Every few months it seems a media blitz announces that there is another “largest donation in the University of Michigan’s history.” These donations are presented as unqualified wins for the university. By cultivating relationships with successful alumni, the university grows its endowment and receives money for infrastructure projects that, in theory, provide needed educational spaces from libraries to labs. But is this the whole story? In the past year, the University of Michigan received the two largest donations in its history from Charles Munger and Stephen M. Ross. In this piece, we will examine the Munger donation and the perils of private “donations” at ostensibly public universities. We do so to illuminate a national trend of donations that come with costly strings attached and because Munger’s “gift” has already generated considerable concern in the University of Michigan community.
Before turning to the dorm project, a little historical background. The University of Michigan has transformed itself in the last decade into an institution that is run for profit and increasingly tied to Wall Street investment banks, hedge funds, and institutional investors. These two changes are related: in the turn to profit, the university has decided to pursue wealthy out-of-state students who can pay outrageously high tuition. To do so, it has had to borrow extensively to build new buildings that would attract such students (as of Dec 31, 2012 the university had 1.8 billion in outstanding, primarily construction, debt secured by general revenues which include student tuition). This has meant developing relationships with investment banks and institutional investors who buy the university’s construction bonds. These investors, however, will buy bonds only if they are very secure: as a result the University of Michigan, like many other universities, has offered up students’ future tuition as collateral for this debt and engaged in aggressive campaigns against unionized and precarious workers’ wages and benefits. Investors see the university’s commitment to raising tuition and attacking labor as an assurance that profits will flow uninterrupted through the university to them, and they demand these conditions in order to buy the university’s debt. In short, the university administration, in order to sell bonds needed to build buildings for wealthy students, has committed itself to continuously raising tuition and impoverishing its labor force, which has the effect of forcing more and more students deeper and deeper into debt and more workers (from GSIs to lecturers to CNAs in the healthcare system) into increasingly risky, marginal lives.
Large donations are a critical part of this strategy of building to attract the wealthy. There is a need to continuously update facilities for such fickle consumers. One of the hidden costs of large donations for infrastructure is that they actually force the university deeper into debt. For example, the Munger graduate dorm’s projected price is $185 million. Of the $110 million pledged by the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, $100 million goes towards construction, so what began as a donation has now turned into $85 million of debt for the University of Michigan. In the last decade the university has averaged 523 million a year in building projects (meaning the grand total during Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure has been roughly 5 billion dollars spent on construction). The decision to fund the university using high out-of-state tuition has led, in part, to this strategy of chasing large donations and taking out more debt in order to build facilities where wealthy 1%-er students can see, feel, and imagine themselves as “elite.”
Another hidden cost of large donations is that they always come with strings attached, thereby creating a more unequal university. In contrast to what the university’s press releases suggest, a donation is not a big check that the university gets to decide what to do with. In reality, Munger’s donation will come in the form of stocks, not cash. And this “gift” comes with a lot of stipulations: first, that it be used to build a graduate dorm, and second, that the building’s design match Munger’s specific vision (a very dystopian one, which we will address shortly). Furthermore, these large donations foster inequality internally across the university. Think only of Munger’s prior donation to renovate the law school dorms or Stephen Ross’s recent donation to (only) the athletic department and business school. Why do these donors get to tell the university which schools get the money? Shouldn’t funds donated to the university benefit all areas of learning and all types of students? If these successful businessmen care so much about their alma mater, why should they care where the money goes? Which is exactly the issue. These kinds of gifts are attempts not to benefit the university, but to change it: they aim to destroy what little egalitarianism remains within it, by favoring the pet projects and educational ideologies of the rich. If these are gifts, they are most certainly Trojan horses.
Which brings us to our third point. Donations are inherently anti-democratic, a stealthy way to avoid any kind of due process or checks on university spending. If the university had decided outright to build a $185 million dormitory, graduate students (and undergrads too, since their debt pays for $85 million of it) would have had something to say about it. Instead, because it was a donation there was no public discussion of the project, no debate over its need, but only an announcement. Donations are used to circumvent the contestation of building projects and as such they reinforce the university administration’s dedication to a program of construction not instruction. Just last year, in the wake of Michigan’s anti-public union law, the university waged a scorched earth campaign against graduate students, threatening them at the bargaining table and trying to force them into major concessions on salary and health care. Now they want to give us a wonderful $185 million “present” that we didn’t ask for; a “generous” donation where we can sleep seven to a suite piled on top of each other like prisoners in a dystopian complex where we are envisioned as always working, where there is no separation between our time at work and our time away. If donations serve to remake the public university in the vision of libertarian or conservative “philanthropists,” they serve the university administration by allowing them to take out mass debt without public debate.
