Privatization hasn’t been spoken about much this year, at least in public. The administration, going from Housing and Residence Life staff all the way up to the Board of Regents, don’t even use the term. Instead, they prefer the term “partnership.” That way, they can ensure that students and faculty at EMU know that our University isn’t just receiving student and taxpayer money to sell out to private companies (they are) but that they are simply trying to balance our budget. That’s all.
They ignore the fact that the Board of Regents is an unelected group of individuals with their own personal interests, many of whom were former business executives or public officials appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder. They don't mention that the University has known about needed renovations to housing stock for years (many buildings haven’t been renovated since the 70’s) but failed to take action, culminating in the situation we are facing today.
Since the 1980’s, funding for higher education in the State of Michigan has decreased. Since 2003 alone, Eastern’s funding from the state of Michigan has decreased by $36.5 million. EMU President James Smith cites this lack of funding as a primary cause for the University being tight on money.
Along with that, fewer students from the State of Michigan are graduating high school, and potential EMU students could be choosing Oakland University over EMU due to their newly renovated on-campus housing and $5,000 housing scholarship. On top of that, students are leaving EMU with the leading causes being financial insecurity and personal reasons.
Yet EMU continues to increase tuition, dining and housing costs between 3-4% each year and privatized parking in 2017, which led to a 64% increase in parking tickets. There are talks of privatizing housing and students are not prepared for what will occur.
I’ve had several eye-opening experiences and situations while doing student activism with the Young Democratic Socialists at EMU. I’ve seen how the University has scrambled to preserve its image of a school dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in the wake of several acts of racist intimidation and discrimination.
I’ve also seen how students have struggled to find a place to live, pay for rent and/or food, afford physical and mental healthcare, have money to cover travel expenses for study-abroad, reliable transportation and having their legally-protected accommodations - and even rights - be protected.
The worst part is that there are already departments and organizations on campus that are supposed to be able to provide or assist with these issues. Most are underfunded, understaffed or so inefficient that students have to swim through oceans of bureaucracy in order to reach them.
Bureaucracy can be found in private and public institutions alike. Students are being put into Kafka-esque situations where they’d rather just accept that the University doesn’t care about them, get their degrees and never think of EMU again. This will backfire on the University, as alumni are often large contributors to University donations.
Just recently, a newly-formed alumni group called GameAbove allocated $1.5 million to the University for a Students Matter Most initiative and $2 million to a Faculty First initiative. These funds will be distributed by the Provost office, and the day prior to a Student Government vote on a resolution that would recommend to Provost Longworth and President Smith certain areas of need, the plan was released online.
Thankfully, some of this money is going to students next semester to find temporary housing for homeless students, expand Swoops Food Pantry, hire three new staff members to help housing and food insecure students find and access resources and fund Ozone House’s new building in Ypsilanti.
The rest of the money, $1.2 million, will be allocated in the next few years to learning clubs, intramural sports, student government and student organizations priorities and other “designated needs as presented.”
The University will likely use this gift as rationale for not increasing its own budget to assist students, faculty and departments in financial need in years to come. GameAbove is also contributing $8 million to the University to build a new golf facility, 10 times the amount of money being allocated to students experiencing housing and food insecurity.
The idea of privatizing student housing has been floated around, but the University has remained mostly silent on this topic, and Student Government cannot confirm whether privatization is being pursued, despite the Senate voting unanimously last year in favor of having student representatives on a RFP (request for proposal) committee.
In the last two privatization schemes, the University received over $26 million up front to privatize dining for 10 years and $55 million to privatize parking for 35 years. Since those deals, EMU has built up large enough reserves so that we are no longer on the Higher Learning Commission’s financial watchlist.
Housing privatization will likely put the University in a very stable position financially, which could enable the Board of Regents to approve much needed funding to students and faculty.
The Young Democratic Socialists at EMU, Active Minds and the Food Recovery Network Chapter at EMU have drafted this list of demands to represent students at EMU. Some of these are also supported by Student Government but were determined to be “unreasonable” by the administration.
Students Demand Solutions
1. Greater staffing and departmental funding for CAPS to reduce wait times (currently 2-3 weeks) and continue providing resources to students free of charge .
2. A freeze on housing and meal plan cost increases until insecurity rates are lowered .
3. A student housing security fund or housing scholarship .
4. Allow students to donate meal swipes and flex money to students in need .
5. Free parking for Swoops Food Pantry shoppers while they’re using it .
6. Free/cheaper bus passes for students .
7. Increasing student minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023-2024, and increasing wages by 5% each year following to keep up with the cost of attendance .
8. Increase staffing for Physical Plant to meet students housing and accessibility needs .
9. A low-income meal plan .
10. Affordable apartments priced at the same rate of the median-priced apartment in Ypsilanti.
Between the GameAbove gifts and possible privatization of housing, we believe that it is not a matter of finances that will prevent their implementation, but political will. We also call on the Faculty Senate to create their own list of demands, which we intend to support. If the demands are fulfilled, we believe it could result in greater student enrollment, retention and support for the University after they graduate.