It’s possible that the Coalition for Tuition Equality’s defining moment was neither in a University Board of Regents meeting nor inside the Fleming Administration Building. At this decisive junction, there were no microphones, yellow shirts or senior University officials —instead, just two guys at a table in a quiet section of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
At nearly four in the morning, Kevin Mersol-Barg, then a Public Policy junior, and Yonah Lieberman, an LSA junior at the time, were up late studying like they did most Sunday nights.
“We’d be in the UGLi talking about stuff, and Kevin mentions, totally offhand, ‘Dan Morales was speaking at the regents meeting on Thursday,’ ” Lieberman said in an August interview.
It was February 2012, and Morales, a then LSA freshman and a current CTE spokesman, was set to share his experience struggling to afford a University education before he gained U.S. residency.
Lieberman, ruminating on class readings on the Civil Rights Movement, suggested CTE allies hold up signs to represent the University student organizations that composed the coalition during the speech.
CTE had 12 members, and Mersol-Barg had founded CTE only a few months prior to the regents meeting.
About 30 students, representing the coalition’s member organizations such as the College Democrats and the ACLU, held up signs as Morales spoke. Then, the students walked out.
“We had no idea what we were doing. It was the first direct action any of us had ever done,” Lieberman said.
At the time, granting in-state tuition costs to Michigan’s undocumented residents was a virtually unknown issue on campus. But with sharp focus on a singular goal — securing in-state tuition fees for undocumented students — CTE soon packed regents meetings so tightly they were moved from a small room inside the Administration Building to one of the Union’s ballrooms. CTE, and what they stood for, became unavoidable.
However powerful the coalition’s strategy, its platform was not void of controversy. Tuition equality, as the issue became branded by advocates, is complicated; it is an issue that tested the University’s ability to respond to student grievances and forced a community to take a hard look at ideas of citizenship and scholarship.
At the July 2013 regents meeting, after consistent protests and months spent pouring over the issue in a task force, regents passed new tuition equality guidelines by a 6-2 vote from the regents. Set to take affect in January 2014, undocumented students who graduated from and attended three years of a Michigan high school and two preceding years of middle school at a Michigan school will receive in-state tuition. Under the new guidelines, military veterans will also receive in-state tuition fees, regardless of residency.
In a matter of two years, a small group of students took on what had been a fringe issue, rallied support, built their case and ultimately changed University policy. So how did they do it?
Making a movement
In February 2011, Mersol-Barg was gearing up to run for president of Central Student Government and looking to build a platform that addressed issues of social justice and diversity. After attending an event sponsored by student organization Human Rights through Education, Mersol-Barg found an issue for his platform.
At the event, a former student from Ann Arbor spoke about being denied in-state tuition once the University discovered his undocumented status. Shortly after the conference, Mersol-Barg began thinking of ways to engage issues facing undocumented students on campus.
To form CTE, Mersol-Barg laid out three main factors that helped set up a successful movement.
First, Mersol-Barg chose a coalition structure, an entity made up of many existing University groups, which today includes 32 member organizations. He said the coalition was crucial in involving a large and diverse cross-section of students.
Second, Mersol-Barg said the coalition was better able to “harness the power of members” by avoiding leadership hierarchy.
By focusing on a singular goal — one where students had a tailored perspective to contribute to the conversation surrounding immigrant rights — members were able to keep the coalition together.
By June of 2012, it was clear CTE’s presence at regents meetings would not quietly disappear.
Students showed up to CTE events in droves, regardless of their relation to undocumented students. Many viewed CTE’s platform as an issue perfect for student activism — it was a problem within the larger immigration debate where student voices mattered.
After Regent Julia Darlow (D-Ann Arbor) asked the University to explore the issue at the March 2012 regents meeting, then-Provost Phil Hanlon created a task force to examine the University’s residency guidelines that dictate how the University grants in-state tuition.
Led by Lester Monts, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, the task force included two other administrators and four CTE members: Mersol-Barg, Lieberman, Luz Meza, then an LSA senior and Sanjay Jolly, then a Public Policy senior. With the goal of producing a report to present to the regents, the task force began meeting twice a month.
In interviews with The Michigan Daily, Monts and the student representatives said they viewed the task force as an open, collaborative working environment, while Lieberman and Jolly said its creation was initially a mechanism of deference.
