Recently, several news items caused me to reflect on my four years at the University and wonder whether my glowing memories are truly representative of my time here or simply gilded by time and distance. I consider myself fortunate to have participated in many different aspects of the University, engaging in tons of activities that had me organizing events and quarter-sheeting the Diag with fervor, all because I believed the University was a great place to engage and interact with other students.
There were also downsides to my involvement. I watched division and discord entrench itself among the myriad, self-obsessed factions within student ranks. I bemoaned our fate as our administration exploited the isolation of each of these interests so that it could more effectively marginalize the whole. But, like a ray of light shining through the clouds, I also saw the number of students dissatisfied with these policies grow, spurred by an administration that purportedly represents them.
Students are realizing that the status quo represents a truly broken system. This alone gave me hope until April 2007, when members of Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality were arrested in the president’s office. I felt that, through my personal affiliation with SOLE, I could aid millions of workers worldwide in their struggle to empower themselves. We continuously fought an indifferent administration that seemed more preoccupied with inventing bureaucratic roadblocks to student participation in governance than leveraging its billions of dollars of potential to solve dire, real-world problems.
Things came to a head when 12 fearless students, backed by a coalition of student groups, staged a sit-in within the confines of University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office, demanding an end to the University’s constant refusal to adopt a policy that would make apparel bearing the Block M logo sweat-free. Sit-ins became common at the University in the 1960s, and as recently as 1999, students effectively used this tactic to compel the administration to listen. This was the “nuke” in our arsenal, the final means by which we could force them to acknowledge us not in loco parentis, but as equals.
Rather than listen to her downtrodden constituents or respect their right to occupy a space of their choosing within the University, a space with powerfully symbolic significance, Coleman enabled their arrest, citing post-Sept. 11 security regulations as the prima facia cause and cementing her fearsome reputation as the avatar of the Michigan Difference’s corporate donors.
I write this not to wax nostalgic but because within a year’s time history is repeating itself.
When I arrived at the University in 2003, I remember Coleman delivered a convocation speech that claimed, “Your ultimate destination at the University of Michigan is located about 100 yards from here, in Michigan Stadium, where we hold Commencement each spring.” I guess my class should consider itself lucky for this boon, because while she kept her word to us, she failed our successors, the class of 2008.
Once again, our administration has betrayed our hopes and dreams, na’ve in its eyes, to better serve its corporate donors. This act is not aberrant but instead emblematic of what the University has become.
Independent of the callous disregard for the faculty, the fans and the handicapped when pursuing luxury skyboxes at the Big House, the writing has been on the wall since before I enrolled. After so much idle time, the silently complacent majority feels left with little to do but blame itself.
Still, I cannot help but feel hope. It is a hope that students are not just placidly entering an abyss from which they can be neither seen nor heard, that this is a turning point for the University and that enough students are affected that change will start here. It is a hope that they will band together in unprecedented numbers to demand that they no longer be silenced, that the series of disenfranchising injustices perpetuated against the student body be rectified and that this new coalition of students will never forget this travesty and never again allow themselves to have their voices diminished and dispersed.
Unfortunately, as an alum, all I have is hope. Students alone have the power to shape the University.
Saamir Rahman is a University alum.