On Monday night, a group of five current and former southeastern Michigan legislators spoke to a crowd of about 40 students in the Ford School of Public Policy’s Annenberg Auditorium, answering questions about issues currently affecting the University of Michigan community. Questions concerned tuition and housing affordability, sexual assault and harassment on campus, diversity and inclusion on campus, and the state of Michigan’s economic environment.
In response to a question about the 7.2 percent increase in the average cost of attending a four-year college, panelist and state Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, raised the issue of state budgetary cuts instead of public higher education as a contributor to the rising rate of tuition. According to Zemke, tuition has been rising at the same time state aid has been decreasing.
“There’s a direct and inverse relationship between the time when Michigan started de- investing the state aid to our public universities and the rise in tuition,” Zemke said. “And it’s literally when I say it’s a direct and inverted relationship, the line is the same slope in the opposite direction.”
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who sits on the Higher Education Subcommittee for Budget Appropriations, added that many factors contribute to rising tuitions, including a general rise in the cost of living. He also expanded on Zemke’s comment about state budgetary appropriations, saying state appropriation for the University, which was cut by 15 percent in 2011, has not recovered to its former levels when adjusting for inflation.
“In my ideal world, we would go even further than that; we would have free public universities and community colleges,” Rabhi said.
State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, named several possible policies that could control rising costs or help students with financial aid, including more comprehensive tax deductions for interest on loans and a package of bills currently in the state senate intended to create an ombudsman, an official dedicated to helping students navigate the world of student loans.
Warren also discussed her work on policy relating to campus sexual assault.
“I’ve had the opportunity for the last couple years to work with first lady Sue Snyder and colleagues in both the house and the senate on a campus sexual assault prevention task force,” Warren said. “We’ve been able to carve out money in the state budget in a time where we haven’t had a lot of new programs so it’s been exciting to see this as an area of bipartisan focus.”
That money has been used to fund individual university proposals to reduce sexual misconduct on their campuses.
She added that the issue went to higher societal levels, a topic which U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., spoke on as well, alluding to the recent national conversation sparked by the #MeToo movement — a social movement encouraging women to come forward about sexual harassment and abuse they’ve survived.
“We’re at a crossroads in this country,” Dingell said. “When the #MeToo movement started in November, I said at the time that there were consequences for too many women (for reporting on sexual assault). It wasn’t going to be real until it was real for the waitress, for the factory worker, the lawyer trying to be partner or student on campus.”
She went on to criticize White House officials on all levels for not acknowledging the movement and the high-profile cases that have driven national conversation.
Public Policy senior Stephanie Gusching, the chair of government relations for Central Student Government, said the event was intended to bring students into dialogue with legislators about issues that affect them, and the event was successful on this front.
“I think all of the elected officials … had a positive outlook despite, you know, a lot of the divisive rhetoric that we’ve seen this past year particularly both on the national stage as well as things that are happening right here in Ann Arbor and on our campus,” Gusching said. “I think they had a lot of important things to say, and they mentioned a lot of like really tangible issues that they’re working on.”