Occupy UMICH: Welcome to the University of Michigan, The Engine of Inequality

Welcome to the University of Michigan, The Engine of Inequality
What does a two tiered university, a university that is an engine not of equality but inequality, look like? 

A two tiered university fosters inequality not only outside it, but in its very core. It creates different levels of access and privilege for “different” students. It gives certain “elite” students ample meeting spaces, new classrooms, fresh food, the latest technology. A two tiered university creates spaces inside itself that are accessible to only certain groups of students: elevators that work only with certain kinds of ID cards, libraries that restrict access to books and study space to certain students, private gyms open not to all but only to a chosen few. The two-tiered, neo-Jim Crow university does not attempt to mitigate the radical class, gender, race, and sexual inequality outside its walls—it embraces it and intensifies it, it makes this inequality into its mission, into a means of disciplining students, faculty, and workers in minor and minority programs, programs without rich donors, without corporate investors, or Defense Department money funding their research—it says, if you don’t behave, if you don’t shut up and turn a blind eye to the inequality that we are fostering in the very heart of this institution, we will defund you even further.

The university of inequality is a university of super-exploitation, where underpaid graduate students and precarious adjunct faculty do the majority of instruction. The university of inequality exploits their labor to support the salaries and benefit packages of administrators and high-paid professors in law, business, and medicine. A typical undergrad class at Michigan with 24 students (paying $1,200 each for 3 credit hours) brings in $28,000 in revenue for the university. Graduate students receive roughly $8,000 per class they teach, adjuncts $5,000, resulting in a net profit of $20,000-$23,000 per class for Michigan (as class size increases so do the profits). To hire a new tenure track assistant professor costs roughly $74,845. If that person teaches 4 classes per year (as is common at Michigan), the university will make only $10,000 per class, or half of what it makes exploiting young graduate students and adjunct faculty whom it can fire or dismiss at any time, who it harasses for their attempts at unionization or defending contractually obligated benefits, and to whom it makes no guarantees, only that you will be used for your labor and then spit out into an increasingly hostile job market.

The question is: in the university that seeks super-exploitation where does this all money go? (Look at the number of courses in the catalog and multiple that by $20,000 to get a rough idea of how much money we’re talking about). Not back to lowering the tuition costs of students, not back to the increasingly precarious workers who make the university run. It goes only one place: UP, into the pockets of the university’s 1% (the administrators and faculty making $300,000+ per year) and into the palaces they have built for themselves—the new Business school, the new Law school, the new research complex on North Research Campus.

The University of Michigan spent $70 million on the new Business school building, plus roughly 5% interest annually until 2040 (the Stephen Ross gift to the school was $100 million, but only $75 million of this went to the building’s construction, leaving the university to pick up the rest of the total 145 mil tab). Every dollar the university spent on this palace for its 1%, on this monument to the university of inequality and super-exploitation, was a dollar taken either from a worker’s paycheck or an extra dollar—70 million of them—paid in tuition by a student. (Let’s not even start on the other 2.3 billion in construction projects that university has started since 2007, all during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression—money that will have to paid back through worker cuts or tuition, meaning more loans as tuition inevitably increases next year). The university of inequality is a university whose first thought is for construction, and whose last is for instruction. The university of inequality is a university whose first thought is for accumulation of profit and whose last thought is for those whose money (in the form of current or future wages, as payments on student loan debt) is being swallowed whole, and sent upwards. 

The university generates inequality within itself to export it—we teach students by our actions in this university that exploitation is the norm, that some people have to live precarious lives (like the janitorial staff, adjuncts, CNAs at the hospital) so that others can reap all the remaining, half-rotten fruits, and then we send them out into the world to enforce these ideals, working for major law firms, finance companies, and corporations, peddling neo-colonial forms of exploitation, both at home and abroad, covered in the apologetics we’ve taught them: “sustainability,” “free trade,” and “austerity” (and its inevitability; well, for the poor and the working class that is).

