The “University House” at the University of Maryland is scheduled to open this fall. Also known as the University of Maryland’s president’s house, the new mansion will have two separate sections: one wing will contain a 4,000-square-foot private residence with four bedrooms that will cost about $2 million. The other wing of the mansion will be comprised of a 10,000-square-foot “events center” fully equipped with a grand foyer, a public living room, a catering kitchen, office space, and a formal dining room for small parties and a large seating hall capable of holding 125 people. That section will cost $5.2 million. The total cost of the new presidential mansion will run $7.2 million (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/university-of-maryland-plans-72-million-presidents-house-amid-budget-cuts/2012/01/06/gIQAoffCkP_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend).
One wouldn’t think we lived under the yoke of the Great Financial Crisis if they talked to university spokespeople. According to them, the school has a dire need for the new mansion. They argue that the new mansion will woo supporters (the one percent) and attract major donations at a time when state funds are drying up faster than industrial jobs in the mid-western rust-belt and they make up less and less of the overall budget. They also say that the cost of the presidential mansion will be picked up by about 30 private donors. Unfortunately for the shrinking state budgets, once the ‘presidential palace’ is finally constructed, the university will continue to be legally obligated to pay for general upkeep and utilities for the mansion but with a hitch: this time the cost will be more than twice the size of the current home. The donors will provide the seed money for their narcistic endeavor while the university and its students, faculty and classified workers will provide the yearly maintenance.
All of this is happening during the ‘great fiscal austerity assault’ on working people and the public commons. It is also happening at a time when students are seeing dramatic spikes in the cost of tuition and fees. In state-resident annual tuition and fees to attend the University of Maryland, including books, meals and minimal transportation costs and room and board, totals $22,433. For out of state tuition the cost climbs to a whopping $39,804 (http://www.admissions.umd.edu/finaid/tuition.cfm).
Out of the 37,195 students enrolled in the university n 2008-2009, the percentage of students receiving financial aid was 74%. Thirty five percent of student aid comes in the form of loans which average $6,956. Only 45% of all applicants are admitted to the university (http://collegeapps.about.com/od/collegeprofiles/p/UMaryland_CP.htm).
Nationally, college graduates earn 77% more than a high school graduate. Given this, working people, students and the poor are systematically driven into debt by an institutional economic structure in order to receive a college education. The irony cannot be escaped: students must go into debt in order to engage in low wage labor.
University mansion erected while students face deep cuts in programs, escalating student loans and higher tuition
Construction on the UMD presidential mansion comes right after President Wallace D. Loh announced, with a straight face, that he was cutting eight varsity sports teams this coming June in an effort to save an estimated $29 million over the next eight years. In a version of the ‘adopt a kid in a depressed country’ commercials Americans have seen for decades on TV, the university is also inviting and begging donors to support students who might drop out because they can’t afford tuition.
The University of Maryland has a hideous 63% graduation rate. This means 37% of students either drop out or go to school part time, with up to 35% of them owing money in non-dischargeable debt.
Add to this the fact that tuition has increased on two separate occasions in the last year. With students facing a headwind of spiraling tuition and fees it is hard to see how building a $7.2 mansion for the purpose of wining and dining the one percent will ameliorate financial barriers that bar access for students to the increasingly corporatized public institution.
Given the fact that 55% of students are not admitted to the University of Maryland, given the escalating cost of tuition, given the fact that close to three quarters of all students must take out loans or receive federal grants in order to attend the institution and given the low graduation rate it is hard to see how spending over $7 million dollars on building a mansion for the president of the college is rational.
Blue collar workers allegedly sexually and racially harassed
In September of 2011 the administration at UMD released a report — which was based on an investigation into claims of staff abuse in the Facilities Management and Residential Facilities departments — detailing nine measures university officials will take to improve the work place environment. However, the Black Faculty and Staff Association, (BFSA) officials and members of Justice at Maryland said the report was not enough and decided to implement programs on their own accord 9 http://dailycensored.com/2011/12/07/university-of-maryland-police-will-join-efforts-to-make-staff-members-feel-safer).
The main thrust of complaints about worker abuse stems from the allegedly toxic work environment facing many employees. Workers who don’t trust their supervisors or the human resources department have few places to turn, so University Police are working to foster a better relationship with workers. Police spokesman Capt. Marc Limansky hopes an “open line of communication with staff members” will do just that.
And to make sure there aren’t any communication problems, the department is moving to address one issue that may contribute to the underreporting of alleged abuses. English is not the first language for many Facilities Management and Residential Facilities employees. The administration also says it has taken steps to alleviate the problem by planning to offer more English as a second language classes for workers (ibid).
