Open Letter to President-Elect Mark Schlissel

This piece, written collectively by a group of student organizations including SUM, was published in today’s Michigan Daily.

Dear President-Elect Schlissel:

These last few academic years, we have seen a groundswell of activism addressing long-term structural issues across the campus community. Over the past few years, students have organized and fought to make the University more accessible to undocumented students. Through the Diag Freeze Out, #BBUM and Speak Out, students have exposed and challenged a poor racial climate and unacceptably low underrepresented minority enrollment. Staff, faculty and students have protested the administration’s push to centralize services at the detriment of research and departmental communities via the Administrative Services Transformation. The campus community rallied against the administration’s mishandling of a sexual misconduct case, something that we were only made aware of through the diligence of student journalists. Students have challenged questionable investments and demanded that the University be held accountable for its financial decisions during the #UMDivest and Divest and Invest movements. All of these movements highlighted longstanding issues at the University. They responded to the increasing privatization of the University, structural exclusion of underrepresented minorities and working class students, unethical investments, daily microaggressions suffered by marginalized communities and increasingly precarious working conditions.

However, despite these student movements calling for change, the institution remains culpable and complacent. The constant refrain of “We are listening” from the Coleman administration has done little to actually address these realities. When you take office, we expect the following of your administration: accessibility, transparency, accountability and action.

The University of Michigan has become a PINO — public in name only — university and must reprioritize accessibility by addressing broader structural issues of race and class. If the University continues to prioritize the elite, then it is implicated in perpetuating larger systems of oppression and exclusion. This does not mean cosmetic fixes or more glossy brochures, but the reevaluation of the goals of this university and who it serves. It means affordable tuition, a nurturing and welcoming learning and working environment, more aggressive and creative recruitment and more fully-funded retention programs. The University cannot provide social innovation while maintaining the status quo.

While the University may legally fulfill certain standards of transparency as a public institution, decision-making on this campus has been intentionally opaque and remains behind closed doors. Money is continually misspent on luxury construction projects while tuition skyrockets, salaries of staff and faculty stagnate (but not those of the administration) and workers face increasingly precarious working conditions. We refuse to believe that there is no funding for first generation, working class and underrepresented minority communities but there is money for higher administrative pay. The University has not been forthright about its declining minority enrollment before Prop 2. We do not need affirmative action to make our campus more socioeconomically and racially diverse. What we really need is an administration that is committed to finding solutions rather than providing excuses.

We are tired of the administration claiming to have standards regarding racial justice, personal safety and sexual violence, and economic equity without clearly stating and enforcing such standards. We as students, faculty and staff have a right to a safe and respectful community and when this right is violated, there must be concrete consequences. In addition to overarching institutional reform, we insist that there must also be accountability from the administration for the incessant micro- and macroaggressions that students, faculty and staff encounter everyday on the basis of their race, class, sexuality and gender. Forming inadequate and redundant committees, creating one-sided review processes that burden and blame victims, and holding selective panel discussions and “public forums” are not valid attempts at accountability.

When you arrive in July, we expect you to have a plan of action to address these problems. We do not expect you to understand the complexity of our lived experiences, but we do expect you to respect our struggles and understand their root causes. You must be proactive, not reactive, with your engagement of this campus. We are holding you accountable for what happens during your tenure.

As student organizations committed to social justice and equal access to university space, we stand united. We are committed to responding to any and all failures to address these structural problems with the gravity they deserve. We will not stop expressing our voice and exercising our right to this space until we are completely satisfied with the administration’s work.

Mary Sue Coleman and Board of Regents turned the University of Michigan into a corporation. We will make it a public university again.

