Voter say in University governance- Michigan Edition

Michigan is one of 4 states that have public university boards elected directly in general elections. The “big 3” universities of Michigan, the R1 institutions, are elected while the other public universities in the state are appointed by the governor. University of Michigan’s board of regents, Michigan State University’s board of trustees and Wayne State University’s board of governors are comprised of eight members who serve eight year terms and are responsible for the governance of the university. Other public universities in the state are governed by boards appointed by the Governor of the state of Michigan with approval by the state senate [1]. The idea is that the big 3 are accountable to the people of Michigan and the other public universities are accountable to the governor which in principle is a great idea however it has not worked great in recent years as all of the big 3 institutions have been plagued by scandal.

Does this system work?- Probably not. Notable scandals at the Big 3 in the last few years:

Wayne State: The board of governors has failed to vote in favor of the adoption of a code of conduct twice- which would in part ensure the board did not meddle in the management of the university. At this point the Higher Learning Commission is threatening to pull the accreditation of the university if the board does not adopt the code of conduct. The Higher Learning Commission had given the university until March 24th to adopt a code of conduct, the next board meeting is March 20th. Why is the university in this situation? The board has been fighting over the President of the University Roy Wilson and his plans for the future of the university and specifically the medical school’s affiliation with hospitals in the region. The board is seemingly split between Pro-Wilson and Anti-Wilson sentiment since 2018 and the stalemate has caused at least one board member to resign in 2019. [2,3]

University of Michigan: In 2018, a report was released by the Detroit Free Press revealing that the university has been funneling investments into alumni owned companies, who are likely to return the favor through future donations. [4]The board also voted to hike tuition but direct less money to university operations, freeing up tuition dollars to be given to alumni. In 2019, the university board of regents was under fire for failing to support the Flint and Dearborn campuses in comparison to the amount of money directed to the flagship Ann Arbor campus. [5] In 2020, the University placed the Provost on leave following sexual misconduct allegations while the university investigates him. [6]

Michigan State University: The Nassar scandal continues to plague the university. To this day the board of trustees is continuously criticized for the many decisions they have made regarding the Nassar scandal. Listing all of those decisions is beyond the scope of this blog but I recommend you check out the news headlines of this search from Michigan Radio.

It is also important to note that other public universities in the state of Michigan have had scandals in the past few years, Eastern Michigan University just settled a title IX lawsuit from 2018 related to its elimination of 2 women’s sports teams due to financial difficulties. [7]

Does it work in the other states? Colorado, Nebraska, and Nevada seem to be doing fine with their elected university officials as far as I can tell. The general trend though is that most people don’t understand what a Regent/Trustee/Governor of the university is expected to do so the boards are oftentimes less effective than governor appointed ones. It doesn’t have to be this way though, boards that are not beholden to the governing political party or the governor could break with the political consensus of the state and shepherd in positive changes that would benefit the university, such as in Colorado where the board of University of Colorado approved benefits for same-sex partners. [8]

In recent years people have called for amending the constitution of Michigan to change how university governance boards are appointed. [9, 10, 11] I agree that the system in Michigan needs to be reformed in part. As a voter I appreciated being able to vote in the leader of the university I attended; however, the joke has always been that you vote in the crazy, third party candidate to your rival school. I think we should keep a fraction of the seats up for general election but allow the governor to place in a few candidates. Such a compromise might be able to prevent not be able to prevent such scandals as we have seen in recent years but it may help to stabilize the boards and remove the partisan influence that one columnist at Michigan Radio says is running rampant. [12] We must do something because right now Michigan higher education seems to be the butt of the joke.


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