Forfeiting the Future at Wayne State and Other Public Universities

by Fran Shor

September 6, 2016

In 2007 the Wayne State Board of Governors (BoG), at the behest of a shortsighted Administration, terminated the one department at WSU dedicated to an “open admissions” policy for working adults wishing to pursue a degree. Of the six Democrats on the BoG, four of them (including one white male union official), as well as the two Republicans, voted with the Administration, ending an internationally recognized program that began in 1973.

This disastrous decision not only shut off welcoming access to WSU for working adults, but also added to the downward spiral of student enrollment. Given WSU’s notoriously poor graduation rate for African-American students, to end a department that graduated African-American working adult students (majority women) at a much higher percentage seemed prejudicial and perverse. And at a time when there was a growing demand for a more educated work force, such a move seemed especially blinkered.

I was among the fortunate faculty and staff protected by a union contract that mandated our transfer to other departments. While the more “traditional” undergraduate students I then encountered were working part-time low-paying jobs in order to afford the increasing tuition, they, unlike the “non-traditional” students I taught for the previous 30 years, had no company subsidies. Instead, they began to accumulate massive debts, often paying outrageous interest rates for even government loans.

Those students, like others at public universities in Michigan and around the nation, faced an average debt of $30,000 upon graduation. Indeed, a sizeable number of these students could not even graduate, despite meeting academic requirements, because of financial holds on their record.

Student loan debt, affecting 43 million U. S. citizens, is now 1.3 trillion dollars in total, more than the total for car loans. Saddling students with such debt is not only a potentially decade-or-longer individual burden, but also a social cost that entails a drag on the whole economy. If the federal government could bail out banks in 2008 to the tune of 17 trillion dollars, why not forgive the full amount of student loan debt, as advocated by Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate, and the President of Bard College?

In the absence of action by the federal government, there are intermediate steps that could be undertaken by public universities in Michigan and elswhere. Like many others, Wayne State has seen an enormous increase in administration positions and salaries even as academic departments face cuts. Over the last forty years, administrative staff has grown at a rate of five times the amount of full-time faculty. At Wayne State, this administrative bloat has amounted to a 2015 budget of 75 million dollars. With decreasing state allocation and raising tuition costs, such administrative expenditures are unconscionable.

At WSU there are eleven Associate Deans at the Medical School whose total salary is 3 million dollars. (A few even double their salary by also being on the Board of Directors of the University Physician Group.) Surely, these outrageous salaries and redundancies could be cut back, providing, in the process, funding to forego financial holds on graduating seniors.

If education is truly a public investment for the future, shouldn’t we stop forfeiting that future and end student debt now?

Fran Shor is an Emeritus Professor of History at WSU and is running for one of the two open positions on the WSU Board of Governors as a Green Party candidate.