Inflation. Privatization. Gentrification. What causes those who have the least to remain without? What enables students, faculty and administration to uphold the institution known as the University?
In recent years, Eastern Michigan University has entered a public-private partnership with Chartwells for dining services and LAZ Parking for on-campus parking. This means that food and parking on campus are not entirely controlled by the University. Does this mean Chartwell isn’t accountable to the administration or that it owns these services? No, but what it does mean is that Chartwell will likely not be accountable to the students. With the looming possibility that on-campus housing may join food and parking as the third phase of EMU’s path of privatization, I think it’s time to look at the big picture of our situation.
I have met with Chris Yeadon, the director of Dining Services twice this year -- once as a community representative for the Residence Housing Association and the second time as a senator with Student Government. Both times, concerns about employment wages, disability access and the price of meal plans have seemed to be of less concern to him than food satisfaction, efficiency and innovation. While these are important issues to consider, students would benefit more from greater inclusivity and affordability than having cool-looking screens to order food off of and slightly shorter wait times.
The listening sessions that have been conducted by Dining Services also haven’t sought the input of the most vulnerable students. While the exact number is unknown on our campus, approximately one-third of college students are struggling to afford food. As a first-year student coming from a lower-class background, I could easily see myself becoming a statistic. Yet, all students who live on campus are still required to purchase a meal plan that some can’t afford, contrary to the sixth point of the Black Student 10-Point Plan Commission formed in 2015 by former Student Body President Tanasia Morton.
According to polls conducted by the administration, student satisfaction with food quality and production has increased since the partnership with Chartwells began. Parking? Not so much. Prices will continue to increase each year, but only at a rate that is comparable to inflation rates. I’m not an economics major, but if costs for attending a university increase, while funding for the university, and student aid and on-campus wages do not, then the financial burden placed on many students could become unsustainable.
- $242 million is how much money each year public universities are losing in funding.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer has recently proposed a state budget that will include a 3 percent increase in funding to EMU. Yet, Whitmer has also proposed a gas tax which will negatively impact low-income students and citizens who have to commute to school and work.
- $225 million is how much it will cost to modernize housing on EMU’s campus. The administration believes the modernization of facilities is necessary to satisfy students and increase enrollment. Assuming you don’t modernize the two buildings built since 2001, it will cost $216 million. Even modernizing only the most needed residences will cost around $95 million. The administration estimates that it could cost even more due to inflation.
- $110 million is how much money is expected to be in the University’s reserves, according to its lenders. Prior to the partnering/privatization of parking on campus, our reserves were far less than the expected $110 million mark. Now, we’re doing okay but not great. In order to fully modernize housing on campus, it will require the University to either slowly renovate each building while putting itself in debt and risking severe financial insecurity or enter a partnership with a private company to give up some control over housing in exchange for temporary financial security.
Both options sound unsustainable to the economic and social well-being of the entire University. Yet, so is the state of our housing. Student Body President Candice Crutcher found that some students are unsatisfied with the infrastructure of housing, as were 1,800 potential Eagles in the last three years who chose not to attend our University. However, the University Budget Council also notes that students who end up living on campus are generally satisfied with their on-campus housing experience.
While I’m not always inclined to trust the administration about student affairs, I have talked to students and seen for myself the dismal quality of our housing. However, disconnected members of the faculty have suggested that it would be better to not renovate housing than to partner with a company in order to do so. Students and faculty need to be made aware of what is at stake with the future of housing and how another public-private partnership will affect student life.
In the administration’s self-interest for profit and status and the faculties self-interest of ideological purity, both parties are neglecting the dire concerns of around 4,000 students who live on campus. Among those students, around 300 of them work for Housing and Residence Life. With inflation, the cost to live on campus has increased, but the wages for those who work to maintain our facilities have not. So, to what extent are concerns about inflation genuinely about economic sufficiency or used to justify retaining profit for the administration at the expense of stagnant wage for employees? For years, the administration has been neglecting to address the well-needed renovations for housing. In the last 30 years, universities nationwide have begun experimenting with different forms of privatized services. Whether it is food, parking, housing or even policing, the trend does not seem to be dying off.
From 1973 to 2015, the average inflation-adjusted public college tuition rate has risen 281 percent while the median household income has grown by only 13 percent. While I commend President Smith for freezing pay increases for some of the administration, too much of the burden that is rising college costs and underfunding has been placed onto students. As a result, many students have resorted to working a nearly full-time job and living in off-campus apartments in order to afford tuition costs.
This has led to a trend known nationwide as “studentification,” with students from both EMU and the University of Michigan moving into housing throughout Ypsilanti, which then raises costs for long-term residents of the area.
Many non-white residents of Ypsilanti have been forced to move south of Michigan Avenue, where over 80 percent of the low-income housing exists because of financial insecurity. Yet according to Leigh Graden, the chief of staff to President Smith, this systematic displacement of Ypsilanti residents is just “leftist bullshit.”
So, what’s the solution? A mass boycott of on-campus living will negatively impact the environment and community of Ypsilanti, a purposeful ignorance of the dismal quality of housing will drive away current and prospective students and yet another partnership with a private entity will signify that EMU is a “university for sale.”
From my perspective, a partnership may be the most viable option if we are to modernize student housing. However, if the administration and the financial puppet-masters of our university will go on to benefit from this option, then I believe the student body should as well. If housing costs do not remain less than nearby housing rates, if future renovations prioritize the appearance of buildings over the functionality of them, if Housing and Residence Life does not retain control over staffing, programming, billing and room assignments, if Physical Plant employees do not retain current employment status and if the student body is not granted enough institutional power as needed to hold an unnamed dormitory-building corporation accountable, then you can catch me on the picket line.
The next two Board of Regents meetings are April 23 and June 13. I recommend we push for the demands listed above, but we should not stop there. We must engage and educate the near 4,000 residents who stay on our campus to create a general consensus on what a student-first approach should look like. Student Government members, including myself, who oppose a public-private partnership were heavily suggested by the administration to pass a resolution that did not criticize privatization. While I do believe in the demands listed in the resolution I co-wrote and I believe that our Senate does have good intentions, I disagreed with the absence of studentification and privatization in its text. The absence speaks volumes.
Do you, as a member of the student body, think the University should retain full control of housing and fund minor renovations of infrastructure and maintenance? Or should the administration sell off the maintenance and development of housing to a private company so it can modernize and monetize housing? Either way, the students must be put first, not just in text on a Student Government resolution, but in the decision-making process.