A few months ago, we were treated to another media blitz over the “largest donation in the University of Michigan’s history,” $110 million from the Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, earmarked for a graduate dormitory. Donations like Munger’s are presented as unqualified wins for the University. By cultivating relationships with successful alumni, the University grows its endowment and receives money for infrastructure projects that, in theory, provide needed educational and residential spaces. But is this the whole story?
In the last decade, the University has transformed itself into an institution that is run for-profit and increasingly tied to Wall Street investment banks, hedge funds and institutional investors. In the turn to profit, the University has decided to pursue wealthy out-of-state students who can pay outrageously high tuition. To do so, it has had to borrow extensively to build new buildings and facilities that would attract such students: As of Dec. 31, 2012, the University had $1.8 billion in outstanding — primarily construction — debt secured by general revenues which include student tuition. This has meant developing relationships with investment banks and institutional investors who buy the University’s construction bonds. These investors, however, will buy bonds only if they are very secure: As a result, the University, like many other universities, has offered up student’s future tuition as collateral for this debt and engaged in aggressive campaigns against unionized and precarious workers’ wages and benefits.
Large donations are a critical part of this strategy of building to attract wealthy consumers. One of the hidden costs of large donations for infrastructure is that they actually force the University deeper into debt. For example, the Munger graduate dorms’ projected price is $185 million. Of the $110 million pledged by Munger, $100 million will go toward construction, so what began as a “donation” has now turned into $85 million of debt for the University. Such donations don’t address the needs of students; rather, they advance the pet projects and educational ideologies of the rich. If this donation is a “gift,” is it most certainly in the form of a Trojan Horse.
Donations are inherently anti-democratic — a stealthy way to avoid any kind of due process or checks on university spending. If the University had decided outright to build a $185-million dormitory, graduate students — and undergraduates too, since their debt is going to pay for $85 million of it — would have had something to say about the project. Instead, because it was a donation there was no public discussion about the project and no debate over its need. Rather, there was only an announcement from above.
Had the administration consulted its graduate students, it might have considered potential gender, sex and trans-gender concerns with such a project. The University and Munger claim that “throwing” students together will result in the “liberation” and “creation” of knowledge — “breaking down the silos” — but it might actually result in unsafe living conditions for many groups, in particular queer-identified individuals, trans-people and women. Moreover, at their estimated current price point — $1,000 per month — the Munger dorms will cost graduate student instructors 77 percent of their yearly income to live there — truly, this is the liberation we have been waiting for.
Given the amount of graduate student ire after the dorm project’s announcement, it’s clear the administration has overstepped on this project. They’ve taken a donation that a rich plutocrat hung in front of their noses and are trapped into building something that even they don’t want. The question is then what to do about it?
The option we propose has two parts. First, we should demand that the University reject all donations that come with strings attached. This means we should demand that the University return Munger’s donation. We must reject all donations that contribute to the financialization of the University through construction bonds and student debt. As such, big spending decisions should be made through a democratic body composed of students — graduate and undergraduate — and workers from all areas of the University and University of Michigan Health System.
However, it seems unlikely that the University will return the Munger donation and even less likely that they will include students and workers in the decision-making process on how funds are allocated. That means that the only way is to oppose the building project through direct action. If you feel strongly that the University should not be spending $85 million on a dorm that no one wants, if you feel that the University should not be trying to avoid public discussions of how resources are allocated, and if you feel that the University should not let itself become the site of the educational experiments of conservatives and the far-right, we ask you to join us Nov. 1 at 5 p.m. in Canterbury House for an open meeting to discuss what steps we should take next.
Paige Andersson and Brian Whitener are Rackham students.