Michigan colleges welcome 'freshfolk' to exciting - and contentious - new semester

Last week marked moving-in day at college campuses all around Michigan. Normally, the start of term is a time of happy confusion: Excited kids going off to college, and anxious and proud parents wondering what the next few months will bring.

But campus suddenly felt much more contentious this season.

Last week an English professor, William Penn, was banned from teaching classes after an anti-Republican rant before a creative writing class was videotaped and brought to the attention of university authorities. Penn contended that Republicans “raped the country,” that America is “full of closet racists” and that you could “dead skin cells” washing off dead and dying GOPers.

That may be creative writing in Penn’s mind, but it wouldn’t seem to have much to do with teaching or his subject. A videotape of his remarks were circulated to Republican officials and posted online by Campus Reform, a conservative group based in Virginia.

Responding, MSU officials said Penn had met with university officials to discuss the matter and that he “acknowledged some of his comments were inappropriate and offensive.” He has academic tenure, which means he won’t get fired, but he won’t be teaching for a while … which, on the face of it, seems appropriate.

And earlier last week, the University of Michigan announced receiving its largest-ever single gift, $200 million from real estate developer, philanthropist and U of M alumnus, Stephen M. Ross.

Half that money will go to the Ross School of Business (named after a previous gift of $100 million) and half to the Michigan Athletic Department. Ordinarily, such a remarkably generous act brings praise and delight, from Maize and Blue loyalists as well as most anybody else who cares about universities in this state.

But some folks, including Detroit News columnist Laura Berman, pointed out that neither Michigan’s business school nor its athletic department were in danger of being strapped for cash.

“No future doctors, engineers, biologists, teachers or social workers will likely be touched by Ross’ beneficence. HonorsCollege students – the best and brightest of the liberal arts undergrads – reside at West Quad, a 1937 dormitory lacking an elevator,” she noted. Berman, herself a Michigan alumna, is quite right, of course.

Yet it seems churlish to put down Mr. Ross for his generosity and unrealistic to blame the University for agreeing to the priorities expressed in his gift.  I remember many years ago when my family was considering making what was back then a major gift to the U of M. The student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, grumbled that our gift should have gone to libraries or scholarships, instead of funding a center for the performing arts. I thought then – and do now – that, dammit, it’s our money and we’re entitled to say where it should go.

Universities are on the hot seat these days, criticized for elitism (it’s elitist to play your best football player as quarterback?) and unresponsiveness to social needs (educating our young people is unresponsive to our society?)

They and their students have had a rough time over the past decade. State support for public universities in Michigan has fallen farther in Michigan than almost anywhere else, possibly one reason why West Quad hasn’t been renovated. Infantile offensive remarks, such as those made by the professor atMichigan State, and grumbling about donor priorities are unlikely motivate policy makers in Lansing to do any favors for the universities involved.

Last Friday morning I took two first-year women students – apparently the gender-neutral term is “freshfolk” – on a tour of the Ann Arbor campus. We walked past the ESPN Game Day set going up on the Mall, through the Law School quadrangle, into the massive reading room at the library. Students we encountered were happy.

They were caught up in their classes, looking forward to the Notre Dame football game. My two young friends walked around with eyes wide and sparkling.

“What a great place to learn and live and grow up,” one exclaimed. I’m looking around for a generous donor to fund campus tours for freshfolk and sitting lawmakers.

They could spend money in worse ways.

The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net

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Tue, 09/10/2013 - 8:42am
There was actually a time when support for the major Michigan Universities was sufficient so that tuition at the U of M was $70/term (Medical School/ $140). Even allowing for inflation, this was a bargain. The Legislature recognized the need for an educated population. Now, we see new and inventive schemes to take public money away from higher education, with more and more reliance on contributions that may or may not be optimally useful.
Tue, 09/10/2013 - 9:45am
My daughter is a "freshfolk" at the UM. She is taking a class on differential equations in which 7 students have to STAND in the back of the class - no one even bothers to put in enough camp stools for them all to sit down!. The scientists and engineers who have suffered through Diff EQ will understand that asking kids to stand (how will they take notes???) in a class of this difficulty and expect them to be able to focus and learn the material is absurd. I would be better off sending her to WCC or EMU for this - at least she would be able to sit down. How can they reconcile it with their conscience to abuse the students this way, take the parents money to set their kids up for failure, and to fail to provide the future technology leaders of the Nation with a chance to succeed? Kids who are taking math at this level have already shown they want to learn and will work hard. Can' t the UM at least do their share and PROVIDE A CHAIR? I guess not - new locker rooms for the spoiled athletic stars are so much more important, and you don't need differential equations to read a balance sheet.
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 5:17pm
Hi Dwight. I'm a current graduate student at Michigan. Just so you know, there is a higher demand for the core math requirements than there is supply. This is true. However, it's likely your daughter didn't have enough seats in her class because more people were showing up than are registered to be there. If a student wants even a small chance to get off the wait list they have to attend all the lectures - even before they're enrolled. Those students who don't show up are removed from the roster and students on the wait list who have been going to class are moved on. So, hopefully your daughter has a decent seat by now. Not that I agree with $100 million for athletes or that it's okay to under-supply core mathematics requirements. Especially when a lot of them are prerequisites.