GM’s CEO Should Not Be Honored At Commencement

The following statement was written by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) and approved by SUM.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra will give the UM commencement address on May 3 and will also be awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. According to the University Record, “Barra has established an exemplary career in the predominantly male world of the auto industry.” The same article praises her “vision,” “business acumen,” and “leadership.”

The results of GM’s business acumen are nothing to applaud, though. Barra and her company have done enormous harm to people and the environment. Although Barra is now being depicted as some sort of feminist, it is in fact women who have been the most negatively affected by her and her company—after all, it is women who tend to bear the heaviest burdens when family members lose their jobs, when the banks foreclose on struggling households, when the environment is poisoned, and when people are killed in preventable car accidents.

The most visible evidence of GM’s crimes is the ongoing scandal over its belated vehicle recalls. So far, defective ignition switches in the Chevy Cobalt and other models have been linked to at least 13 deaths, and possibly hundreds more. Each replacement ignition switch would have cost only 57 cents. But 57 cents was too much. Instead, GMlied to thevictims’ families and even threatened them. Barra’s precise level of knowledge about the defects is still unclear, but recent evidence confirms that she had been aware of certain problems in the Cobalt and other vehicles several years ago (she served in several senior VP positions for GM prior to becoming CEO in January).

The recall scandal is just the tip of the GM iceberg. A less publicized scandal is GM’s illegal firing of injured workers from its Chevrolet plant in Colombia. GM cut corners on plant safety and, when workers were injured, it fired them and got corrupt Colombian officials to cover it up. Again, the effect on women has been disastrous. While the injured male workers have waged a public campaign for justice, their wives, daughters, and mothers have shouldered the private burdens of sustaining their hungry families. Jhessica Ospina, whose disabled father Manuel was fired by GM, has been forced to work 60 or more hours a week to help keep her family in their home. Jennifer Bohórquez, the wife of injured worker Carlos Trujillo, has borne the primary responsibility of caring for the family’s four small children.

Many more examples could be cited: GM’s abuse of assembly line workers here in the United States, its role in creating Michigan’s foreclosure crisis, its major contribution to global warming, and its dumping of toxic chemicals in the United States, Colombia, and elsewhere. GM is also linked to the U.S. military-industrial complex that has profited off human suffering in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where women have been disproportionately impacted by the sexual violence and multitude of hardships that accompany war; Mary Barra herself sits on the board of General Dynamics, the sixth-biggest Pentagon contractor. All of these issues are women’s rights issues, and in each case GM has been firmly anti-woman.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Student Union of Michigan at the University of Michigan call upon the administration to rescind Mary Barra’s speaking invitation and honorary doctorate, and to replace Barra with someone who has instead made a positive contribution to women’s rights and human welfare.


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

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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

Roundup of Media Coverage from Make Some Noise Protest

make some noise

Here’s a roundup of links from our recent Make Some Noise protest action. The action received significant media coverage and this coverage was actually pretty good! The main difference of opinion, as usual, has to do with numbers—we estimate that about 50-60 people participated.

Michigan Daily: Students march on Fleming to protest handling of sexual misconduct [sic]

Ann Arbor News/Mlive: University of Michigan students protest college’s handling of Brendan Gibbons rape allegations

Detroit Free Press: Feds investigating U-M’s handling of Brendan Gibbons rape allegations

WXYZ Detroit: Students protest handling of sexual assault cases at University of Michigan

ESPN: U.S. Department of Education looking into Michigan Wolverines’ response to 2009 rape allegations

Bloomberg: University of Michigan probed for response to sexual assault

(Photo by Brianne Bowen for the Ann Arbor News)

“What Am I Supposed to Say to Prospective Black Grad Students?”

The following remarks were made by Austin McCoy during the Regents’ meeting on Thursday, February 20. We are publishing them here with his support.

My name is Austin McCoy. I am a 5th year graduate student and one of the organizers of the United Coalition for Racial Justice’s Speak Out. Thanks for allowing me to address you all.

“This will be the only time you see us, so you will know what it feels like to go to school here.” Two black graduate students in the department of history uttered this statement to me during our recruitment visit five years ago. Five years ago, many of you may have dismissed their sentiment. Unfortunately, their message was prescient. While I have enjoyed much professional success here, I have not escaped the isolation and exploitation that many black students face. Like many black students here, I am often one of a few in classes and university-sponsored social gatherings. I have been asked to speak for my race in class. I have experienced upsetting interactions with non-black professors and students around issues of race. I can count on one hand the amount of black students I have taught while GSI-ing history classes—five to be exact. That means I have taught one black student a year.

As a black graduate student, I’ve had to perform uncompensated, and often emotionally-taxing, hidden labor. I’ve had to serve as the “racial middle-man” in my department at times—a critic of some white graduate students and professors, an explainer of the nuances of race to white, and some non-black, graduate students, and a sounding board for students of color. I do so to protect myself (a black man on campus cannot hide from racism on campus) and because I believe in trying to change my environment. Yet, I consciously perform these tasks at the risk of professional and personal isolation.  And, to be clear, I do not always ask to perform this labor—these experiences and roles have found me. The color of my skin attracts these roles.