The Coalition for Queer People of Color
The Coalition for Tuition Equality
Graduate Employees’ Organization
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality
Students of Color of Rackham
Student Union of Michigan
United Coalition for Racial Justice

Organizations in solidarity:

Students for Choice
Sikh Student Association
Yoni Ki Baat
Middle East and Arab Network
What the F
Students Organizing Against Prisons
Palestinian Student Association
Student Collaborative Against Islamaphobia and Injustice
Michigan Women of Color Collective

How Different is the Public University of Michigan from the For-Profit University of Phoenix? Ask Tim Slottow

proppe april fools

On April 1, 2014, the University of Michigan announced on The University Record that its Chief Financial Officer Tim Slottow would become the new president of the for-profit University of Phoenix. It sounded so ridiculous that even Michael Proppe, the president of the Central Student Government (CSG) and someone who we don’t usually see eye to eye with, was convinced it was an April fools joke. What could the CFO of a public university like the University of Michigan possibly know about running a for-profit private university like the University of Phoenix? Wouldn’t it be hard for him to adjust to the logic of a for-profit (recently probed by the Senate) after spending 12 years working at an ostensibly public institution? If Slottow’s tenure at the University of Michigan is any indication, the answer is a resounding “No.”

The institution whose finances Tim Slottow was charged with managing is no longer public in any meaningful sense of the word. During Slottow’s tenure as CFO at the University of Michigan from 2002 to 2014, one year of lower division undergraduate in-state tuition more than doubled, increasing from $6,395 to $12,948. If tuition had kept pace with inflation it would be about $8,346. Furthermore, the University has radically reshaped the student body, privileging wealthier students whose families can afford exorbitant out-of-state tuition while pricing out students from lower class backgrounds and Black, Latin@, and Native American students. There’s now more students at U-M whose parents make over $200,000 that there are students whose parents make less than $75,000.* Rich students want fancy facilities, so the university has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to expensive, unnecessary construction projects. The University now brings in over $1 billion in revenue each year from students’ tuition (just under half of which are paid for with loans).

Slottow’s management of the University’s finances, however, must have been even more attractive to the University of Phoenix’s board of trustees. His accomplishments are duly noted in the University’s press release:

Among his many accomplishments are a U-M endowment that now stands at $8.4 billion and the highest possible bond ratings from both Standard & Poor’s (AAA) and Moody’s Investor Services (Aaa). His leadership has shaped many initiatives to enhance the student and employee experience including the physical transformation of campus with new and renovated facilities.

We’ve previously discussed the way that the University leverages its excellent credit rating on the backs of its students. By pledging student tuition as collateral for its construction bonds, the University is able to secure extremely favorable interest rates for itself. The flip side, however, is that students are forced to take on increasing debt loads at higher interest rates to be able to study here. Furthermore, to maintain such a stellar bond rating, Slottow has tied the university increasingly to the whims of Wall Street investors:

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.

As for the endowment, students and workers will see barely any of that $8.4 billion pool Slottow and the rest of the administration are so proud of. With their tuition, students contribute about four times as much as the endowment does each year to the University’s operations. Meanwhile, that money is being funneled to some of the most noxious corporations in the world, including those that make their profits from fossil fuels and the occupation of Palestine. Under Slottow, U-M has doubled down on its connections to Wall Street and for all intents and purposes become a hedge fund.

The University of Michigan is no exception here—“public” universities all over the country are being increasingly structured to mimic for-profits. It is no surprise, then, that the CFO of a “public” university would have just the skills of profit maximization that a for-profit seeks. Tim Slottow is no stranger to increasing profit at the cost of providing a good, affordable education. For this reason, he is a great choice for the next president of the University of Phoenix, and we are confident that he will do a great job increasing the bottom line there.

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* For U-M tuition history, see this document [pdf]. For the changing class and racial composition of the student body, see this ten year comparison [pdf]. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of U-M students whose family income was less than $75,000 declined by 5.8 percent (to 26.5 percent of the total student body), while the percentage of students whose family income was $200,000 or more increased by 9.2 percent (to 27.6 percent of the total student body). These trends are only increasing, as the University administration acknowledges (at least to itself). The following slides come from a Powerpoint presentation on “Climate and Diversity Issues on Campus” in Winter 2014.

confidential slide 1confidential slide 2


Graduate Student Workers of the World, Collectivize Your Stipends!

