Graduate to Governor?: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed

Her Campus got a chance to speak with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, 33, a graduate of the University of  Michigan who has gone on to earn a Rhodes scholarship and study at Oxford, teaches at Columbia and worked as Detroit Public Health Commissioner. Oh yeah, and he’s running for governor of Michigan in 2018 as a progressive Deomocrat. 

Her Campus: First off, why should the younger generations care about politics when it feels like politicians aren’t listening to us or our needs? 

Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah well look I’ll tell you, statistically we’ve got a lot more at stake as young people, in/and? the world that politicians are making decisions about and the future that their shaping, that’s a future that we have to live more of. I think it’s really important for us to take more of a hold of that. For me, I know what it’s like to be a young person who is told that I don’t know what I’m talking about and I should just sit down. We all know that that’s not the case. Every revolution in history has been led by young people who are passionate and focused on an outcome. The way that the March for Our Lives and the gun reform debate has been shaped by young people shows exactly what young people can do. We’ve got a responsibility to stand up and fight for our future.

HC: The University of Michigan has hiked up its rates up and other public universities are doing the same, making college less accessible for those who would benefit most from the opportunities of higher education. How will you work with colleges to open their doors to all students regardless of means?

AS: I sat down with the president of Michigan’s public colleges and universities a few weeks back and we had a conversation about college tuition. I told them, if you look at increasing costs of college tuition a large portion of that is increased administrative costs and passing those costs off to students is not right. At the same time, the state has stopped investing in our public universities which is part of the problem. A couple years ago the state would have paid about 75% of an in-state student’s tuition but today it’s about 25%. We’ve got to make sure the state is investing in our young people. We want to make college free of charge for household earning less than 150,000$ a year. Our public universities have to continue to be the ladder for social mobility in this state, but as long as it’s too expensive for too many it’s not going to happen. We’re going to have to work together to stem the rise of college tuition.  

HC: The Nassar cases just wrapped up, but for many on campus, sexual assault is still a real threat and the Education Secretary is rolling back protections for victims. What would you do to improve victims rights’ on campuses?

AS: Betsey DeVos is a failure in many ways. We’ve got to roll back a lot of what she’s done and if she won’t protect young women on campuses, then as a state we have to do that. And, for me, that means that every person who is affected has a platform to speak out without fear of consequence or intimidation. We need to make sure we are standing up with them, providing the full services that they need, and lastly, that we are holding perpetrators accountable to the highest letter of the law. And on the other side of it, we’ve got to have a conversation about toxic masculinity. In our society right now, some men seem to feel they have agency over other people’s bodies and it’s a culture that I think we need to root out. We’ve got to equip teachers and coaches with the ability to have these conversations and root out the culture that has led to so much violence.   

HC: For many students looking to the future, the job market doesn’t seem too bright. Even if they get a graduate degree, many come out with few prospects and high student debt. How will you work to improve the job market in Michigan and keep students from leaving the state? 

AS: One of the big metrics I’m going to judge myself on is how many young people choose to stay and/or come to Michigan compared to those that choose to leave. The problem in Michigan right now is that we’ve basically sold off our economy to corporations who haven’t really created new jobs in years. They’re more focused on automating or offshoring those jobs. And we pay these companies huge amounts in corporate welfare and that’s revenue that we could be using to invest in education or roads and water infrastructure. The way we keep young people here is that we build the kind of industries that young people want to work in. This includes startups and nonprofit spaces, jobs that a small business-oriented economy fosters and when we start investing in our people, we start building those kinds of opportunities.    

HC: It seems like this political climate is especially difficult to navigate whether it be in class or on Twitter. Why do you believe you can bridge the divide between the diverse opinions present in a state that voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but went for Donald Trump in the national election? 

AS: So, I’ll tell you, when you look at the 2016 election its really easy to point to Trump and then attribute his victory to the crazy things he said and, for the most part, it’s not. Most people who voted for him are people who are looking for dire economic conditions, people like my uncle. He’s the guy who would take us snowmobiling in the winter and he learned how to prepare venison halal for my family. And for the past 10 years he’s watched as Democrats say the economy is back, but people in his community in the middle of Michigan aren’t feeling that. So he voted for Donald Trump because at least Trump was saying that the economy was not back for people like him. So people are looking for solutions to real problems. And so when I go out across this state, over 100 cities, and I have those conversations with people and we talk about how to improve their lives individually, I know that we’re earning their votes. I went up to Holland, Michigan expecting 50 people, walked into 200 people and walked out to a standing ovation. Michiganders are good people who are looking for leaders who can solve problems. 

HC: Both Michigan State and University of Michigan have faced conflicts with neo-Nazi Richard Spencer and whether he has the right to speak on campus. How should campuses deal with ideas like this on campus? 

AS: Now, there are some really hateful people out there like Richard Spencer, who is a terrible human being and everything that our America fights against. Our values are what bring us together and while those demagogues are gaming the system to give themselves a platform, I think we have to get a bigger platform. I remember when I was on campus there was this group called Young Americans for Freedom that spread hateful lies and we coordinated this walkout. So we went to one of their meetings, filling up the auditorium, all wearing yellow and about halfway through we all stood up and walked out. Our job is to inspire those people to be better. The truth will come out in our society as long as we keep it free and fair.       

HC: Lastly, on a lighter note, you say you met your wife on campus. Do you have any recommendations in and around Ann Arbor for good places to meet up and hang out with friends?

AS: I met Sarah on the Diag at FestiFall and I fell in love with her the minute I saw her. She has a hilarious sense of humor and doesn’t take herself too seriously. 12 years later, I am so blessed to have her partnership and she’s the kind of woman who inspires me and makes me a better person. One of the first places Sarah and I ever went to for dinner was Totoro which has delicious sushi. For burgers, I’m a big fan of Fritos Bandito’s; it’s just a really incredible burger. For coffee, I really like Roo’s Roast which is my go-to, but in the spring and summer, lab does a New Orleans cold brew which is also delicious. And my ultimate go to spot - I even mentioned it in my commencement speech - is BTB because you never know when you’re going to want a good burrito. If I’m governor I need to make sure I go back to them.     

(Full disclosure: the interviewer has volunteered on behalf of the Abdul for Michigan Campaign in the past)