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The Demeaning of Academic Freedom in Michigan

When the Michigan legislature returns from recess next week, and votes funds for higher education (far more meager than they used to be, but never mind), it will vote on Section 273a, passed by the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which, according to the Lansing State Journal, reads:

It is the intent of the legislature that a public university that receives funds in section 236 shall not collaborate in any manner with a nonprofit worker center whose documented activities include coercion through protest, demonstration, or organization against a Michigan business.

If this seems a rather precisely targeted prohibition, it is.  The Lansing State Journal explains:

During the 2010-11 academic year, a social work graduate student from the University of Michigan who was part of a program to “train committed specialists in community-based work” did a field placement with a Detroit nonprofit called the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan.

The organization conducts research on working conditions in the restaurant industry and trains restaurant workers. It also advocates for workers whose rights it believes have been violated and, at around that time, it was engaged in a campaign against Andiamo restaurant in Dearborn that involved pickets, a union-backed boycott and a federal lawsuit, ultimately settled out of court.

But U-M’s involvement with the group — it’s one of 19 organizations students in the school’s Community-Based Initiative can work with, though university officials say only that one student has — rubbed the Michigan Restaurant Association the wrong way.

Imagine: A graduate student in social work chooses to conduct research to benefit low-paid workers! He or she may conclude that it’s advisable to advise these workers of their rights, and to speak up for them! Evidently this student is possessed by the wild idea that graduate work in community organization means graduate work in community organization. Why do I doubt that if the student were working for Ford Motor it would not be considered unseemly to advise the company on how to sell more Ford cars?

The higher education subcommittee proposes to exact other pounds of flesh as well in exchange for its funding. According to the Journal, it would deny ”new funding to schools that require students to have health insurance” or “to those that fail to report the number of human embryos used for research.”

Minsu Longiaru, the director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, called the language targeting her organization “a sad commentary”:

“It begs this larger question of how can we expect our public universities to function when they’re going to be at the whim of any special interest group that happens to capture power in the state Legislature,” she said.

If you agree, send an e-mail of endorsement to intercollegiatecommunity@gmail.com, including your title and organizational position for identification purposes only. Direct questions to Ian Robinson (e.ian.robinson@gmail.com) or Michelle Kaminski (michellekaminsk@gmail.com).

As an alumnus of the University of Michigan (M.A., political science, 1966), I take particular umbrage.

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