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The University of Michigan’s Board of Regents passed the administration’s 2020-21 budget in a 5-2 vote during a special meeting Monday night, days after a 4-4 vote at their June 25 meeting had appeared to sink proposed increases in tuition and fees. The approved budget includes a 1.9 percent increase in tuition for the Ann Arbor campus; a 3.9 percent increase for UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn; a 1.9 percent increase in room and board fees and a $50 COVID-19 student fee.
Regents Paul Brown (D), Jordan Acker (D), Ron Weiser (R), Mark Bernstein (D) and Michael Behm (D) voted in favor of the budget, with Brown and Acker changing their votes from Thursday. Regents Shauna Ryder Diggs (D) and Denise Ilitch (D) voted against the budget. Regent Katherine White (D) was not present, though she called in to vote for the proposed budget at the previous meeting.
After the budget initially failed to pass on June 25, University President Mark Schlissel said he anticipated the budget proposal the executive team would present at the July Regents meeting would diminish or eliminate a tuition increase for the Ann Arbor campus.
Schlissel explained that the Board called for the special meeting on Monday because, without a budget, the University would not be able to operate and continue paying employees in the new fiscal year, starting July 1. Half of the revenue from the tuition increase will go toward increasing financial aid to address the pandemic, according to Schlissel, and the new budget also doubled the funds provided to Flint and Dearborn campuses from $10 million to $20 million.
Schlissel defended the proposal and cited the University’s ongoing efforts to protect students and families from the pandemic and economic recession including COVID-19 testing, hiring freezes, the suspension of nonessential travel and spending, and the use of $400 million from the endowment.
“We’re committed to do our very best to make sure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not result in a lost generation of students who are unable to continue or complete their Michigan education because of the circumstances we find ourselves in,” Schlissel said.
Students have criticized the University for trying to increase tuition, claiming their learning experiences will not be the same with online classes and more students are now struggling financially due to the recession sparked by the pandemic.
After Schlissel’s introduction, most of the meeting was devoted to Regents explaining their support for or disapproval of the budget.
Weiser, who supported the budget last Thursday and on Monday, addressed demands made by students and activists to use the endowment to balance the budget and cover financial losses. He said much of the endowment funds are restricted to particular units of the University and thus cannot be redirected legally.
“While we are a university that’s blessed by having an endowment that’s gonna give us 400 million dollars this year, most of that money is restricted to certain areas,” Weiser said. “… It’s not a 12 million (sic) dollar endowment where we can take the income and spread it, put it any place we want. We have legal and moral and federal policy and law obligations about how we can spend it.”
In opposition to the budget, Ryder Diggs criticized the proposal for continuing the trend of raising tuition when the public health and economic circumstances have deteriorated.
“The administrative leadership team believes that tuition should always increase annually,” Ryder Diggs said. “The principle is that students should share the burden of increased costs from payroll, energy, infrastructure, food and housing, and even in health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. I do not agree. Now I’ve consistently voted in favor of tuition increases, but this year is unlike any other in our lifetimes. When a global health crisis evolves into an economic crisis, we should not increase our tuition.”
Ilitch, who voted against the budget, said the value of a mostly remote education is diminished. She added the University’s administration projects a 50-50 chance “(we) will not complete this semester.”
“With this uncertainty, why would we raise prices on our students and families during this crisis?” Ilitch said.
Ilitch also read from an email sent to the Regents by Rackham student Sarah Bork, president of Rackham Student Government, in partnership with Amanda Kaplan and Sav Nandigama, president and vice president of Central Student Government. The email called for a cost of attendance freeze, removal of the proposed COVID-19 fee from the budget and the end of the $500 international student fee passed in last year’s budget.
Acker said he voted yes on the budget because it contains new pledges to eliminate uncertainty and will not increase tuition for in-state students whose families make less than $120,000 per year.
Though regular Regents meetings include scheduled public comment, Monday’s special meeting did not. Acker said, however, that his vote was not an endorsement of the special meetings process taken to pass the budget before July 1.
“I am extremely disappointed in the process over the last few days,” Acker said. “I feel it is extremely important to take public comments … The one thing that Regent Ilitch and I as (incoming) vice chair and chair have to really work on is to make sure the process is better going forward, with more public input, with more conversations about what the budget does, and most importantly, meeting the one area we must really improve next year, which is communication.”
In Bernstein’s statement in support of the budget, he said the University’s sticker price is misleading, as most students do not pay the full price of tuition. He said one in four in-state undergrads — over 4,100 students — pay no tuition, and 100 percent of students with demonstrated financial need will not see their tuition and fees increased.
“So who does pay tuition?” Bernstein said. “Students who can, and therefore, in my opinion, should, and are getting one of the great bargains in higher education, paying about half of what out-of-state students pay … Fundamentally, I believe that lower income students who struggle to pay tuition can depend upon those who can to reduce the cost of their college education.”
Though Brown objected to the budget presented on July 25 out of concern that the Dearborn and Flint campuses would not receive adequate support, he said he was reassured after conversations with Schlissel and other staff members. He noted the increase in funding to Flint in Dearborn also impacted his decision to vote “yes.”
“I am an enthusiastic supporter of this budget,” Brown said. “I believe the investment of 20 million dollars in our Flint and Dearborn campuses aligned with the chancellors’ strategic plans (and) created an unprecedented opportunity for those campuses to only increase the world class education provided at those schools so we can continue to say we are truly the leaders and best.”
Ilitch pointed out other Michigan universities — including Michigan State University and Wayne State University — have decided against raising tuition.
Behm referred to these commitments, saying other Michigan universities have had to balance their budgets with “across the board salary cuts” where the University of Michigan has not. He claimed students with financial troubles will not be forced to pay more in the approved budget.
“Students in financial need, including those whose families have been affected by the pandemic, will see no increase in their total costs, including fees, tuition and room and board,” Behm said. “In order to assist our students who are struggling financially, we’ve asked those who can afford to pay a very small amount more to do so.”
Ilitch said she has heard some describe the cost of attendance increases — $618 for in-state freshmen and $1294 for out-of-state freshmen — as “de minimis,” a legal term meaning too trivial or minor for consideration.
“If you were walking and $618 was laying in the street, would you step over it and pass by it because it was de minimis?” Ilitch said. “The sacrifices made routinely by our students and their families is not commensurate with the sacrifices made by the University.”
After the vote, Schlissel closed the meeting by thanking the Regents for their hard work and discussion around the budget.
“The honest disagreements expressed with eloquence are much appreciated,” Schlissel said.
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