A potential University program to address income inequality led discussion at Monday’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting — where Neurology Prof. Lewis Morgenstern, whose research focuses on health disparities, unveiled a “social experiment” to address the issue.
The meeting also featured comments from CSG President Cooper Charlton, an LSA senior, who again asked SACUA to move up the timeline for releasing student course evaluation data.
Morgenstern said the income gap in the United States, which hesaid is higher now than it’s ever been with the exception of just before the Great Depression, is one of the main factors driving health care inequality. He added that the responsibility to address the growing disparity must fall to the private sector.
Under Morgenstern’s plan, those working at the top end of the University’s pay scale would have the opportunity to donate a percentage of their salary to those working at the low end of the University’s pay scale. The idea is that money that might otherwise be locked into retirement funds could now be transferred to those who would spend it immediately.
Morgenstern was quick to clarify that the idea is not driven by a particular problem at the University. Instead, he hopes the University can pioneer the program with the eventual goal of its adoption by large, for-profit corporations.
“This is not in any way saying that there’s anything wrong with what happens here,” Morgenstern said. “This is just a social experiment that could go on anywhere and might as well start at home. Being an employee at the University of Michigan is a great thing and in no way is this targeting Michigan because there’s a problem.”
Rather than donations funding health care costs directly, recipients would be free to spend the money as they choose.
“To a large extent I think some of the problems with charities are that they’re very paternalistic,” Morgenstern said. “The problem with the income gap is that people don’t tell me how to spend my money and I would rather not tell the recipient how to spend this money. I would like them to be able to use the money for what they feel is most important.”
Morgenstern acknowledged potential kinks in the plan: It does not promise a constant year-to-year flow of additional income for all recipients, it has the potential to reflect poorly on the University and faculty and staff might be reluctant to participate in the program. In addition, decisions regarding what the pay scale cutoff would be for donors and recipients would still need to be made.
Ultimately, Morgenstern said the plan is not a form of charity, but a way to acknowledge the disparities that persist in society today.
“In my particular specialty in medicine, I am in the low end of the pay scale but still above the cut point. I don’t believe that I have the right to make that amount of money so much more than the person that cleans the toilet in my area for 50 years. I have a great job. I get to sit here with all of you and talk about this very interesting, intellectual thing. Yeah, I work very hard, I went to school. But I don’t get 50 years of rewards for that. To me the selling point has to be what are we really trying to do? This is different from charitable giving, you’re paying to play. You’re paying to have the job that you have.”
SACUA members also met with representatives from Central Student Government, Rackham Student Government and the Graduate Employees’ Organization at Monday’s meeting.
Charlton, the CSG president, expressed frustration with the course evaluation release timeline and said he hoped the meeting would be an opportunity for student government and faculty government to move forward with existing plans to make those evaluations available to students.
"I would love to find a way that we can collaborate, but I think it’s time for us to really get this conversation on the table so we can all move forward and have a positive working relationship," Charlton said.
As it stands, two committees are being formed to address the issue of course evaluation data release. One committee will evaluate the current course evaluation instrument and the other committee will evaluate best practices for releasing the data. SACUA has agreed to release course evaluation data to academic advisers. A pilot will be released to advisers in early December, and full access to advisers should be available by early January of next year.
There was also debate about which student-governing bodies have the authority to appoint representatives to University committees. Though the authority has generally fallen to CSG, an e-mail sent out earlier this fall has caused confusion around the issue. The e-mail mistakenly invited RSG to appoint committee representatives as well.
Charlton maintained that CSG should be the only group invited to appoint committee representatives, given it is the only group that represents the entirety of the student population.
“Central Student Government reserves the right to hold every appointment that goes in any of these committees, unfortunately a compromise that Chuky (the RSG president) did not want to take early on is making me arrive at a more stern and unfortunately professional tonality. I want to make sure that we move forward together, but think that we need to silence this conversation about which students are talking on behalf of which students, because CSG, in order to reserve the solidarity of all students, needs to be the only person at this table.”
In response, RSG President Chuky Mbagwu, an aerospace engineering doctoral candidate, said CSG appointments do not include enough graduate and professional students.
“We as RSG contend and maintain that for years CSG has not actually been a representative for the graduate student and professional student voice, only in name,” Mbagwu said. “There are so many other professional student governments that are saying the same thing. The appointments that they made before RSG started doing it did not have any representation from Rackham, and maybe just a few from professional schools.”
SACUA Chair Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature, said the University should stick with its current procedure for now, allowing CSG to appoint students to University committees. However, she added that the issue is something that has to be worked out among student government groups, not by SACUA.
“I want to respect the autonomy of student organizations and I do not think it should be SACUA’s job to arbitrate disputes you have within student government; I think that’s not our role,” Weineck said. “Right now our charter says Central Student Government, we’re not going to change the charter in the middle of the semester, it’s bad policy.”