The Munger dorms, however, were too dystopian in their vision and too unwanted, and the project has been outright rejected by many graduate students. Munger imagines graduate students living in seven bedroom apartments renting for at least $1000 per person per month. To put this in perspective, the average graduate student makes $1942.13 a month after taxes (in 2013-14) for only 8 months of the year and are left to partial fellowships, department handouts of limited teaching, and/or loans during the summer. That means a typical Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) makes $15,537.04 per calendar year. The Munger dorm (at the advertised price point) will cost $12,000 per year (plus any additional fees or utilities). In other words, the university will be asking graduate students who are employees of the university to spend 77% of their income as teachers to live with very little privacy in a highrise dorm with 6 other graduate students.
Had the administration consulted its highly ranked but underfunded humanities graduate students, it might have considered potential gender, sex, and trans-gender concerns with such a project. The university and Munger claim that “throwing” students together will result in the “liberation” and “creation” of knowledge (“breaking down the silos”), but it might actually result in unsafe living conditions for many groups, in particular queer-identified individuals, trans-people, and women. In addition to not being sensitive to the dangers posed to these groups by such a poorly thought out “liberation,” the administration admits that the dorm targets single graduate students. This shows a lack of commitment to non-traditional graduate students, and in fact makes assumptions about what a “typical grad student” is and wants. Not only is this a dystopian project, it is a heteronormative one as well: a 24-hour knowledge factory meets Barbie and Ken’s Separate Dorm-Room Beds Dreamhouse.
The administration undoubtedly has other visions for the dorm that go beyond the monstrosity itself. The building is part of the new high-class, high-rent model of downtown Ann Arbor that is driving many students away from campus and into the surrounding areas. While Main Street and the vicinity may be chic and appealing to administrators and faculty with three-figure salaries, they are unaffordable for everyone else in the larger Ann Arbor community. In other words, projects like this will contribute to the further segregation, along race and class lines, of not just the University of Michigan, but of Ann Arbor as a whole. At the bottom of this post, you will find a flyer distributed by the Student Union of Michigan (SUM) so you can show your support for saying NO to the Munger dorm and putting an end to this cycle of over construction and debt, so we can take back our university and our city. Hang them on your office door, business, or outside of your apartment that you are taking out loans to pay for because you need to be near to campus.
Clearly, the administration has overstepped on this project. They’ve taken an awful donation that a rich plutocrat hung in front of their noses and are trapped into building something that even they don’t want. It is evident, as well, that graduate students are angry at the lack of democracy in this decision-making process and the administration’s hypocrisy in giving gifts after squeezing graduate students dry in the last negotiation. The question is then what to do about it?
There are a few options that have been floated already but which in their present formulation will unfortunately accomplish very little. The first is to ask the administration to redirect the funds. The money, however, came with strings attached and for a specific project, which means no redirection is possible. The second proposal is to redesign the building. But Vice President of Student Affairs E. Royster Harper has repeatedly stated that the university’s hands are tied (perhaps already by a contractual agreement with Munger) and that they are unable to deviate from Munger’s design without jeopardizing the whole project. Furthermore, even if these two options were possible, they wouldn’t be sufficient, because they would fail to contest the entire model the university is being run on: endless construction, endless student debt, and never an ounce of democracy. Our position as students and workers should be to reject this donation outright, to say NO to Trojan horse gifts that foster inequality and strip public institutions of their right to self-determination.
The option we propose has two-parts. First, we should demand that the university reject all donations that come with strings attached. This means we should demand that the university return Munger’s donation. We must reject all donations that contribute to the financialization of the university through construction bonds and debt. As such, big spending decisions should be made through a democratic body composed of students (graduate and undergraduate) and workers (from all areas of the university). Why? Because as we’ve shown above, donations generate debt, remake the university according to the vision of wealthy donors, and create an unequal university, as they go to departments with the wealthiest alumni (like law and business) and thereby marginalize the rest of the university.
However, it seems unlikely that the university will return the Munger donation and even less likely that they will include students and workers in the decision-making process on how funds are allocated. Which means that the only way is to oppose the building project through direct action. If you feel strongly that the university should not be spending $85 million on a dorm that no one wants, if you feel that the university should not be trying to avoid public discussions of how resources are allocated, and if you feel that the university should not let itself become the site of the dystopian educational experiments of the far-right, we ask you to join us November 1st at 5:00 pm in Canterbury House (721 East Huron) for an open meeting to discuss what steps we should take next.