Sometimes, You Gotta Play Hardball

Well, election day is drawing near, and my bid for a City Council seat on my small town of Ann Arbor, Michigan is drawing to a close. I am knocking on doors, and doing all of the things a good candidate should do, including my homework. It turns out, ironically, that one of the major issues in my City Ward (I live in the First Ward of Ann Arbor, Michigan) is the relationship between the city, our Ward and the University of Michigan. At my First Ward “Meet the Candidate” event last night, all the Ann Arbor City Council “stars” came out. There was the Mayor, John Hieftje, who teaches in the School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan as an adjunct when he’s not busy with his duties as Mayor. There were four other City Council members in attendance, Council members whom our local newspaper has dubbed “the majority.” They are a tight bunch, and one spent the entire time in the back of the room whispering like a school girl to, well, another school girl. My two sons who are 8 and 11 demonstrated better manners and decorum than Councilmember X and his politico gal pal. Then again, this guy does the same thing during City Council meetings while his colleagues are talking. If you had him in your English Comp class, you’d be sorely tempted to post something snappy about his behavior to RateYourStudents. Then again, why bother, right? You could just give him a C- and be done with him.

Back to Michigan: Lecturers are unionized at Michigan, you may remember. The dynamic and effective Bonnie Halloran, whom we profiled here, is a part-time lecturer on the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, leads the 1,200 member LEO local, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. This is where life gets totally mixed up and strange. At the candidate event yesterday, I asked the close to 50 people who’d come if anyone taught at the University of Michigan, and the Mayor of Ann Arbor raised his hand. It’s very likely that only two people in the room knew the full meaning of his relationship to the University, he and I. Michigan’s lecturers’ union has established salary and per course minima for lecturers on Michigan’s three campuses. Needless to say, our Mayor is earning far and above that minimum. It happens all the time at unionized institutions. It just usually doesn’t impact me personally in such a roundabout way.

There are many people in Ann Arbor, including elected officials, who are under the impression that the University of Michigan is not obligated to respect Ann Arbor’s ordinances, including zoning ordinances. My opponent said it, in fact. However, nothing could be further from the truth. I pointed out that in Michigan the law hasn’t been tested yet that would grant the University this blanket exemption. Then, I pointed out that in Santa Cruz, the City Council there had gotten a ballot initiative passed that allowed the city to withhold water and sewer services to University of California-Santa Cruz buildings constructed which did not adhere to Santa Cruz’s Master Plan for the city. In Berkeley, California, the City Council has sued the University of California at Berkeley several times to force officials there to respond to citizen concerns about building projects. Handled properly, I believe the City’s relationship with the University could be an excellent and respectful one. It’s not now for an obvious reason or two.

Sometimes, people who have little or no experience working in higher education can get “dazzled” or intimidated by titles and rank. After 16 years of publishing the magazine, and working within higher education, of course, I look upon the titles and rank very differently. I know what it means that our Mayor is an adjunct with an undergraduate degree, and so does everyone whom he deals with at the University of Michigan. I can only imagine the reaction when, recently, he co-sponsored a “Resolution of Cooperation” between the University of Michigan and our City, and had it delivered to Michigan’s president, Dr. Mary Sue Coleman. While those of you who’ve delivered resolutions and petitions to your university leaders are chuckling, have some sympathy and keep in mind that this is a politician up for re-election.

Dr. Coleman is an upstanding citizen within higher education. She recognized her university’s lecturer faculty union immediately, and didn’t fight its formation. However, not surprisingly, the Mayor and the 10 City Council members who voted for the Resolution haven’t heard right back from Dr. Mary Sue Coleman. She’ll have someone get back to them with a nice thank you. Maybe there will be a committee. Perhaps the right Dean to whom Dr. Coleman may pass the text of the Resolution will even refer the matter to the institution’s Committee on Governmental Relations. I think you get the picture.

Dr. Mary Sue Coleman plays serious hardball and why shouldn’t she? She did during the negotiation of LEO’s first contract. She has with the State of Michigan over extending benefits to the partners of same-sex employees. She is the first female president of the University of Michigan, and one of ten highest paid public university presidents in the United States. She is one of just a handful of women who lead at institutions the size of Michigan. Dr. Coleman didn’t get there by cooperating by resolution, or bowing to supplicant petitions such as the one co-sponsored by Mr. Hieftje and our City Council. Mayor John Hieftje is one of her 1,200 adjunct faculty members. He serves at her pleasure, and enjoys a salary five times larger than that negotiated minimum paid to other adjuncts thanks to the Dean of the School of Public Policy who answers to the Provost who answers to Dr. Coleman. Dr. Coleman plays hardball, and anyone who deals with the University of Michigan in any capacity that requires negotiation knows this, except it appears, the Mayor and many of the City Council members of the city in which I live.

When our Mayor was elected for the first time in 2000, the University of Michigan student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, ran a piece about the big win. In it, there are is interesting quote: “He’s [Hieftje] said for a long time now that there needs to be better cooperation between the University and the city, said Bill Hamson [sic], Hieftje’s communications manager. For instance, he has said many times the University needs to build more student housing. I bet as mayor, if he champions that issue, it will be hard for the University not to listen.”

Bill “Hamson,” and his candidate were heady from stumping and their win over a Republican candidate (who, interestingly, now sits on City Council as a Democrat.) It is some eight years later, and it has, in fact, been very easy for officials in the University of Michigan’s Housing Department to ignore John Hieftje. The last residence hall built was finished in 1968, and the one currently under construction wasn’t begun at Hieftje’s insistence by any means.

Meanwhile, Ann Arbor’s homeowners are frenetic about immense private student housing developments throughout Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods. This is a link to a story in the local newspaper concerning one of the proposed projects. Not only did the University of Michigan ignore John Hieftje, it has found a pro-development urbanist who is facilitating the construction of student housing all over the city, just not on the land owned by the University of Michigan. This is nothing new, of course. The only difference is that in other cities, leaders are not as patently intimidated and dazzled in dealing with their universities. Nor have those city leaders attempted to lead residents to believe that the local university is an 800 pound gorilla who can do whatever it likes. Read this piece about a student off-campus housing tussle over in Georgetown. Here’s another story about some Hoosiers in South Bend doing the same thing. It’s an issue not confined to towns within the United States, either. Check this piece out about residents in a Canadian town who are fighting a student housing project built in their town.

In the meantime, I hope I get elected and can actually convince these people that unless you come prepared to play hardball, you’ll get hit out of the park every time when negotiating with the University of Michigan. It doesn’t mean you have to; it means you have to be prepared to do it, and have the political will to follow through and to represent the interests of the citizens.

I’m telling you, the only scary thing about looking out and seeing members of our small town City Council “majority” in the audience of a gathering of 50 voters, is supposing they thought I might be dazzled. Like Dr. Coleman, I have learned to play hardball, because it’s what it takes to get my job done in higher education.

In the meantime, wish me luck! The local Primary is August 5th. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you like, check out my candidate web site.

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