“When Phil Hanlon proposed this task force, it was 100 percent a measure for the University to drag their feet,” Jolly said. “They didn’t want to touch this. They wanted to show the world that they engage our students and we have a task force just for this issue.”
However, Jolly and Meza said Monts and the other task force administrators were entirely genuine throughout the process.
“I don’t have words to say how much I appreciate them for working with us,” Meza said.
Jolly said Monts encouraged the task force to leave no stone unturned and to take a meaningful look at the University’s undocumented population in realms such as campus life, financial aid and admissions.
In a recent statement to the Daily, Monts lauded the work of the student committee members.
“Given the nature of the issues at hand, there were often differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of data and its implications for the creation of a new policy regarding tuition equality,” Monts said. “However, I’m pleased to say that the report is a product of a consensus building process that was pervasive in our deliberations.”
But throughout much of 2012, University President Mary Sue Coleman avoided any public position on tuition equality while the task force investigated the issue.
In a January 2013 interview with The Michigan Daily, Coleman emphasized the importance of immigration reform at a state and federal level, rather than through University governance.
“It would be so helpful if we could change things at the state level and do it as a comprehensive plan because I feel it’s just an issue this country has stuck its head in the sand about forever, and it’s not right,” Coleman said.
Republican Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, who voted against the final measure granting in-state tuition fees along with Republican Regent Andrew Richner in July, expressed reluctance similar to Coleman’s January 2013 stance.
“I have concerns about whether this is appropriate under federal law and believe this type of national issue should be resolved at the federal level,” Newman said in a statement.
Opponents of the measure have also expressed concerns, mainly regarding undocumented families not paying state taxes.
According to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy report families of undocumented students often pay some state taxes, such as sales and property tax, contributing about $126 million in local and state tax revenue in Michigan.
However, the University’s initial concerns focused on changes to residency requirements.
“I think we are in a circumstance now where we have residency requirements and we need to be consistent without undermining the residency standards that we’ve had in the past because those have been important for the University,” Coleman said in January. “I’m hopeful that we can get there, but we’ll see.”
As a result of these concerns, the University administration and task force carefully considered the impacts of potential changes to residency guidelines.
Between June 2012 and February 2013, the committee explored the ways in which university, state and federal policies affected undocumented students.
As part of this process, the task force examined policy at three especially progressive universities in the area of tuition equality: the University of Texas-Austin and the University of California-Berkeley and Los Angeles.
In addition to Texas and California, 16 states have provisions allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Fourteen states provide these provisions through state legislation and two states allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented students through Board of Regents decisions.
While the report was not intended to make a final recommendation, the task force considered potential methodology to qualify undocumented students for in-state tuition. Previously, the University based tuition fees on residency, meaning students needed to be recognized by the state as Michigan residents. This policy prevented undocumented students from taking advantage of the hefty difference between in- and out-of-state tuition. Following the example set by the UC campuses and the UT-Austin, the report found tuition fees could be based on a student’s high school education rather than residency.
While it seemed the task force had narrowed in on a possible solution, the University’s Office of General Counsel, represented on the committee by Donica Varner, University Associate General Counsel, raised concerns regarding potential externalities of revised guidelines.
“We (the University) get sued on our (pre-revision) residency policy all the time and we always win because our residency policy is airtight,” Jolly said. “It’s legally rock solid.”
With a high school-based guideline, the General Counsel said the largest demographic affected by the policy would not be undocumented students. Instead, students on Ohio’s border who attended a Michigan high school or boarding students at private schools, such as Cranbrook, would receive the largest, unintended benefit.
Thus was born the middle-school clause in the adopted version of the guidelines, which requires two years attendance at a Michigan middle school as a condition for receiving in-state tuition.
While the task force trudged on inside the Administration Building, CTE continued their protests down State Street at regents meetings. Jolly and Lieberman said the progress of the task force often influenced the tone and scale of direct actions such as protests and sit-ins, with organizers carefully considering the demands of the moment.
December 2012, just before students left Ann Arbor for semester break, CTE members and allies, now numbering in the hundreds, wore yellow t-shirts and donned red duct tape over their mouths to represent “silenced” voices of undocumented students.
The protests and task force meetings continued simultaneously.
“For maybe six months, through December, it did not seem as if we were going to get our way,” Lieberman said.
As protests continued, the task force was meeting simultaneously, sometimes the day before or after an action from CTE.
