Regents discuss Union renovations, divestment in March meeting

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

 

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 10:23pm

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The University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus hosted the year’s second Board of Regents Meeting on Thursday afternoon.

Central to the meeting were talks of renovations to the Michigan Union and divestment from Israel — a topic that was not on the agenda. All regents were in attendance except Regent Denise Ilitch (D), who phoned in.

Union renovations

The regents unanimously approved the estimated $85,200,000 budget proposal for the Michigan Union Renovation Project during the financial segment of the agenda. The construction project itself was approved at the July 2016 meeting.

Originally constructed in 1919, the Union has been a University landmark for many generations of students and faculty. The building’s infrastructural renovations include the general improvement of Union facilities, such as electrical and mechanical work, as well as architectural restoration.

Larger projects in design schematics involve the enclosure of the courtyard for a student space, improved accessibility for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the construction of gender-neutral bathrooms, new CAPS expansion and new student organization space. 

Charles Lewis, senior vice president of Integrated Design Solutions, the company being used for the planning of the renovations, presented a slideshow outlining the blueprints and graphics, showcasing what the new Union will look like after the renovations are completed in an estimated three years.

One component Lewis presented that received some questions from Regent Katherine White (D) and other regents was the physical renovation to the North Entrance, on the side of the Union. The current schematics plan replaces the brick awning over the entrance with a glass canopy, allowing more light to reach the entrance. White was concerned about specifics of this renovation. Lewis said this modification would give a better aesthetic impression.

“The North entry is the most heavily used entrance of the Union, in some ways, it’s a front door to the University for visitors, students, staff, faculty, alumni and currently is very dark, hard to find and not very welcoming," White said. "This canopy will create a more appropriate and inviting entry for everyone to come and enjoy the renewed place we call the Michigan Union.”

Prior to the presentation, University alum Alan Knaus, a member of Friends of the Michigan Union, expressed his dissatisfaction with the renovation of certain spaces in the Union for student activities. He said the renovation catered to students over alumni, and eliminated elements of the Union he loves, such as the Billiards Room.

“I was not happy with (the elimination of the Billiards Room) and the alumni that were there were also not very happy about that,” he said. “From my perspective, the Office of Student Life does not belong in the Michigan Union. Essentially it’s supporting 1,400 special interest groups.”

In response to Knaus’s comments, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, said the renovated student spaces will help clubs and organizations, not lobbyist groups like Knaus mentioned.

“The 1,400 student organizations that are in the Union, that we are trying to serve, are not special interest organizations,” she said. “They are actually student organizations. Everything from Central Student Government to Dance Marathon. There are a full range of student organizations.”

In addition to the approval of the Union budget, the Board also approved a $35,000,000 budget to increase the square footage of the first floor of the LSA building and improve the Opportunity Hub office.

Sale of the Inglis House

The Board approved the sale of the Inglis House and 9.1 acres of land to cut maintenance costs. Elizabeth Inglis donated the house to the University in 1951, which was used for small meetings and overnight housing for guests until 2012.

After the original action request was approved, the regents proposed the proceeds from the sale be channeled into a scholarship for students in the Inglis family name. A vote on the proposal was held and it passed unanimously. The amount of the scholarship will be announced after the sale of the land.

Honorary degree

The board unanimously voted to present an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree to Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit, at UM-Dearborn’s Spring 2017 commencement.

Formed during the civil rights movement in 1967, New Detroit organizes programs and works to improve race relations in southeast Michigan. It is reportedly the nation’s largest and oldest urban coalition. Stancato received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Wayne State University.

Divestment from Israel debate

Fiana Arbab, UM-Dearborn Student Government President, began an unanticipated discussion over a resolution to divest from Israeli companies — a topic of contention on both campuses. 

In her address reflecting on what she called a successful year in Dearborn Student Government, Arbab noted last week, the assembly unanimously voted in favor of a resolution to divest from businesses and companies that allegedly violate Palestinian rights.

“While the topic at hand has historically been quite a contentious issue, I am so humbled and proud to have witnessed such rigorous conversation (that addressed) potential interpersonal conflicts, systemic marginalization, and institutional implications that may have transnational impact,” she said.

Similar resolutions proposed to UM-Ann Arbor’s Central Student Government by Palestinian advocacy group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality have failed to pass in the last three years.

Arbab said she would be following up with a packet of information about the resolutions the assembly has passed. She encouraged the regents to promote the “principles of equality and justice.”

