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Allowing governor to name college boards is a quick fix. But is it wise?

Following the horrible sexual abuse scandal that has overwhelmed Michigan State University it is tempting indeed to fix blame on MSU’s Board of Trustees.

But do we need to radically reform how they’re selected?

In most other states, appointments to university governing boards are made by governors, sometimes with the consent of the legislature. That’s the way it works for most Michigan universities, too.

But the Michigan Constitution, unique among the states, calls for direct statewide election for members of the “big three” university boards ‒ University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State University.

No other state does that. True, the boards of each of Michigan’s 15 public universities are constitutionally independent.

But the boards of the 12 smaller schools, such as Eastern, Central and Western Michigan and Grand Valley State, are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state senate.

So the boards of the big three are especially accountable to the voters.  And when trouble erupts ‒ as it has in East Lansing ‒ calls for accountability are common and reasonable.

The issue, of course, is the nature of the process that results in the selection, and then election, of the three boards. And that’s something I happen to know about, since I served 11 years on the U-M Board of Regents, once winning election by more than a million votes and once losing by a mere 103,000.

Michigan voters take an active role in the governance of our state. We elect thousands of public officials, including governors, members of the legislature, county commissioners, city council members, school board members and many others.

Nominations for many – although not all – of these offices are made by the major political parties, sometimes in primary elections and sometimes through state party conventions.

One of the results of electing so many different offices ‒ through what is often called “the bedsheet ballot” in response to its length ‒ is that very few candidates are subjected to careful scrutiny, especially since the “legacy” news media, especially newspapers, have been so weakened in recent years.

Sure, major party candidates for governor, U.S. Congress and Senate, and a few others receive careful news coverage.

But most candidates fly under the radar. For them, winning or losing is mostly a consequence of whichever party sweeps the general election in a given year ‒ or something as meaningless as their last name. For years, an Irish name in Oakland or Wayne Counties or a Polish name in Macomb was often enough.

In any event, the result is that in the vast majority of cases, candidate qualifications, experience and positions on the issues of the day are essentially unknown to the voters.

When I ran for U-M regent back in the 1990’s, for example, I campaigned all over the state, trying to meet as many of the 9 million citizens as possible. As I recall, I was only rarely asked a question about the university or the policies that the regents ought to adopt.

Most voters seemed happy to meet me and to talk about the football team, even why having a great university helped the state. But as far as my qualifications as a regent or my capability to serve the university effectively, it was largely radio silence.

This electoral reality has two consequences, both bad.

First, with so many candidates on the ballot and so many of them unknown, the fall-off in voting from the top of the ticket (for president or governor) is enormous; often half the voters don’t bother with these races. And even then, many of those who do cast ballots seldom have much of an idea who they’re voting for.

Second, since the outcome of elections is so much a crap-shoot, it’s become harder and harder to recruit good people to run for university boards. Members work hard; when I was a regent, I had to digest literally a foot of paper to prepare for each monthly meeting.

These jobs are not paid, by the way; in fact, most board members who I knew (called trustees at MSU, regents at U-M and governors at Wayne State) never even ask their university to reimburse them for expenses.

True, they do get good football and basketball seats, but no better than those allocated to generous donors to the university.

Which brings me to the issue of how members of governing boards are selected and whether changing that method will increase member accountability. It’s hard for me to see how being appointed by a governor makes a board member more or less accountable.

The political standing of a given governor is unlikely to rise or fall with the standing of essentially unknown appointees. And I’ve heard alarming stories of Michigan governors calling university board members and threatening them with political punishment if they did not go along with what that particular governor wanted.

Possibly, the independence given Michigan’s big universities by the state constitution’s requirement that their boards be elected statewide is the strongest guarantee of their protection from the shifting winds of political fashion or ideology.

Michigan’s Constitution puts sole responsibility on governing boards for all decisions having to do with their university – not the governor, not a state senator, not an influential alumnus.

Members of other university boards from around the country with whom I’ve spoken about this say ‒ universally, in my experience ‒ that a big reason why U-M or MSU or WSU are such good universities is that they are free of political interference, especially from the state legislatures.  

The University of Texas is often cited, for example, for having a rich endowment and passionate alumni. But the fact that it is located in Austin, the state capitol, makes the university unusually vulnerable to political pressure and damages its capacity to educate kids and conduct research.

It’s not surprising that in the wake of the Larry Nassar disaster, it’s popular to call for some other method of picking university governing boards.  Frankly, nobody is going to give this MSU board any awards for due diligence. And, indeed, it might be valuable to find ways to subject board candidates to higher levels of scrutiny.

But there are risks in any sudden and hasty attempts to radically impose change on a system that has survived and served pretty well over the years. Sensible reform is one thing.

Throwing out the baby with the dirty bathwater, quite another.

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