackshear wrote in an email that he and Linda Franzoni, associate dean of undergraduate education for the Pratt School of Engineering, were relaying information in communications about grading policy and did not set the policy.

For a while, things looked promising for the DSG team. The Senate passed the resolution. Bennett told The Chronicle the next morning that he planned to speak with DSG to learn more about the request. An April 15 Senate agenda noted that he was “open to advocating for an extension of the deadline.”

In the end, however, Duke only extended the deadline by five days, well short of what DSG had requested. At the time, Bennett and McMahon wrote in a statement to DSG that there were “several challenges” with the student government’s proposed plan, including a time crunch with the registrar’s office. They noted that Provost Sally Kornbluth had taken part in “important national conversations,” and some programs felt “the integrity of S/U might be jeopardized” if students could see their final grades before choosing. (In a June email to The Chronicle, Bennett wrote that he couldn’t speak to why the April 15 Senate agenda read the way it did.) 

Kumar said that the extension helped some students think through their choice outside the pressure of class, seek advice from their academic dean or get an idea of what their grade might be. Some professors sent students their grades before the deadline, he noted.

“I’m appreciative of the extension that we got,” Kumar said. “Right, it’s not the ideal circumstance, and I would have hoped we could have gotten more. But you know, five days is better than nothing, and I do know students were helped in those five days.” 

‘Big questions’

Throughout the year, the Student Organization Finance Committee doles out money to help fund speakers, screenings, showcases and more. When campus closed to most students, there was a $100,000 surplus left in their programming account. A group of DSG members got to work, alongside Duke Mutual Aid and Duke Partnership for Service, to decide how to use it to help students. 

SOFC Chair Devin Mahoney worked on the project, along with McKinney; Tommy Hessel, then a junior and vice president of campus life; and Senator Ivan Robles, T’ 20 and 2019-20 vice president of equity and outreach. For Mahoney, now a senior, the project was a gateway from the cloistered world of student organizations into the “advocacy side” of student government.

“It was really cool to be able to work on that side of things and be thinking about how admin was going to respond, and who do we need to loop in, and what voices aren’t we hearing, and what’s happening to workers, all of these sort of big questions,” said Mahoney. 

The students came up with the idea of using the money to set up a student assistance fund, run by both SOFC and Student Affairs. They sent the idea to Duke administration—but soon after, Kornbluth, the provost, announced Duke’s assistance fund in an email to students. 

Mahoney acknowledged that a $4 million fund run by Duke would be “a lot more successful” than anything SOFC could do, but she found the episode frustrating. 

“Normally, I think DSG is the vehicle for student engagement directly with admin,” Mahoney said. “...But when admin is also in a crisis mode—which I understand—they, I think, kind of get really insulated and make a lot of decisions without considering who else they need to bring to the table.”

Kornbluth didn’t respond to an email asking about Mahoney’s assessment. For her part, McKinney wrote in an email that she was “just excited that the fund was happening.” 

In the end, SOFC donated $25,000 to the Student Assistance Fund and $25,000 to the Duke-Durham fund, among other places. 

Despite the shift in plans, Mahoney said she was impressed with the people who led the project, and she said that it showed her the way members of the Duke community support each other.

“I’m so grateful to even have a minuscule part in that and know that we were able to transition resources that go to support students’ daily lives to doing the same thing, just in a different facet,” she said. 

Holding the center

One of DSG’s goals, listed on its website, is “to foster community among students.” The pandemic atomized that community, scattering students around the world and shoving communal life online. Then came the deaths of sophomore Raj Mehta and senior Grey Spector, which, as Majmudar put it, left the community “incredibly disconnected and distraught.” 

Majmudar told me that after the two deaths, he and Nehal Jain—both sophomore senators at the time—wanted to do something that would highlight connections in the Duke community. To that end, they worked with DuWell, UCAE and others who shared their goal to tweak and promote UCAE’s Blue Devil Mail. After the re-launch of the service, which sends “kindness grams” by email, a team of other DSG students helped out with the manual work of sending the messages.

Senator Cynthia Dong, then a first-year, led the effort to compile a guide to mental health resources, and Kumar got it posted on Sakai. Majmudar also worked with the Office of Information Technology to help the student-run mental-health organization Peer for You shift their operations online. 