Back in December of 2011 I reported for Daily Censored that Members of Justice at Maryland: Fight UMD Worker Abuse had met with University Police officials to hammer out goals to combat alleged workplace abuse occurring during early morning hours in on-campus buildings, reports of which surfaced last year. At that time, university Police held informational sessions in English and Spanish to educate workers about the department’s available resources and to increase police visibility near on-campus buildings during Facilities Management employees’ morning shifts. All of this was to no avail.
Not only is the new report released by the administration a whitewash, university workers and their supporters are not going to accept it. While the president of the college gets a $7.2 million dollar mansion built for him and his successors, Justice at Maryland, a coalition developed to fight for university workers’ rights, has embraced the issue of workers’ rights and is hosting a forum to push for more judicious reforms.
On March 9, 2012 from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM at the University’s Nyumburu Cultural Center a meeting will be held to address the issue of workers rights, verbal degradation at the job, discrimination, sexual abuse and xenophobia as they relate to the situation that confronts blue collar workers at the University of Maryland. For more information those interested can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public colleges and universities transform into mini-investment banks
In face of this then, why the hefty expenditure for capital construction projects while students go hungry and borrow monies to go to the increasingly expensive university?
From an financialized economic perspective the answer to the question is understandable. As the ‘public university’ has become more and more a privatized enclave, little of what takes place on college campuses can be considered either “higher” or “education.” The university system favors research over teaching, vocational training over liberal arts. Within this milieu of functionalism and privatization university presidents think of themselves more as CEO’s of a business enterprise than as conscientious stewards of public education. The money to be made and the business to be done are found in investment in capital construction projects – thereby turning the college or university into a mini-investment bank.
If you ask the university bureaucracy that manages public relations and citizen perceptions for the increasingly bunkered president of the school what you will hear is a corporate business rational for the new mansion. Simply put: the new presidential palace will make money for the university; it is an investment.
Brodie Remington, president of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation and a vice president at the school was quick to defend the project in precisely these terms. He tried to explain that building the new mansion would be a one-time expense that would have “a considerable return on investment”. According to Remington the new facility would attract donations for the entire campus, including athletics. He was not sure that the president of the university would actually live there but he noted that:
“The facility is primarily for events” (ibid).
Remington giddily went on to defend the project stating that visiting the president’s house can elicit emotions similar to those felt when receiving an invitation to the White House, governor’s mansion or a friend’s home.
According to Remington:
“We informally call it the ‘power of the house” (ibid).
Developing capital construction projects like the ‘powerhouse’ at the University of Maryland and transforming colleges and universities into privatized mini-banks has been the norm at both private and public colleges and universities in the last ten years as capital has looked for favorable investments in finance, insurance, real estate and the increasingly privatized educational sector. Just some noteworthy examples are:
The Green Music Center, at the elite California State University Sonoma (Sanford Weill, former head of Citigroup and nefarious Wall Street titan donated $10 million to the still uncompleted Music Center). There has been over one million square feet of construction built for a student body of 8,500 within twenty years and a new $60 million dollar student resource center was started in January of 2012 over the objections of students and faculty http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20111116/ARTICLES/111119601
The Allston Science Laboratory at Harvard, started in 2007 and shuttered directly after the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the building was finally opened in February 0f 2012, (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/11/harvard-innovation-lab-opens/);
The Rose Museum at Brandeis University, (http://harpers.org/archive/2009/11/0082722) almost broke the budgetary back of the college;
The University of the District of Columbia, (President Allen Sessoms was questioned for making nearly $500,000 worth of repairs over several years to a university-owned house in Chevy Chase. In January 2012 the university broke ground on in a new $40 million 87,000-square-foot student center. The center will include a ballroom, fitness center, offices for student activities and retail space. Earlier this year UDC opened a new law school building. The university also announced that after the student center is completed, the college already has plans to construct on-campus housing for up to 600 students (http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2012/01/19/udc-student-center-construction-begins.html);
The North Dakota State University, where a president resigned in 2009 after construction of a new home went more than $1 million over budget, (http://chronicle.com/article/North-Dakota-State-U/48813/);
In 2008, George Washington University transformed its alumni club into an on-campus home for its new president, Steven Knapp;
In October of 2011, St. Mary’s College of Maryland trustees took the first step toward planning to build a president’s home, while some students are forced to re-locate from dormitories and resident halls due to mold infestation (http://www.somdnews.com/article/20111005/NEWS/710059749/1074/1074/st-mary-s-college-pays-off-river-center-project&template=southernMaryland)
The $67 million Health Services Graduate Student Housing complex at the University of California San Diego consists of 225 two-bedroom apartment units. The nine-story apartment development is one of six major projects that were under construction at UC San Diego in 2010. The combined total cost of all capital construction projects was a cool $568 million (http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/01-10Construction.asp).
