Date: 12-12-12

To: The University of Michigan Board of Regents

From: The Latina/o Studies Program

Re: Coalition for Tuition Equality

We, the faculty of the Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Michigan, write to urge the Board of Regents to act now to address the concerns raised by the Coalition for Tuition Equality, a student organization at the University of Michigan. We speak, as they do, for the 29,000 young people in the State of Michigan who have no voice at the table, because they are being systematically excluded from the State’s flagship institution.  We stand, collectively, as a group of professors and public intellectuals, who believe that equal access to education is fundamental to the proper functioning of our democracy, and that denying access to deserving students who otherwise qualify for in-state tuition is a form of de facto exclusion that widens the gap between rich and poor, and isolates one group of people from an important public sphere based on circumstances beyond their control.

We are proud to be the first academic program at the University of Michigan to sign on collectively to the petition distributed by the Coalition for Tuition Equality; not just because we believe it is the right thing to do, but also because our support for this effort embodies our deep commitment to diversity and to the production of nationally-recognized scholarship on Latina/o communities in the United States. For over 25 years the Latina/o Studies Program has labored to teach University of Michigan students about the historical legacies and contemporary realities of Latina/o communities in Michigan and beyond. We have worked to counter xenophobic myths about Latinos, and to develop in our students a deep understanding of both the challenges and the opportunities that Latina/os have faced in the United States.

Some of the students who are currently leading the struggle for tuition equality have been in our classrooms, and we see their work on this issue as both the natural progression of their learning experience with us and the latest chapter in a much longer historical struggle to achieve equal access to education, work and the promise of our democracy. The students leading the struggle for Tuition Equality today are walking in the footsteps of those who came before them, people like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who fought on behalf of farmworkers so that they could achieve a living wage and safe working conditions. They also follow in the footsteps of the countless students of color and their allies who, in the 1960s and 1970s, struggled to pry open the doors of higher education for women and underrepresented minorities. While we can readily see some of the fruits of their labors today — over 50% of college students nationwide are women — the promise of past student struggles has only been half-met. At the University of Michigan the total enrollment of Black students is well under 5%, even though African Americans constitute nearly 13% of the national population. Latino student numbers also remain low, under 5%, a number that is even more startling when one takes into account that Latinos, at 16.8% of the national population, are America’s fasting growing minority group. We also note with some dismay that the percentage of undergraduates coming from low-income families has dropped in recent years, as has the number of students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Such demographic trends should be a cause of deep concern for a University that has built a national reputation on its commitment to diversity. Indeed, we are very surprised that the University is placing barriers to qualified resident students who have shown great resilience and drive (qualities that the University claims to value in its entering class), and who, but for lack of a social security number, would likely make important contributions to the betterment of the State of Michigan. Should they be given the opportunity, these students will graduate college and give back to our state. Education is always a sound investment and these students will help build the educated workforce that will ensure Michigan’s economic strength and competitiveness in the future. Given the economic crisis we face as a state, we cannot afford to waste valuable human resources. Indeed, among the 29,000 silenced voices that have been effectively barred from our university might be the next Bill Gates, or Toni Morrison, or Barak Obama.

But there is an argument for creating a more welcoming enrollment policy for the 29,000 that surpasses the economic imperatives outlined above. That argument is, indisputably, a moral one: how can we deny in-state tuition to students who are residents of the state of Michigan? The young people in question are our neighbors and friends, they have attended high school in Michigan, and some have lived here since infancy. They come from families that share our values, and who are as committed as our forebears were to grabbing hold of the “American dream” and improving their lives and fortunes. These are Michiganders through and through, whose families have paid into the state coffers through sales tax, property tax, and, quite frequently, into the Federal treasury through income tax. In fact, research from the Congressional Budget Office indicates that between one-half to two-thirds of undocumented workers pay social security taxes, Medicare taxes, file tax returns, or some combination of the three. How can we tolerate a system wherein, to paraphrase George Orwell, “all resident students are equal, but some resident students are more equal than others”? Can we in good conscience close our doors to families who have paid into the system for decades, contributed to Michigan’s economy in myriad ways, and struggled against serious social and economic barriers to raise children that rise to the top of their classes, children who by every other measure would be considered the “leaders and best”?

President Coleman has stated that an "essential factor in our academic excellence is our diversity. When you bring together students, faculty and staff of different backgrounds and different experiences, you create an intellectual experience that is unmatched in higher education." We couldn’t agree more. We therefore ask that the Board of Regents and the president take a strong stand on tuition equality, and craft a residency policy that reflects both the stated values of our University, and the moral primacy of equal access.

Education, as many have said, is a human right, and for generations, higher education has been a mechanism for upward mobility, especially for immigrant populations. In a time when the gap between rich and poor seems to be ever expanding, we must do all we can as an institution to widen, not narrow a key pathway out of poverty and marginality. Other leading institutions (most recently the University of California-Berkeley), have not only crafted robust admissions policies that protect equal access for non-citizen students, they have even established scholarship programs to offer assistance to students who cannot qualify for Federal financial aid. The climate for such decisions is no less toxic in places like California than it is here; but institutions of higher education throughout the U.S. have taken brave positions on this issue because they realize what is ultimately at stake. If immigrants are barred from real access to higher education they will undoubtedly become a permanent underclass. We, in the Latino Studies Program do not want to see such a future come to pass, and we assume that our University leadership will do everything in its power to prevent it. To do anything else would make an empty promise of our celebrated commitment to diversity. 

Thank You,

Maria Cotera (American Culture/Women’s Studies)

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (American Culture/Romance Languages)

Anthony Mora (American Culture/History)

Yeidy Rivero (American Culture/Screen Arts and Culture)

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskoff (American Culture/History)

Silvia Pedraza (Sociology/American Culture)

Daniel Ramirez (History/American Culture)

Amy Sara Carroll (English/American Culture)

Colin Gunkel (Screen Arts and Culture/American Culture)

Alexandra Stern (Medical School/History, faculty affiliate)

Lorraine Gutierrez (Social Work/Psychology, faculty affiliate)

John Garcia (ICPSR, faculty affiliate)