Privatization At EMU

Colton Ray

Privatization hasn’t been spoken about much this year at EMU, 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 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. Not 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 Governor Rick Synder​. Or 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. Our Physical Plant staff has also been downsized (laid-off), despite frequent maintenance work order requests coming from students.

While the administration has put a greater cost burden onto students in recent years, 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 en masse, with the ​leading causes being financial insecurity and personal reasons​. The amount of students who use ​Swoops Food Pantry has increased by 193 percent since 2015, and lack of affordable housing, food, and transportation is leading to lower academic performance for EMU students​. 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​. They are now likely going to privatize housing, and students and staff alike are not prepared for another private company hellbent on making a profit to take significant control over housing and maintenance.

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, 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.

“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 Governor Rick Synder​.”

While critics of public institutions will point to bureaucracy as an argument in favor of privatization, bureaucracy can be found in private and public institutions alike. Institutional change to EMU Parking and Dining has become increasingly difficult, with Chartwells refusing to implement a low-income meal plan that students have advocated for since 2015, and LAZ Parking refusing to add an additional 5 minutes (from 10 minutes to 15 minutes) where students can park at a meter for free to grab something from their dorm or get something to eat. When the University owned parking, students could park for 30 minutes without being ticketed, and the ticketing process was both easier to navigate and less harshly enforced. Students are being put into Kafkaesque 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 initiatives will be promoting faculty research, development, and creative endeavours, student organizations and sports, and addressing housing and food insecurity issues by expanding Swoops Food Pantry, the Student Emergency Fund, providing funding to Ozone House, and hiring extra staff to help students find these resources and others present in the Ypsilanti community⁠—like Corner Health Center. These funds will be distributed by the Provost office over the next 5 years, 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 that included a housing insecurity fund, meal swipe donation program, and free parking for Swoops Food Pantry shoppers, 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 dollars, 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.” I believe 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, as there has been a lot of dissent from students and faculty in the last few years against privatization and budget cuts. ​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.

I am only left to assume at this point that the University will be privatizing housing. 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, Planned Parenthood NextGen, 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 our Student Government, but were determined to be “unreasonable” by the administration. Between the GameAbove gifts and likely 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 and/or Faculty Union 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.

Students Demand Solutions

  1. Greater staffing and departmental funding for CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) 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 our Physical Plant maintenance team 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