Regent Mark Bernstein (D) thanked Arbab for her work, but spoke in defense of Israel, citing his position against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement campaign.

“I want to be crystal clear — very clear — about my own unwavering, deeply held position on anything related to BDS,” he said. “I believe it is an intellectually bankrupt, morally repugnant expression of anti-Semitism.”

He pointed to the “3-D Test of Anti-Semitism,” a set of criteria created by an Israeli politician used to differentiate between constructive criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, standing for the double standards subjecting Israel, as well as delegitimization and demonization of Israel. The double standard, Bernstein said, refers to “singling out Israel for criticism while ignoring the egregious behavior of other major human rights abusers.” Demonization, he said, occurs by way of distorting Israel’s actions and making false comparisons to the Nazi state, among other things. Delegitimization causes Israel’s fundamental right to exist to be denied.

“Beyond the merits of BDS specific terms, it is in many respects perhaps more important observation about the role of universities in society, because I do believe it betrays that in two significant ways,” he said. 

First, he said, at an institutional level, great universities must engage the world, and this proposal seeks to remove the University from that engagement. Second, he said, at the individual level, students and faculty must approach problems with an appreciation for the complexity and context of the situation and this resolution ignores the profoundly complicated political issues that are central to the conflict.

Many student groups, including SAFE and Dearborn’s Students for Justice in Palestine, distinguish themselves from the larger BDS movement — often, opposing members call for the “D (divestment), without the BS (boycott and sanction).”

In the public comments portion of the meeting, the topic arose again.

Dearborn junior Susan Jenin defended the student government’s resolution, and asked the board to reconsider forming a divestment committee to investigate investments by the University that may violate Palestinian rights.

“The University of Michigan strives to be a leader in inclusion and diversity, while for Palestinians, that hasn’t been the case,” she said. “Our threat of inclusion is our investments. As I pursue my education here, the investments are going to the funding of illegal settlements, of legal occupation of my own village in Palestine. When we asked to end this funding of human rights violations against our families, we are told we must consider the feelings of privileged student on campus whom this would have no impact on.”

Through petitions, she has helped gather between 800 and 900 signatures, to support the resolution — more votes, she said, than in the entire student government election.

“As allies in the University of Michigan system, I am concerned about the student experience of all fellow Palestinian and minority students of a whole,” she said.

She went on to point out that members of SAFE and SJP have been targeted and harassed en masse online. She asked the larger campus community to foster inclusion for Palestinians by condemning organizations that target and harass Palestinians, working to remove students from blacklists and divesting from companies that facilitate human rights violations against Palestinians.  

She specifically called out Bernstein for having said he would “never divest,” stating his personal interest and stakes in Israel are “well-documented.” She also asked the regents in general to recognize the issue is larger than any one person’s connection, and is a matter of human rights.  

After her comment, Bernstein asked what “documentation” Jinen was referring to, claiming the meeting marked the first time he had spoken publicly on the matter. Dearborn senior Hossean Alziyadi asked if he could speak to the issue, which Bernstein permitted.

Alziyadi claimed Berstein was not supportive of Palestinians as he supported the University's investments in companies that allegedly enable Israeli suppression of Palestinians.

“It doesn’t make sense why we are funding these illegal activities,” Alziyadi said. “Earlier in the year, the UN stated that what Israel is doing is against international law and you come out here and you say you would never divest. If these investigations of the UN have decided to launch go into it further and prove that what is going on in Israel is against human rights, and you will stand and say that you will never divest … (that) speaks for your personal interest in the matter.”

Alziyadi said he hoped the regents he voted into office would see the matter is serious to both Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike.

Bernstein suggested it seemed the speakers had made the inference that, because he was Jewish, he was unable to view the situation objectively.

Dearborn junior Nader Dawoud also spoke, noting that the resolution is against the Israeli government, not the people.

“I’ve heard the argument plenty of times that this resolution has anti-Semitic rhetoric and is isolating the Jewish students on campus,” he said. “Let me be clear that this is an anti-Israeli-government bill, not the people of Israel. The very thought of Israel and Judaism being one entity is a very dangerous idea. To think like this, you’re doing a great disservice to humanity. You are essentially giving free reign to a country to do as they please and you are discrediting all criticism as hateful. We have condemned all forms of anti-Semitism, and I am proud to say we have the support of the Jewish Voice for Peace.”