“It was awkward, but at least (the administration) understood we weren’t going to put up a white flag due to the task force,” Jolly said.
According to administrators, the protests did not stifle the working relationship of the task force.
University Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor), an early proponent of granting in-state tuition to undocumented Michigan students, deemed CTE’s protests as thoughtful, dignified and effective—especially in sharing the stories of affected students.
“It was a blueprint for effective advocacy,” Bernstein said. “I was deeply moved by the stories that these students and their allies shared. They were very successful in attaching a human face to a not particularly interesting area of University governance. Storytelling is the most effective form of advocacy, and they mastered that.”
Provost Martha Pollack, who succeeded Hanlon last spring, tempered CTE’s role in influencing the policy.
Contrary to Coleman’s January statements stressing the firm nature of residency guidelines, Pollack said the University had already been considering revisions prior to CTE protests.
Pollack emphasized the broader nature of the new guidelines, created to streamline paths to in-state tuition, rather than promote larger policy concerning undocumented students.
“That being said, it’s certainly true that as the students from CTE and the various veterans groups spoke over the year, that they raised our awareness of this and that got built into the process, but again the changes in the policy are much broader,” Pollack said.
But Bernstein said CTE protests might have guided the direction of the changes to in-state tuition guidelines.
“The tuition guidelines are a dynamic document,” Bernstein said. “They change every once and a while to keep pace with the changing nature of the University. There are lots of ways tuition guidelines can change. The advocacy work by these students had a significant impact on the evolution of our tuition guidelines.”
The historical arc
Though various parties may dispute CTE’s ultimate influence, it’s difficult to discredit the scope of their on-campus presence. In less than two years, what began as a small group of students organizing at four a.m. in the UGLi reached a visible crescendo last April when eight students were arrested outside the Union in a display of civil disobedience. Protestors marched from the Michigan Union to Coleman’s house shouting, “education, not segregation!” before blocking traffic at the intersection of State Street and South University Ave.
Even after the passage of new in-state tuition guidelines a few months later, it’s still difficult to tell what CTE might mean for the larger arc of University narrative. For many, the movement translated into more than policy change or civil rights dialogue — CTE was also a conversation about what student activism might mean and look like in the 21st century.
“It’s the biggest thing that’s happened in Michigan student activism since the ‘60s,” Lieberman said. “It’s the story of students coming together, identifying a problem and thinking about how to change the issues facing them. I think a lot of people paint our generation as apathetic people who don’t really care. This story fundamentally challenges that narrative.”
The movement also placed a spotlight on the inflexible nature of higher education. While multiple coalition members have recognized the success in the movement’s turn-around time —less than two years — some characterized the University as traditionally slow to change.
“If the threshold for change required an entire movement, I don’t think that’s reasonable,” Mersol-Barg said. “I think the University decisionmakers could not only be doing a much better job engaging a students who want to change campus, but proactively seeking them out and ensuring their vision is realized.”
Mersol-Barg is convinced the University could have issued a decision without waiting a number of months.
“Ultimately, direct actions like the sit-in in front of the Union are what pushed the regents over the edge,” Mersol-Barg said. “As I understand, a number of regents just wanted to get it taken care of because we were making too much noise.”
Though some administrators have discounted CTE’s total influence, they have frequently applauded the movement’s displays of student activism.
“Dialogue on challenging issues is what we’re all about here at Michigan, and I hope it doesn’t go away,” Pollack said. “I won’t always agree with the students, but I certainly want to hear what they have to say.”
Still, Mersol-Barg said it’s difficult to pinpoint the extent to which CTE truly influenced the opinions of regents or administrators. While Pollack characterized the administration’s views on tuition equality as evolving, Mersol-Barg said the administration didn’t follow a uniform progression, adding that some administrators and regents were more receptive than others.
“On one hand, this is a wonderful success in that we demonstrated that the regents will respond to students, especially when it comes to matters as complicated and controversial as this one,” Mersol-Barg said. “However, I don’t think that this establishes too much precedent in terms of students who want to change the University.”
But for now, CTE is not going away. LSA senior Meg Scribner and Morales, current CTE leaders, said the new focus of the movement will be securing financial aid for undocumented students.
“It’s really important not to let this issue disappear,” Scribner said.
Though the impact of the recently inked policy may remain uncertain, one thing’s clear: Less than two years ago, a couple of students had a grievance and an idea.