Real estate mogul Stephen Ross recently
gave $100 million to the University’s Business School, making
it the largest gift ever given to the University and the largest
given to any business school in the country. The dire budgetary
situation in which the University currently finds itself gives the
giddy thanks lavished on Ross a tinge of desperation. While the
gift is certainly a substantial amount of money, it’s not
money that the University should have to rely on to survive. The
delirium of the University officials after having received such a
bailout shows that our public university can no longer rely on
public funds to function regularly, and is now forced to whore
itself out to outrageously wealthy alumni by dangling the
enticements of naming rights and shameless adoration.

Elliott Mallen

Our very own University President Mary Sue Coleman put it aptly
in April, saying that “30, the state provided 70 percent of
the funding for instruction at our Ann Arbor campus. Today, we
receive less than 30 percent of our instructional funding from the
state.” This significant drop in funding has to be made up
somehow, and there are few potential sources. If the state
won’t support its namesake school, perhaps the federal
government could step in. This is far from likely, given our
current administration’s reluctance to adequately fund
education. Leaving No Child Behind must not extend to providing a
college education, despite the fact that well over 3 million
college students could be given a full ride for a four-year public
university with the money spent on the war in Iraq. Too bad that
would mean our overexerted military would have a harder time
attracting recruits too poor to afford the prohibitive costs of
education without the help of the G.I. Bill.

Having been abandoned by both the state and federal governments,
the University has no choice but to get on its knees and beg
because, as Coleman concedes, “We just can’t generate
enough money from the state and tuition alone.” I was a grunt
on the front lines of this begging for two weeks, making $7.25 an
hour to squeeze a little bit more out of already overextended
parents and alumni. We understand you’ve had to take out a
second mortgage to fund your daughter’s education, and we
know that she’s now thousands of dollars in debt and is still
searching for a job, any job, that will employ her for full time
and pay a living wage, but could you please spare an extra $100 to
make the posting wall of Angel Hall a little more gleaming? No?
Well thanks for your time, have a great evening while I slit my
wrists.

Working the phones also made me aware of how many strings are
attached to private donations. After hearing countless wealthy
alumni refuse to donate on account of our affirmative action
policies and the alarmingly high level of left-leaning faculty (I
spoke with one man who said he’d give thousands if only the
University would stop giving out need-based financial aid or, in
his words, “rewards for laziness”), it became clear
that relying heavily on these people to stay afloat can easily
result in the University becoming more accountable to the wealthy
donating elite than the public it was originally established to
serve.

Public universities receive government funds in order to ensure
their independence. The University is given great freedom to choose
how to spend public funds, but it has no choice but to accept
strings attached to private donations. While the University was
teetering on the brink of financial hardships in 2003, Rick and
Judy Perlman gave $500,000 to open the Perlman Honors Commons, a
plush study space for Honors students that includes such amenities
as a bar space for coffee and food, comfortable chairs to
accommodate the special ass-cushioning needs of Honors students and
wall murals celebrating the achievements of the University’s
famous alumni and pointing out some highlights in the
University’s long and colorful history. Meanwhile, parents
and students are tightening their belts to record-breaking levels
of compression. At least the student whose future will be
compromised under the weight of five-digit student loans can draw
inspiration from the enlarged visage of JFK while filling out
scholarship applications in the Honors Commons.

While gifts such as this can be superfluous extras the
University can take pride in, they can also be a liability. The
state and federal governments can point to the sizable donations
the University receives in order to justify further cutbacks,
putting it in an even more precarious situation of dependence. They
lend justification to shifting income from public funds to
conditional and inconsistent private donations.

I’m not trying to discourage alumni from giving to the
University. God knows we need the money. It’s just dangerous
to rely on the benevolence of the wealthy to keep our university
functioning properly.

 

Mallen can be reached at
“mailto:emmallen@umich.edu”>emmallen@umich.edu.

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