In an address to soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq last year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shrugged off complaints that troops weren’t suitably outfitted for going to war, saying that “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” Former University Provost Paul Courant pulled a Rumsfeld during his speech about the value of higher education last week. In a similarly nonchalant manner, Courant told assembled students at a speech covered by The Michigan Daily (‘U’ is not a business, 11/30/2005) that market constraints and a decline in state funding make tuition increases inevitable, implying that students have no choice but to suck it up and deal with it.

Elliott Mallen

I admit that it might be a little harsh to compare a former administrator and current professor with the secretary of defense. After all, nobody is dying due to exorbitant tuition increases, and Rumsfeld has a considerably higher degree of control over the military than Courant does over state funding priorities and the University’s budget. However, just as Rumsfeld will never find himself dodging bullets and roadside bombs while driving an inadequately armored Humvee through the streets of Fallujah, Courant’s salary of $292,031 as provost ensured that he would never know what it’s like to take out a second mortgage or even postpone his retirement by just a couple years to pay for his kids’ college education. He’ll never have firsthand knowledge of just how far a Pell Grant or Stafford Loan goes, and it’s probably safe to say he’s never had to fill out a FAFSA form. Courant, along with every other upper-level University administrator, is completely insulated from the trauma that these supposedly inevitable tuition increases create for students and their families.

Of course, I’m not trying to pin all of the blame for high tuition on Courant. It’s true that state cutbacks have hit public universities across Michigan with unprecedented budget shortfalls. State funding of higher education has been declining consistently enough to require the University to seek alternate sources of revenue. University President Mary Sue Coleman spends a significant amount of her time as a donation hunter, dozens of students man the phones at Michigan Telefund every night to squeeze a few dollars out of alumni and the University’s newfound life-sciences fetish is intended to bring in fresh investment for research. However, Courant’s attitude suggests that these harsh economic realities are forcing the University to abandon its status as a public institution intended to provide a public education, where no student is turned away due to low income.

The University is taking some token steps to help meet financial need. The University’s new M-PACT program allows some students to exchange a part of their student loans for grants, but the maximum $1,500 grant will be less and less substantial as tuition rises. Because the size of the grants is not meant to rise with the cost of tuition, the M-PACT program could easily go the way of the Pell Grant, a once substantial boost that has been rendered largely ineffective due to the skyrocketing price of higher education.

The fact that Courant is basically throwing his hands up in the air and giving in to the supposed inevitability of tuition increases reflects just how much priority the administration gives to keeping tuition low enough so that a degree from the University is attainable to more than just the well-heeled. Like Courant, those who set University policy will never find themselves in a position in which they will be unable to afford their own children’s educations.

The most egregious example is Coleman, who is raking in $724,604 this year after receiving a 3.5 percent raise from last year. University spokeswoman Julie Peterson, who is charged with putting a smiling face on tuition increases, made $160,000 in 2004. Oft-maligned Vice President for Student Affairs Eunice Royster Harper makes $221,708. Pamela Fowler, whose title of director of the Office of Financial Aid makes her responsible for helping an increasing number of students make ends meet, made $114,712. Of course, the University Board of Regents has the final say in determining the price of a University education, and regents are paid nothing for their service. However, among the eight regents are three attorneys, the CEO of Domino’s Pizza, an executive for Northwest Airlines and a retired executive vice president of DTE Energy Company – people who could easily withstand the 12.3- percent increase in tuition that students and their families are facing this year.

Courant argues that high tuition is necessary for the University to remain a “conservatory of knowledge” that “improves the quality of life and makes it more fun and interesting.” What he neglects to acknowledge is that such an ideal is worthless if it’s accessible only to the elite. If income replaces scholarship as the determining factor in who has access to higher education, then the conservatory of knowledge becomes a stagnant ivory tower. As long as those who administer our university continue to occupy the top rungs of the economic ladder, making our university a truly public institution will not be a priority.

 

Mallen can be reached at emmallen@umich.edu.

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