Corrections appended: Mohammad Dar’s father passed away in 2006, not 2007. Also, State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Lyndon Township), chair of the Higher Ed Committee, was misidentified as U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)
LANSING – Mohammad Dar, vice president of the Michigan Student Assembly, said his father told him he’d give up everything to have one of his children graduate from college.
Ultimately, Dar said, his father did.
Dar shared the story of his father’s death with a group of about 300 college students from around the state at a rally outside the state Capitol yesterday.
Dar’s father died in the summer of 2006 after being diagnosed with cancer. The cancer would have likely been treated sooner, Dar said, if his father hadn’t given up his health insurance to pay for Dar’s education.
His speech added an emotional element to the rally, which was held to protest budget cuts that threaten state appropriations for higher education.
The state is facing a $1.7 billion deficit, and cuts to higher education could be a part of any budget settlement. Although officials have refused to speculate, funding cuts or delayed payments from the state could force the University to raise tuition in the middle of the year.
The University’s August payment of $29.6 million has already been withheld because the state was low on cash this summer.
About 120 maize-clad students from the University of Michigan marched onto the Capitol lawn singing “The Victors.” Eastern Michigan University students responded with an Eagles cheer. School pride took a backseat to the cause when Wayne State University students began chanting, “For higher education, make the right decision.”
Dar started the rally by identifying the universities that had sent representatives and explaining the protest’s purpose.
Despite its location just minutes away from the Capitol, there was no visible presence of students from Michigan State University.
Dar said MSU’s student government declined to deliver an invitation to the school’s students.
“They told us sometime in September that they just weren’t going to do it,” Dar said in an interview. “Never gave us a good reason why.”
Student government leaders from most of Michigan’s public universities spoke at the rally. Some speakers shared how they’ve personally struggled to finance their educations.
Jason Davis, a student government senator at the University of Michigan at Flint, said he has had to work 40 or more hours each week for the last eight years to put himself through school.
“I can’t give up,” he said. “I’ve put too much work into it. However, by the state not providing the necessary funding, that is basically what they’re telling me to do.”
When Dar told his father’s story, his voice quivered and then rose forcefully as he said that the state legislature’s neglect of higher education must change so families don’t have to sacrifice so much to pay for college.
“What is left when payment is delayed while tuition skyrockets?” he said. “I can tell you what is left: nothing.”
State politicians also joined in the rally.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm appeared at the railing of the balcony above the building’s steps during the speeches, giving thumbs up and clapping along with protesters.
State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Lyndon Township) spoke about a chart that was set out in front of the podium. The chart showed the top and bottom 10 states in terms of increasing or decreasing appropriations to higher education institutions in the last four years. Michigan is number 50, and it is one of six states that hasn’t raised funding.
“It’s really a lie and a deception to people of the state of Michigan that by cutting taxes we are saving you money,” she said. “We are costing you money.”
Some in the audience, though, disagreed.
LSA junior Justin Zatkoff, the head of The Michigan Federation of College Republicans, passed out literature that criticized tax hikes to increase education funding.
At the end of the rally, State Reps. Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit) and Gino Polidori (D-Dearborn) took the podium, saying they had been inspired to come out and speak after hearing the protesters from inside the building.
“You have the support of my right-thinking colleagues,” Jackson said. “And those that aren’t thinking right, we’re going to put them on the right path.”
Polidori said the students should go inside the building and tell representatives in the House chamber how they feel. Several protesters followed the advice, going to the chamber’s public gallery, where they received applause from representatives below.