My experience is a reflection of the overall decline in black enrollment over the last 17 years. My experience reflects the point that as black enrollment declines, so does the racial climate. I welcome the President’s and Martha Pollack’s admission of the university’s shortcomings. But I share the skepticism of the previous speakers from BAMN. History suggests that the university is not a leader of diversity—black enrollment only reached 9 percent once in the last forty years. Sure, we have more black faces in higher places in the University. UM has placed more black faces in higher places in the world, but isolation and marginalization remains.

This is why over a thousand of us packed the library for the Speak Out on Tuesday night. I am disappointed by an administration that uses limits as a crutch. That’s so uninspiring. The Prop 2 argument is also misleading. Black enrollment began declining in the late 1990s, not just after 2006. This administration also likes to take credit for the student’s, faculty’s, and staff’s political labor. Students, faculty, and staff have been on the frontline of the struggle, in which I am a newcomer. This is why it should be up to students, faculty, and staff to devise solutions to the problem of climate.

So, my question to you would be, “What am I supposed to say to prospective black graduate students when they visit in March?” Questions about climate, enrollment, and the lack of a critical mass of African Americans often arise in our discussions. Am I supposed to lie to them to cover for the administration’s failure? I would love to tell them that I attend a university that wants to create a vision of diversity that does not obscure problems for particular groups. I would love to be able to tell them that we transformed the university into a more inclusive and just place from the bottom-up. But, anyone who knows me knows I cannot defend the university’s lie and its anemic response. I don’t care to be a victor. I care to be a truth-teller. I would be compelled to tell them about how life as a black graduate student could be isolating and emotionally and psychologically taxing. I would have to tell them that they would have few opportunities to engage black students in the classroom as a GSI and a graduate student. I would be compelled to warn them of what’s to come—isolation and marginalization.

Speak Out: An Opportunity

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Guest post by the United Coalition for Racial Justice (UCRJ)

The Diag Freeze Out and the Black Student Union’s #BBUM Twitter campaign reignited a movement for racial justice at the University of Michigan.  These actions challenged the administration to deliver a swift and long-reaching series of proposals, ranging from Provost Pollack’s announcement of new diversity initiatives, to the administration’s talks with the BSU, to its $300,000 pledge to renovate the Trotter Multicultural House.  The University has also established a new committee to confront issues of campus climate and enrollment.  But forty years of such committees have failed to fulfill the University’s 1970 promise to increase African American enrollment to 10%.  This failure points to the insufficiency of university bureaucratic solutions which deliver change from the top down, rather than empowering the student body to collectively build an inclusive university.  The success of the racial justice movement at the University of Michigan depends upon our grassroots efforts to educate, strategize, build coalitions, and offer creative solutions.  The University has stated that it is “listening.”  Now is our opportunity to speak out.

This opportunity is why we, the United Coalition for Racial Justice (UCRJ), are inviting everyone to participate in a Speak Out on February 18th, from 8 PM to 8 AM in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.  We are a broad coalition of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff which draws its membership from existing student organizations and streams of activism.  We seek to broaden the current racial climate conversation to include the concerns of other underrepresented minorities as well as those of graduate students, staff, and faculty members.

Moreover, we hope to provide a space in which students, faculty, and staff can come together to build long-lasting coalitions which will ensure the sustainability of the current racial justice movement.  Currently, we see a chasm between leading student organizations and unaffiliated students, undergraduates and graduate students, and between various student organizations.  This gap hampers our ability to apply coordinated and sustained pressure on the administration to change the university climate. These gaps also create cycles of historical amnesia due to turnover in classes of students, eboards, and student organizations.  More cohesive activist coalitions would provide a needed check against closed, top-down administrative decision-making.

Our Speak Out will also provide a space for students of color to come together and discuss their experiences navigating the campus climate. Our event combines the testimonial power of the open-mic “speak out” with the power of the Civil Rights-era “sit in.”  The first portion of the event – the Demonstration – begins with an open-mic, followed by a keynote address by Dr. Barbara Ransby.  Dr. Ransby was a founding member of UM’s United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR), which made history in 1987 with a 200-student, 24-hour sit-in shutting down Fleming Hall. The second portion – Political Education – will feature student and faculty-led sessions on issues ranging from affirmative action and political organizing to the relationship between campus and community and curriculum design. Finally, the Strategy segment of the evening will focus on coalition building and exploring innovative ways to create lasting change in the university’s climate. The evening will also feature performance art, music, and free food and all are welcome to participate.

Our event runs through the night for twelve hours.  We chose such a long event format to draw from UM’s rich history of student activism, notably the 1965 overnight Teach-In to protest the Vietnam War. Organizers held the event throughout the evening to not disrupt classes or conflict with much-needed study spaces.  Like the 1965 event, we will bring 1,000 people together to have a much-needed dialogue about a pressing issue that has national resonance. There have yet to be any town hall or mass meetings on campus to engender anything but clandestine and clouded solutions. Our goal is to imagine what an inclusive space on campus dedicated to issues of race, class, gender and sexuality might look like, and create it. We are Michigan, The Black Student Union, and the #BBUM campaign have bravely advanced the first calls for a new movement for diversity and inclusion on campus, but it cannot stop with the struggle of a few. The Speak Out will be geared towards hearing from students of color who are not parts of executive boards or other leading student organizations. We will develop organizing tools and strategies, so students can create a sustainable movement that will pressure the incoming administration and hold it accountable for previous commitments.  Now is our time to be heard. Now is our time to speak out.


(Image © Michigan Daily, 1965)