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MSU students discuss 'financialization' of higher education at forum

April 19, 2019
James Madison senior Walter Hanley, left, and Roosevelt Institute sophomore Perry Truscon, right speaks at the Lift the Rock: Spartans for Accountable Investment Agenda at Erickson Kiva on April 18, 2019.
James Madison senior Walter Hanley, left, and Roosevelt Institute sophomore Perry Truscon, right speaks at the Lift the Rock: Spartans for Accountable Investment Agenda at Erickson Kiva on April 18, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

A student-organized forum aimed to "Lift the Rock" on Michigan State's investments at Erickson Kiva Thursday afternoon, holding a discussion centered on transparency and accountability with MSU's finances.

Held by the MSU Center for Community and Economic Development, the Roosevelt Institute at MSU and others, the "Lift the Rock: Spartans for Accountable Investment" symposium brought together community members interested in sharing their voices as stakeholders in MSU's financial decision-making.

Two students from the Roosevelt Institute — political theory and constitutional democracy senior Walter Hanley and international relations and economics sophomore Perry Truscon — began the symposium with a presentation on the "financialization of higher education."

Hanley described "financialization" as the growth of the financial sector and its influence on the economy and society. The Roosevelt Institute at MSU used the term in a 2018 study criticizing MSU's investment strategy, copies of which were available at Thursday's forum.*

"Financialization" has been a driver of inequality in higher education, Hanley said, leading to a concentration of wealth and resources at very few universities.

Despite MSU being a non-profit, public institution, the university's financial behavior over time has begun to resemble that of a for-profit business rather than an organization focused on equity and access, Hanley said. He said MSU’s spending on buildings and construction has ballooned, and with it so has MSU's debt and interest.

As state appropriations have fallen, MSU expects students to pay more in tuition to make up for a reduction in revenue, Truscon said.

“In 2001, Michigan State University relied on student tuition for 19 percent of its operating costs,” Truscon said. “Back in 2014, it expects 32 percent.”

MSU's use of hedge-fund investments is also a concern for transparency because there is no real way of telling what the invested funds are supporting, Hanley said. Attendees were encouraged to take a "values survey" to articulate the community's priorities for MSU's investments.

Most of MSU's financial decisions are made by the administration and the Board of Trustees, Truscon said. The relative power of the Board of Trustees means other stakeholders, such as those paying into the university, often have the least input on what’s done with that money, Truscon said.

“The administration is the main people that we want to talk to, because they’re the ones who declare our priorities, and if we don’t have a voice in there, then that’s kind of an issue,” Truscon said.

“We have students who are the ones paying for these things, and the ones who are supposed to be having the benefits of them. The fact that we don’t have as much power because there is such a large concentration in the Board of Trustees, we don’t have much power in asking, ‘Hey, we want this, we need this.’ It’s that type of issue.”

Other presenters included former MSU librarian and faculty member Terry Link; Sam Butler, executive director of equity-focused nonprofit "Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit"; and Sitou Akibode, founder of Global Expertise International, which aims to "integrate the best experts in the world to address global sustainable development," according to the event's agenda.

*Editor's note: One of the authors of the Roosevelt Institute's "The Financialization of Higher Education at Michigan State University," Brigid Kennedy, is a former employee of The State News. Kennedy left The State News before authoring the report.

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