Force university boards to deliberate in public

Martin Howrylak is a Republican state representative from Troy. Martin Howrylak is a Republican state representative from Troy.

In April, I introduced a bipartisan measure (HJR-O) that would require the governing boards of Michigan’s public universities to open their meetings to the public. This resolution would modify Michigan’s Constitution by replacing the words “formal sessions” with “meetings.” The result of this action would restore the original intent of our constitution, so governing boards of public universities would be obligated to deliberate in a public forum.

After three public hearings in the House Oversight and Ethics Committee, HJR-O was favorably reported on June 18. It will now come to the full House for consideration. The constitutional amendment requires approval from two-thirds of the members in both the House and the Senate. Upon receiving the necessary votes from the Legislature, the measure would be decided upon by Michigan citizens via ballot proposal.

According to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public.” Currently, the state constitution has been interpreted to exempt our universities from compliance with this state law. This recent re-interpretation of our state’s constitution was deduced from the poorly written and activist Michigan Supreme Court ruling in Federated Publications Inc. v. Board of Trustees of Michigan State University in 1999.

In that case, the Court decreed that the Legislature has no authority to regulate the activities of any of Michigan’s state universities. As a result, it said that the public bodies of the public universities are not subject to the Open Meetings Act. However, the Open Meetings Act applies to all other public bodies in the state and, prior to 1999, universities willingly adhered to the act. The result of this ruling has been that governing boards of some of our universities now permit themselves to meet in closed session without restriction. In closed meetings members are able to have discussions and reach consensus without facing public scrutiny.

Universities found the 1999 Michigan Supreme Court ruling advantageous in allowing them to keep private the entire presidential search process if they so desired. While the Federated Publications case originally dealt very narrowly with the question of university presidential searches, the Michigan Supreme Court went well beyond the question at hand.

Indeed, the court determined that not only could the legislature not regulate the transparency of university presidential searches, it was also constitutionally prohibited from any regulation of open or closed board meetings whatsoever. This meant that universities became immune from the Open Meetings Act. The ruling was subsequently used to shield the boards from public pressure and allow them to hide under a cloak of secrecy.

While our constitution grants our universities autonomy over their operations, to follow the reasoning laid out in this 1999 decision would exempt public universities from compliance with any state law that interferes with any objective of the board. As such, our public universities would be devoid of responsibility to the people.

California and Minnesota are the only other states in the nation whose public universities enjoy autonomy from their respective legislatures. They are not, however, exempt from complying with state and federal laws. Even under the Open Meetings Act, with its many allowances and exceptions, there are ample opportunities for members to communicate privately. Moreover, an exception for public university presidential searches was written into the Open Meetings Act prior to 1999.

Michigan residents have the right under the state constitution to witness and participate in the promulgating of public policy by all publicly elected bodies. For this reason, the state constitution includes the phrase that “formal sessions” of governing boards shall be open to the public. “Formal sessions” referred to non-social meetings in which public policy was discussed and/or acted upon. This requirement was expressly written into our constitution to clarify the board’s service to the people, albeit their autonomy from the legislature. The public has the right to observe the discussions leading up to the decisions and not simply witness a ceremonial vote.

In a recent editorial, The Times Herald conferred that the state constitution grants universities autonomy and “protects universities’ academic freedom from the whims of lawmakers and politicians.” I agree. The proposed resolution would retain university autonomy and academic freedom, while allowing the public to watch decisions made regarding billions of dollars annually, tens of thousands of employees, and hundreds of thousands of students. Their compliance with the intent of the constitution is what the public expects of our school boards, our city councils and our Legislature. While it’s sometimes difficult to face the public when making tough decisions, it’s a moral obligation of elected officials to ensure that their actions are made in a public forum.

Public institutions are established on the premise that the service being rendered is for the benefit of all members of a society. Michigan’s public universities are the cornerstone of a society that is built upon the optimization of its members through public input and public passion. Our public universities are missioned to be the champions of public engagement in society. The minds that are shaping our future are brought to the benefit of the entire state when we involve the people in a robust process.

As an alumnus of the University of Michigan, I celebrate our universities’ prestigious heritage. As a student, I observed open meetings of the Board of Regents. Through my service on the Troy City Council I developed a great deal of respect for the refining power of public engagement. Public policy is best made in the sunshine, for, if a policy decision is made without the support of the public to which it is applied, it will surely have a short and miserable life. To put it more bluntly, public officials cannot make decisions in vacuums. It is essential that the citizenry be consulted and engaged in the process. Therefore, with esteem for our universities, I offer this resolution to their benefit.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Thu, 08/13/2015 - 7:36am
"Formal sessions" are just a rubber stamp farce for decisions that were made in private. MSU has been called on the carpet about this in the past.
David Waymire
Thu, 08/13/2015 - 10:03am
Awaiting open House Republican caucus meetings...where a majority of the House meets behind closed doors, decides everything and then comes out to vote. Let's open those first...simple vote of the members would do. No need for legislation to do that.
Barry Visel
Thu, 08/13/2015 - 4:25pm
I had exactly the same thought, for both R and D caucuses. Let's open their meetings to the public too!
Fri, 08/14/2015 - 4:02pm
Excellent idea. It'll never happen because the "watchmen" don't like to be watched themselves, but an excellent idea nonetheless.
Bob F.
Thu, 08/13/2015 - 10:24am
I say privatize at least one of our "public" universities and use money for roads. The recommended institution, from my perspective, would be the one in Ann Arbor. They have huge (private-like) endowment and have large out-of-state student body anyway. They'd survive just fine thank you very much. Let them be completely "private"