We post here a short interview with the “Duke Collective,” a group of graduate students at Duke University who in 2012 began to collectivize their grants, stipends, and awards. They currently number 8 students with more scheduled to join over the summer. At the end of the interview, we have uploaded a document authored by the collective which goes into more detail as to their practice and the resistance put up by their departments and the administration at Duke.

SUM: Tell us about the Duke Collective. How did it come about? What does it do?

DC: It essentially began out of necessity, where a couple of our friends had no means to ensure their livelihood during the summer — or at least, thought they couldn’t ensure their livelihood through their current habitual and epistemological limits. So we thought, my roommate and I, that we often engage in wage sharing practices with our friends on a daily basis, whether it be buying them a drink or going out for dinner, so why not extend that logic beyond its traditional limitations and see where it takes us.

And so it initially began as a kind of emergency fund, where we didn’t put our entire wage in but only some of our stipend for collective use, mostly as a substitution for a lack of summer funding opportunities to friends who were on international visas, and therefore weren’t allowed to work, at least not legally. So it started with three people in the summer: myself, my roommate, and a friend of ours who isn’t a graduate student.

Then, as time went on, more friends heard about the project and wanted to join in. So it grew to about 6. We then had a few discussions about why we were limiting it to a kind of charity fund, as opposed to going all in, with the idea that we should try and have our economic relations also reflect our social relations, that is, we are totally reliant on others for our subsistence, so why not reflect those relations economically, and see what comes of it — noting that individuated wage and salary structures are probably the strongest enforcer in giving one a sense of individual autonomy, masking our collective reliance beneath an ideology of autonomy.  That is, first you get paid individually, and then you start to believe you can survive on your own — a kind of Pascalian materialism that Althusser drew on in his ISA essay.

So we started pooling our entire wage into one account to which we all had access. Of course there were some limitations — certain banks wouldn’t allow you to share unless you were family, and others still had a numerical limit on to how many people could belong to an individual account, unless we opened up a business account, which — for tax and income reasons — we couldn’t do. But eventually we found one that didn’t care for filial relations and just wanted our money, and therefore let us bring in whomever and however many into the fold.

We then decided to try and extend this relation beyond our small circle of friends and into, first, our graduate department as a whole, to see who would be on board– this was after a series of confrontations with our department over funding and financial transparency issues, and the culture of professionalism that came with it. So we decided that, since at Duke our funding is fairly sizable ($21,000) a year, if we pooled our wages amongst the entire graduate student body, we can begin to distribute our funds more equitably, and initiate a culture of collective wealth and intellectual collaboration, rather than individual poverty and scholarly competition, all the while not even having to deal with the bureaucratic side of university departments since they would never agree to such a proposition, and the power was essentially in our own hands.

But we heard the usual objections, this is an impossible project, or it cant work, or we like deferring responsibility to some big Other called the department, since the idea of managing ourselves and our desires collectively takes too much time and energy (i.e. revolution of the everyday is too much work), etc etc.

Those of us who were involved had the convenience of being friends — that is — having solidarity established before we started, which makes taking that economic risk of sharing your subsistence with one another a bit easier; whereas to open up this project to people who you are not intimate with provokes all kinds of fears and anxieties, understandably so — especially when they are aware that there are no checks and balances to the project except for our own self-governance; everyone his own bureaucrat as someone recently put it.

In any case, now it functions as an everyday practice. We pay our bills through the account, groceries, etc. There are few if not all together zero rules. It’s actually quite mundane — because we are fairly homogenous class, with rather equal pay (though there are upper year students who no longer receive funding but I can go into that later), it hasn’t created drastic changes on our daily life except in little but important ways — there is no talk of who pays for what when; our homes and cars are shared fluidly; we’ve tried incorporating to get discounted rates on wifi, heating, plumbing, and so on; money as a form social mediation has to some degree been mitigated in our circle, though it is obviously still present once we emerge out of our urban collective.

Download: Bring Down the Duke and Bring Up the Collective