The University was founded upon the
principle that access to education should not be dependent on
economic status, but on aptitude and academic capability. Indeed,
when the University was established almost two centuries ago, the
hallowed halls of this institution were filled with bright, earnest
and motivated students, students who, regardless of economic class,
were embraced with open arms. Although the University has upheld
its high standards of learning over time, a steady decrease in
state funding has made it increasingly difficult for students of
lower economic status to attend. A thriving academic community
necessitates a steadfast commitment from the state to fund it.
While the University has begun to receive more alternative sources
of funding such as private donations, it must exert caution not to
become overly indebted to these private contributors.

Mira Levitan

In describing the University, 19th-century University President
James Burill Angell declared with pride that it provides an
“uncommon education for the common man.” Unfortunately,
only one facet of this prized adage still remains true today. For
that to change, students must begin to show greater involvement
with these important issues.

For decades now, the state has consistently reduced the amount
of money given to the University. Currently, state funds comprise
less than 20 percent of the total University budget; only a few
decades ago, more than half of the University’s budget came
from the state. A high-quality public education is invaluable to
the state; it provides a more skilled labor force and returns
revenue to the state treasury in the form of increased business
opportunities and by raising the general income of people, thereby
increasing tax revenue. Attempts to improve the state’s
image, such as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool
Cities” initiative — a proposal to attract younger,
“creative class” individuals to Michigan’s
metropolitan areas — will inevitably fail in a state devoid
of widespread opportunities for all people to receive a superior
education.

The financial vacuum left open by the state has more recently
been filled by individual donors and private corporations. This
spring, the University plans to kick off a fundraising drive with
the intention of bringing in more than $2 billion — one of
the most ambitious fundraising goals in the history of public
education. While it is difficult to complain about this type of
generosity, the administration must not forget that this is a
public institution — one that should not be beholden to
personal and corporate interests. For example, one of the
University’s biggest investors is Dow Chemical Corporation, a
company that has earned notoriety through onerous environmental
practices, notably, their handling of a chemical spill in Bhopal,
India. In its desperation for increased endowment, the University
should exercise caution when associating with benefactors such as
these.

 

The economic dilemma has brought about
numerous policy struggles in the state Legislature. In the latest
instance, University officials locked horns with Granholm over a
proposed tuition freeze — a policy that dangles needed state
funds over the heads of schools, in return for a promise not to
increase tuition at more than the rate of inflation in the coming
years. The University has been compelled to agree to these
stipulations, placing it in a very precarious situation. Despite
being able to recover $20 million of the $40 million that the
University needs to remain out of the red, the University has been
bound to a potentially disastrous agreement. There is still another
$20 million that must be cut to balance the budget, and these cuts
will undoubtedly come to affect the quality of education at the
University. Furthermore, because this tuition cap is only
applicable to in-state students, it does not take a fiscal genius
to realize which portion of the student body is going to bear the
bulk of the burden.

Out-of-state students are an essential component of the
University’s diverse community, and steps must be taken to
ensure that they have the same protection as their in-state
counterparts. Out-of-state tuition costs are a typical example of
how a portion of the student body can be affected by the actions of
the administration when dealing with the budget. In order to combat
problems such as this, the student body must have a greater voice
in budget considerations. One is unlikely to find Granholm,
University President Mary Sue Coleman or any of the regents slaving
away in the Fishbowl at 2 a.m. or sprinting to the Frieze Building
for one simple reason — they do not attend this university.
Students are this school’s lifeblood, and as such, deserve a
larger role in dealing with budgetary issues.

A concrete proposal to address this is for the Michigan Student
Assembly to establish a budget advisory committee — a group
operating to review budget data and relevant allocation decisions,
while advising MSA on how to best act as an advocate for the
student body. As the voice of the student body, MSA deserves a
chief role in the budget decision-making process. In the past, the
MSA treasurer routinely met with the administration to discuss
monetary issues, but sadly, this no longer occurs. To rectify this,
newly elected MSA President Jason Mironov should make it his first
priority to re-establish a similar line of communication by
creating this committee. The MSA committee should look at the
budget in depth and challenge the administration’s choices;
it should not be a way for students to hob-knob with the
administration. The administration has had an abysmal record of
involving students in the budget process in the past, and this
commission would be instrumental in preventing future
runarounds.

 

The student body must shine the light of
public scrutiny and bring University tuition down so that the
average student can attend this school. MSA must be an active and
passionate advocate of the student body; one that will demand
autonomy both for the student population and the University itself.
We need to give the University back to the “common
man.”

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