Fall 2004 has come to an end. As students study for a last round of exams and prepare to leave Ann Arbor, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the stories and events that have affected the University community over the past four months. Since September, the University community has witnessed a divisive national election, felt the effects of budget crises at all levels of government and begun to prepare for another major court battle.
Seen from the liberal enclave of Ann Arbor, the 2004 state and national elections presented evidence of a number of disturbing political trends. It has become abundantly clear that we live in the midst of a national conservative movement. In addition to maintaining control of the White House, Republicans strengthened their majorities in both houses of Congress and will likely have the opportunity to make pivotal conservative appointments to the now-divided U.S. Supreme Court.
Shockingly, the coveted youth vote did not make the difference many had hoped it would. Despite the flashy voter registration efforts, the high-profile campaigns to increase youth political awareness, such as MTV’s “Rock the Vote,” and the slightly more urgent “Vote or Die” initiatives to get young voters to the booths, college students did not make much of a difference. Though more voters between 18 and 25 turned out to vote, the proportion of young voters in relation to the overall electorate did not change when compared with 2000 levels. While turnout was higher, it was still insufficient to turn the youth voice into a serious political voting bloc.
Campus movements drove the political liberalism of the 1960s, and students were responsible for the prevailing political climate of the decade. Even today, college students tend to be more liberal than older generations; a large majority of youth voters endorsed Sen. John Kerry. Nevertheless, the lack of a student movement has allowed conservatives to advance an agenda that many college-aged individuals oppose.
In November, conservative forces successfully passed Proposal 2, a discriminatory constitutional amendment that legally bans gay marriage and any “similar unions” in Michigan. The passage of this proposal further underscores the problem with Michigan’s ballot initiative process. The amendment, which may last years or even decades before being struck down by courts or repealed by voters, was placed on the ballot through a petition drive only after state legislators refused to approve it. Once paid “volunteers” gathered the 317,757 signatures necessary to place the proposal on the ballot, a simple majority among voters was enough to amend the state constitution. The ballot initiative, initially designed to protect citizens against powerful railroad interests, has become a tool wealthy groups can use to subvert the will of an elected, representative legislature.
In response to the passage of Proposal 2, University officials have pledged to continue affording domestic partnership benefits to its employees in same-sex partnerships, defending their programs in court if necessary. By doing this, the University has set itself up for another contentious round of legal battles. Conservative legal groups have already started researching possible lawsuits against the University’s same-sex partnership benefits.
When the term began, the University was in a weak financial situation, having suffered a series of budget cuts by the state. However, in a deal reached with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the University agreed to hold in-state tuition down in exchange for a reversal of last year’s 3-percent budget cut. Regrettably, due to unforeseen deficits, the state has failed to come through. In response, the University may give students a holiday present — a mid-year tuition hike. The University, which is already one of the most expensive public universities in the country, must receive greater state support. The state has an obligation to maintain its public universities, which exist to provide an affordable, high-quality education. Further budget cuts and tuition hikes will not only threaten the quality of education at the University, but also make it prohibitively expensive, even with financial aid, for an average family.
While state funding for the University has fallen far short of the mark, private donors to the University have been very generous. In September, University alum and New York real estate tycoon Stephen M. Ross gave $100 million to the School of Business, which was promptly re-named in his honor. The generosity of alumni has surely helped to mitigate the effects of the state budget crisis, but it is unfortunate that the University, a public institution, must depend on donations to maintain its superior educational standards.
The semester also saw the University announce plans to demolish the Frieze Building and build a new residence hall in its place with upperclassman housing, common areas and classroom space. The new “North Quad” is supposed to represent a multipurpose “gateway” to the University. Unfortunately it does not go far enough to alleviate the persisting shortage of attractive student housing, on and off campus. The University itself must make a long-term commitment to build new dorms and renovate existing ones so that all students have access to basic amenities. University Housing should endeavor to provide students with appetizing cafeteria food, apartment-style residence halls.
The lack of decent on-campus housing has led many students to look elsewhere for a place to live. Every year, upperclassmen venture into the Ann Arbor housing market, which is tilted heavily against them. Shoddy landlords charge obscene prices and require students to sign leases 11 months in advance for houses. The University and the Michigan Student Assembly should lobby for a city ordinance pushing back lease-signing dates until the spring. At a very minimum, such a law would ensure that freshman have completed at least one full term before being forced to consider housing options for their sophomore year. Such an ordinance would also allow the Greek system to push Rush back to winter term, giving first-year students more time at the University to acclimate to college life before making the decision on whether or not to be a part of the Greek system. Even returning students would benefit from additional flexibility.
Sadly, it does not seem likely MSA will fulfill its obligation and stand up for students. During his campaign, MSA President Jason Mironov promised to aid students in the housing market by creating a replacement for the defunct Ann Arbor Tenants Union. While Mironov managed to establish a website dealing with housing issues, there has been no significant progress toward a tenant’s rights group. As more and more students attend the University — the latest freshman class is the largest to date — the University and MSA must become more active in seeking progress on vital housing matters.
This semester also saw the Department of Public Safety and the Ann Arbor Police Department intensify their enforcement of alcohol related-laws on and near campus. During Welcome Week, DPS issued 66 minor-in-possession citations, a drastic increase from the 15 it handed out during the same period last year. DPS claims it gave out more citations because the freshman class is the largest to date. However, while the class is freshman class is larger than ever, it certainly does not make the entire student body four times larger than last year. Considering it took the AAPD 10 years to shut down a well-known crack house that posed an immediate threat to the community, it is obvious that local law enforcement has misguided enforcement priorities.
After a tumultuous first semester, the student body will leave for winter break having witnessed a wealth of profound changes to the University community, the state and the federal government. And from housing crunches to impending court battles, there will be no shortage of issues facing the University when students return in January.