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What role did UK's dorm partner play in the fall reopening? Campus union, local groups demand transparency

This story originally appeared in the Kentucky Kernel.

UK's newest campus union, along with other campus and local groups, is concerned that the university's contractual obligations, not the best interests of the campus community, may be what's keeping campus open. 

United Campus Workers (UCW) of Kentucky posted an open letter to UK's Board of Trustees on Twitter Thursday calling for greater transparency regarding the university's contract with Greystar, UK's "dormitory partner."

The letter was cosigned by Movement for Black Lives at UK, Lexington Democratic Socialists of America, Lexington Housing Justice Collective, Lexington Tenants' Union, UK Greenthumb Environmental Club and Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition. 

Since their establishment in late 2019, UCW has compiled a list of changes they would like UK to implement to create a safer, more equitable working environment for all campus employees. One of their concerns is the lack of transparency regarding UK's economic obligations to companies like Greystar, said UCW member Jed DeBruin.

"We've seen in other universities, with the privatization of health care and dining and with dorms on campus, you see this economic pressure where they're being pressured to be open because they have these contractual obligations they need to meet," DeBruin said. 

If students aren't living in dorms or eating at dining halls, these contractual obligations might not be met, he added. This could potentially lead to economic losses for UK and the companies they partner with to provide these services. 

UCW wants UK to release its contracts and communications with Greystar  so that the campus community can be sure that its stipulations are not pressuring UK to keep campus open amid rising case numbers, DeBruin said. 

UK’s contract with Greystar does not guarantee occupancy, said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton. The Kernel has filed an open records request for the contract. 

UCW remains skeptical due to the university's alleged "unwillingness" to comply with Kentucky's "Healthy-at-Work Minimum Requirements for all Businesses" and the delay in fulfilling an opens records requests filed by the union. The request, submitted on Aug. 8, 2020, asked for all communications between Greystar and UK regarding the fall reopening. 

During a state of emergency, public agencies like UK have ten days to respond to open records requests. UCW's open letter said they submitted a request to the open records office on Aug. 8 asking for communications between UK and Greystar regarding the fall reopening.

In their concerns over the relationship between Greystar and UK, the union cited an example of public-private partnership gone awry as cause for concern. In that case, which is under federal investigation, Corvias Campus Living LLC, a private dormitory company who partners with public Georgia universities, told the boards of these institutions that Corvias would also have a say in reopening plans and dormitory capacities. 

The letter states that UK might be prioritizing their "profit interest" over the campus' safety and mentions Greystar's recent history of allegedly putting "tenants, often people of color, at significant risk" through unfair evictions and other mismanagement.

If campus dormitories are closed at any point during the fall semester, Greystar should take full liability, not UK or students, the letter states. 

UCW is demanding a meeting with the Board of Trustees to discuss their concerns before Sept. 14. 

The Board of Trustees is meeting on Sept. 10 and Sept. 11 for their regular meeting.

"As the fall semester is underway, we have seen universities around the country go to remote learning because bring students to campus puts lives at risk," the open letter reads. "If we continue to take that risk, we must know the university is making decisions in the best interest of  all of us."