Senator Shrey Majmudar talks about the results of a survey administered to students about technology.
Senator Shrey Majmudar talks about the results of a survey administered to students about technology.

Junior Shrey Majmudar is the current DSG vice president of academic affairs. 

Majmudar and McKinney came up with the idea of hosting a virtual version of Midnight Breakfast, an event usually held in person once a semester for each class year. They wanted to bring students together with a well-known event—especially the senior class, whose Commencement had been postponed.

To plan the virtual event, Majmudar worked with a team of students from Duke University Union, the Class Councils and multiple DSG committees. “We’d be damned,” he said, if DSG members stayed siloed within their committees and roles.

The effort and the collaboration paid off: More than 670 students came to Midnight Breakfast, including more than 200 seniors. Students chatted in Zoom breakout rooms, and the organizers raffled off more than $6,000 in gift cards to support local businesses.

“That just made my week,” McKinney said. “Seeing that hundreds of Duke students wanted to log on for two hours at midnight to see other Duke students, and that that was something we could help connect people with.” 

‘Not every student government pulls that off’

Some things went on almost as normal during the pandemic. A task force on sexual misconduct kept meeting regularly, McKinney said. The Senate met on Zoom, its hectic energy sublimated into backgrounds including, at one April meeting, Zion National Park and Tiger King’s Joe Exotic. In their final meeting of the year, the Senate passed a $370,000 annual budget for student groups. 

The student government has kept at it during the summer, now that Hessel is president, from creating the Blue Devil Buddies program to passing resolutions calling for changes to grading policy and the academic calendar this fall.

Still, for the group of students who were in office this spring, responding to a global pandemic wasn’t always easy. Kumar told me it was hard to balance DSG work with his own priorities while also dealing with mental health challenges, isolation and sudden goodbyes.

Majmudar read every written response to the grading policy survey and the Class Feedback Form created after COVID-19—hundreds in all. It was “heavy,” he said.

“You have students who are living out of their basement, who have elderly folks upstairs and who are living off of cereal,” he said. “You have these types of anecdotes, which are just so heart-wrenching.”

Yet at the same time, he was able to use those stories to highlight the problems students were facing. He and Kumar presented data from the grading policy survey to administrators like Haynie and Bennett, and he used de-identified data from the Class Feedback Form to help deans address problems students were facing in their classes. And nearly half of the responses to the feedback form were positive comments, he wrote in an email, about how faculty members helped students in a difficult time.

Kumar said it was “wonderful” to be part of a community that came together to help out in a crisis. And for McKinney, working on the pandemic response was a way to distract herself from the national crisis, from worrying about her friends and family. “It made me, not feel productive, but feel like I had some control or say in what was happening with the situation,” she said. 

Majmudar and Kumar both praised McKinney’s leadership during the crisis. “Liv dived in headfirst as Student Body President and didn’t waste a moment,” Majmudar wrote in an email. 

But McKinney told me she tries not to think about the role she has played in Duke’s history by leading its student government through a pandemic, adding, “It kind of freaks me out.” To the extent that she does, she said, she thinks about what DSG has accomplished rather than her own role in it. 

“I’m very proud of what DSG has done during this time,” she said. “I think we could have been passive, and we really could have let these decisions come out and try and do what we could after the fact, but I think we really tried to be proactive.”

This spring threw the give-and-take at the heart of that work into sharp relief. On grading policy and the SOFC surplus, there were mixed results. But DSG still made a mark on Duke policy at a time when they could have been shut out of the conversation.

“I think DSG’s done a fantastic job soliciting other students and gathering a comprehensive picture of what’s going on, and then really trying to faithfully represent that to us,” McMahon said. “Not every student government pulls that off.” 

And DSG accomplished a great deal in other areas. They connected students with mental health resources. They brought 700 people together on Zoom, amid this great disconnection.

McKinney said she’s always known the role of DSG president is student-centered. There’s a view in administration that people who work with students can represent their interests, she told me, but nothing compares to having students in the room. And when a global pandemic hit, when students and administrators scrambled to figure out a terrifying new reality, when policies were made and remade in the image of a changing world? The students on Duke Student Government were there in that room, if virtually, to make sure their voices, and those of their fellow students, were heard when it mattered most. 

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin was editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 116th volume.


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