That universities serve big business and provide ideological cover for capitalism (by allowing “donations” from rich crooks, like A. Alfred Taubman who did federal time after being convicted of felony price-fixing and anti-trust charges, but who now has two buildings named after him on campus, or by creating vast programs that teach students that free-market capitalism, if we just give it a little more time, can indeed lift millions, but not everyone all at once, out of poverty)—all this, in some ways is old news. 

However, the university of inequality takes this a step further by not only providing ideological cover for capitalism, but by actively producing capitalists’ profits for them. Here’s how this works. Michigan makes roughly $1 billion from tuition each school year. Almost half of that is in student loan debt. This means that each year the 40,000+ students at the university collectively take out an estimated $412,000,000 in DEBT (that’s enough to build 3 Business schools a year) and then immediately hand that money over to the university*. EVERY YEAR. The university serves then as a kind of gigantic debt generating machine, a kind of drive-thru lifetime indebtedness store, a Walmart where the shelves are lined only with debt instruments (Private or federal? Fixed or floating rate?), where the point of instruction has been replaced by the goal of moving these financial products. As such, the university now generates huge profits for Wall Street banks. In 2008, total U.S. student loan debt (now more than 1 trillion dollars) outstripped total U.S. credit card debt for the first time—since 2000, student loan debt is where banks are making big money, and the university is complicit in this shift from predatory lending in housing and credit card markets to predatory lending to students. The university cries “state defunding,” but it is clear to any student with loans we can never repay that the hand that rocks the cradle is on Wall Street and on South University, not in Lansing. It’s a for-profit scam, a form of predatory lending, a system of capital accumulation for the finance sector, and one the university actively condones, makes possible, and fosters. 

The university once pretended that it was a mechanism for social mobility, for the reduction of inequality. We know that bedtime story is false, a fiction sown together from the fragments of the dreams of prior social movements that university administrators once fought tooth and nail and with actual guns (like at Kent State) to stamp out. Neither the university, nor our society as a whole, was ever interested in access, mobility, equality, but this is a dream that the Occupy movements, as an anti-capitalist force, aspire to once again. The “new” university, our Michigan, beneath the sheen of a slimy rhetoric of sustainability (with $814.8 million of the endowment invested in oil), “cost cutting” (administration code for breaking labor), “need blind admissions” (let in everyone, but only the rich can afford to come) has embraced a vicious and vast program of the super-exploitation of its workers and teachers, has created a two tiered, university-within-the-university for privileged and elite programs and their students, and has openly, brazenly, and without shame served as a site of capital accumulation for Wall Street banks, thereby enslaving its students with years, decades, and lifetimes of crippling debt.

As Occupy UM, we say to you: Before it consumes you, occupy it.

* This is a conservative estimate using 2010 numbers, but we have been conservative because the numbers are still shocking. On the Ann Arbor campus, the university dispersed $262,778,406 in federal student loans in 2010. The university does not track, however, the amount of loans from private lenders. Currently, on a national level, private lenders issue more than 50% of student loans each year. Thus, our estimate of an additional 150 million in private loan debt issued at the university in 2010 is a very conservative one when compared to the dynamics of the market on a national scale. If we were to assume national averages held at Michigan, we would have to estimate the total amount of debt generated each year at in excess of 580 million. These numbers will only increase in 2011-12, as since 2007, total amount of federal student loan debt on the Ann Arbor campus has increased by a staggering 38%.



  1. robert1 says:

    this is an extremely superficial reading of the university. when you write like this, you write for a very small audience: people who will be convinced by simplistic, orthodox marxist critiques. and, of course, that means sophomores majoring in cultural studies.

  2. ab says:

    look @ robert clinging to his ideals. how sweet
    see robert cling to a crumbling paradigm
    crumble paradigm crumble

    now robert, go read some more ayn rand and let the adults talk grownup talk now