Op-ed: U-M is failing its people

Monday, May 25, 2020 - 6:10pm

The University of Michigan is “a people business,” as President Mark Schlissel recognized in his April 29 interview with The Michigan Daily. We agree with this sentiment. A university is not a country club. That is, what makes a university great is its people — lecturers, faculty, staff, graduate students and a contingent of other workers — and what attracts students to a university is the quality of its education, not the campus window-dressing. At Michigan, the sentiment is often expressed through third president James Burrill Angell's statement that U-M must provide “an uncommon education for the common [student].” This is Michigan at its best: a public-serving institution that changes lives for the better. The current administration is failing these historic values by not engaging with labor organizations, refusing to exercise full transparency and choosing to use its financial resources to pay for capital projects instead of protecting its people from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 8, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) delivered an open letter, signed by 1,827 community members, to U-M administrators. This letter describes the measures that they must take to protect graduate students in this pandemic, as our work is critical for both teaching and research — in short, we enable U-M to deliver its core mission. On May 15, the Office of Public Affairs delivered a patronizing, boilerplate reply that brushed off all of our concerns as “not financially feasible.” The reply ignored the demands that do not require significant expenditures, such as including graduate students in the decision-making process on whether we will be expected to work in-person in the fall. Face-to-face instruction would pose risk not only to ourselves but to the health of those with whom we live and those to whom we have a duty of care.

In our answer to this non-reply, GEO explained to the administration that we firmly believe an open letter signed by over 1,800 community members deserves their full attention and careful consideration. We called on them to immediately agree to the non-financial demands — since they provided no specific reason not to — and to sit down with GEO representatives to discuss our other initiatives. We also asked them to hold open meetings with all graduate students, to see for themselves that our concerns are valid. Letter signatories also sent dozens of emails to President Schlissel and the regents, and four of them delivered statements at the Board of Regents meeting on May 21. We asked to see significant movement from the administration by May 22. This time, instead of a boilerplate reply, we received nothing — not even an acknowledgment during the Regents' meeting. The administration believes that it can ignore labor organizations on campus until we go away. This will not work.

On May 21, the Board of Regents — in a remarkably upbeat meeting with little sense of crisis — approved up to $1.3 billion in commercial papers and bonds, against U-M's future revenue. The amount approved by the board is over ten percent of the U-M's total endowment. This value can help make up for lost tuition, house and board fees, and the (discriminatory) international student fee if we go fully online during the next academic year, bankrolling the university's operations. The Board also reported that U-M received $45 million in gifts in April 2020 ($40 million in cash and equivalents), up from $30 million in April 2019, when there was no pandemic. 

Much to our surprise, however, the credit lines approved by the regents are not primarily destined to protect U-M's people, but instead “principally to fund capital projects.” These include a new tower for the hospital (that just fired or furloughed 1,400 workers), which shows that the draconian austerity implemented by management is unnecessary and mainly performative. As an afterthought, the administration also states that the debt can be used to “support operations and liquidity as needed” because of the pandemic, “in the event of a financial emergency.” The need to protect workers is immediate and self-evident, but instead of investing in people, administrators have been executing cuts under the pretext of a budget shortfall, while planning to invest in capital projects. As a “people business” and not a financial institution, the University must indefinitely postpone all nonessential capital projects and deploy its resources to maintain jobs and protect the most vulnerable members of our community. 

The university has not adequately demonstrated that it needs to lay off or furlough employees, that it cannot afford to provide Michigan Medicine’s resident physicians the raise they deserve as front-line workers or that it cannot afford to implement the critical and well-researched proposals outlined this week by the One University Coalition. Instead, the administration bemoans a fiscal deficit and implements austerity while stonewalling stakeholders who ask for transparency, such as the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, whose petition was ignored. Between the loans and gifts announced by the Board of Regents, U-M appears to have plenty of money to pay for all of the measures we outlined to help graduate students and to protect jobs in this pandemic.

Mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic will be far more damaging to the University of Michigan’s long-term reputation and viability than a short-term deviation from financial orthodoxy. The university must live up to its mission by financially supporting its people and protecting our health and safety, rather than focusing on its AAA credit rating and spending money on extravagant renovations.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, on the other hand, is ready to fulfill its historic mission. We are prepared to advocate for graduate students and to organize and defend our workers, as befits one of the oldest graduate student unions in the country. We call on other members of the U-M community, including fellow workers, fellow students, lecturers, faculty, staff and alumni devoted to U-M’s promise as a public-serving institution, to get the message across to the administration, loud and clear: exercise full transparency and prioritize your people. 

The GEO COVID Caucus co-chairs can be reached at covidchair@geo3550.org