All of these incidences of massive expenditures on campus capital construction ventures represent only some of the capital expenditure costs that are being invested in donor construction projects. Meanwhile, students face one trillion dollars of non-dischargeable student debt, a grim labor market, and lack of housing, no health care and a deracinated civilian life.
Recruiting and attracting deep-pocket donors is now the new ‘business plan’ of public and private universities and their coordinating class; it certainly is not recruiting working students. These millionaire and sometimes billionaire ‘philanthropists’ can be found lurking around public campuses throughout the nation, narcistically looking in “vain” to affix their names on college building placards, edifices, student resource centers, art galleries, music centers and the like. Leave No Billionaire Behind might as well be the mantra of many of these public institutions, as they clamor to build palaces to host, entertain and recruit the one percent. The college and university presidents are simply smarmy auctioneers.
No transparency and no disclosure: UMD students not notified of the construction of a new mansion
Staci Armezzani, director of communications for the student government, complained that the project to build the presidential mansion was so-well hidden that kept under wraps that even student leaders did not know the new house was in the works. She wanted to know why the money was not used for athletics instead of a 14,000 mansion.
In College Park, the university asked for demolition permission from the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday, while students were still on winter break. This was the first time many people had heard about the project. One board member, Peter Franchot (D) voted against the project querying:
“What is the cost of the project?” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/a-look-at-university-presidents-housing/2012/01/09/gIQAH3SXlP_gallery.htm).
When he was told by Remington that the cost of the mansion would be $7.2 million, Franchot quickly responded:
“Okay, and didn’t I read recently that College Park is planning to eliminate several Division I sports?” (ibid).
Why do university presidents need a $7.2 million dollar mansion?
The answer is clear: they don’t. Presidents of universities are treated much like dignitaries, ambassadors or the Pope. In fact, their job description requires them to entertain. On many campuses, the president’s house has long been a privileged gathering place for select students, loyal faculty and obsequious friends of the school, especially generous friends. One university president even liked to joke that he and his wife “live above the store” (ibid).
In reality, the academic enterprise in America is modeled on that of the medieval Catholic Church and the rigid hierarchical structure of the governorate of the Vatican. At the top of the hierarchy there is the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar. The Pontifical Commission of Cardinals and the various bishops are found below. In the university system the President of the College presides at the top, while various coordinators labor below along with teachers and classified workers.
University of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan earns $716,744, the sixth highest salary of any university chancellor in the nation. The current president of UMD, Mr. Loh, lives in a house he purchased near campus, and it’s unclear if he will relocate. When he was asked to appear to discuss the project, two university spokesmen declined to make him available for an interview. Transparency and full disclosure are not the president’s forte. In the past, when asked to comment on the ongoing controversy at the University of Maryland regarding the sexual harassment and the poor treatment of blue collar employees, Loh was less than frank, choosing to commission the ‘proverbial study’, which he then ignored or worse, used to cover-up what was really happening with the working class at the University of Maryland.
Right now, it seems that the president of the university will get a new multi-million dollar mansion while workers will be tethered to the slave quarters of discrimination, sexual abuse and racism and students will be tied to debt peonage.
The discouraging issue is that while public university and private university costs spiral, locking most working class students out of the university, opportunities to get as higher education are diminishing. Students who cannot get into flagship colleges and universities are forced to turn their attention to the hell-holes they call private online education, all to their determent. America is working assiduously to assure that public access to college and university is thwarted due to policies that favor financialization over policies that favor universal access to education. The consequence can only be an uneducated citizenry incapable of both entering into productive or democratic life.
In good news, twenty students at the Universityof Virginia Charlottesville campus are on a hunger strike protesting the low wages paid to hourly employees in the university system. The hunger strike, now at day 11, is organized by the Living Wage Campaign, a student group that’s pushed for higher pay for low level employees at UVA for the past decade. The Campaign is demanding UVA pay its employees at least $13 an hour, plus benefits. The University currently has a minimum hiring rate of $10.65 an hour, but the Living Wage Campaign says that doesn’t consider contract work that can be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. University officials insist they have no say over how much contractors pay their employees.
The students say they also want the wages indexed to inflation The UVA protesters gathered more than 325 signatures from faculty members supporting their demands. A number of student groups and Greeks have also signed on in support (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/28/uva-hunger-strike-living-wage_n_1307063.html).
Students at Georgetown University got their school to raise the pay of hourly employees with their own hunger strike back in 2005. There is no reason why a coalition of students, faculty and workers at the University of Maryland could not unite and form a working group that presses the fight for worker’s rights and decent pay. The good news is that a coalition has emerged and is continuing to develop.