What to do about mess at MSU? Some Michigan leaders say ditch elected board
- After years of upheaval at MSU, there is a renewed call for the governor to appoint board members at the state’s largest universities
- The Michigan Constitution now leaves it to state voters to elect the boards at MSU, U-M and Wayne State
- Critics of the system say political parties do an inadequate job vetting candidates for university boards, but that view isn’t universal
As the Michigan State University Board of Trustees finds itself in yet another internal skirmish, some state leaders say Michigan should put an end to allowing voters to elect board members at the state’s largest universities.
Critics of the system say allowing the governor’s office to appoint university board members would lead to better accountability. It would impose on governors an obligation to select board members who serve universities well, while the current process leaves too much power in political parties, these critics say.
“I would suggest that most (voters) do not do the homework on saying ‘who is the best and most competent individual to lead MSU, Michigan, or Wayne State,’” said Tom Haas, president emeritus at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches leadership studies.
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A governor, Haas said, has the “ability to choose the most competent person to carry out the mission of that particular institution, then in turn for the state.”
Under the state Constitution, Michigan voters elect board members at MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, while the governor appoints board members at the other public universities.
Calls to discard public elections at MSU, U-M and Wayne State have grown in recent days as MSU deals with the latest in a seemingly endless stream of discord.
In the latest controversy, some fellow trustees and a growing roster of leaders is calling on MSU board Chair Rema Vassar to resign, accusing her of bullying fellow trustees and administrators.
The latest contretemps appears to have left the state’s highest-ranking Spartan alum, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, exasperated. Earlier this week, citing the MSU board’s “failure of leadership,” Whitmer hinted that the current model of electing board members had failed.
"I think that the failure of leadership at Michigan State University is undeniable. And it's not limited to the board, but I do think that the board is a part of it," Whitmer told reporters on Monday. "The way that we create the board of regents, or governors or trustees doesn't make a whole lot of sense anymore, because I don't think it works very well."
Whitmer, who holds two degrees from MSU, was asked Thursday by Bridge Michigan if there should be a change in how university boards are elected, and answered, “yes.”
Nearly a decade of controversy
But MSU’s bickering board of trustees holds a singular position in the state for both the volume and depth of its dysfunction in recent years. The board has been criticized for its lack of transparency in disclosing records relating to the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal and in the aftermath of a deadly mass shooting last February, and for a steady stream of backbiting and in-fighting among its members.
Since Lou Anna K. Simon resigned as president in January 2018, a casualty of the Nassar scandal, the university has had four presidents, with the board soon expected to announce a fifth.
Last fall, Samuel Stanley Jr. resigned as MSU president citing lack of confidence in the board. His successor, Interim President Teresa Woodruff, acknowledged in a statement Monday that at times it has been “challenging” to “promote, support and protect the interests” of MSU.
In recent months, the board also faced blowback for its handling of a sexual harassment investigation against now-former head football coach, Mel Tucker. University leaders kept the allegations secret for eight months. And Brenda Tracy, the sexual consent advocate who accused Tucker of harassment, alleges her name was leaked to local media. The university has now hired an outside firm to investigate the alleged breach of confidentiality.
Jack Lipton, chair of MSU’s Faculty Senate, told Bridge he would be supportive of the state moving toward a governor-appointed board for all universities.
“The people are being chosen by a governor for a purpose: for their experience and their knowledge,” he said Tuesday. “Even if they are a political appointment, they are still being chosen for a rationale.”
Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, introduced a joint resolution last month that, if approved, would switch the three boards to becoming governor-appointed rather than elected.
Because the resolution involves a change to the Michigan Constitution, it would need to receive a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the House before being placed on a statewide ballot next November. From there, voters would decide to approve or reject the constitutional amendment.
McBroom told Bridge the most recent scandal at MSU “demonstrates that the system we have in place is not working well.”
He said he does not blame voters but rather both political parties have not done a good job of vetting candidates before they reach a statewide election.
The Detroit News, citing unnamed sources, said legislative leaders and Gov. Whitmer discussed a proposal Tuesday that would allow governors to appoint board members.
McBroom said he has not heard from Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, about holding a committee hearing on his proposal. But he said the legislature has from now until September to work on this issue so it could appear on next year’s ballot.
Rosie Jones, spokesperson for Brinks, said the senator “sees value in the proposal and, as with any legislation, particularly bills referred to her committee, it will be thoughtfully reviewed.”
Not all are on board
U-M Regent Sarah Hubbard, a Republican, said she doesn’t think whether a board member is appointed or elected will “make or break” whether that board can be effective.
“Governance is governance. It’s the people that make the difference,” Hubbard said. “And so maybe there should be some additional examination of how people are put forth, but I don't think that how they're nominated or elected is going to make a huge difference in the results of those universities.”
Hubbard said she feels the political parties have put forward good candidates in recent years.
“Wayne State is operating well, University of Michigan has great results…I don't blame the process by which people are nominated for the situation they are finding themselves in currently at MSU.”
Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he supports the current system where U-M, Wayne State and MSU have boards elected by the broad public.
“The residents need to be more engaged and need to get better information about what’s happening at their government,” he said, “and I don't think the antidote to apathy is to take them away from the process.”
This week’s tempest
On Sunday, MSU trustee Brianna Scott sent a letter to fellow trustees calling on Vassar to resign. She accused Vassar of making decisions without consulting other board members, bullying board members and administrators and interfering in how the board was portrayed in an after action report about the school shooting in February.
Vassar responded Monday evening, calling the accusations “fabrications, misstatements, innuendo, and untruths.”
Whitmer sent a letter to the board Thursday urging the board to comply fully with the investigation into the alleged leak of Tracy’s confidentiality and the investigation into Scott’s allegations about Vassar.
“Civil rights investigations, including those that involve claims of discrimination, harassment, and/or sexual assault, should be treated with the highest level of care and sensitivity by everyone involved, including and especially those in leadership positions,” Whitmer said in the letter.
“There must be an unwavering commitment by all individuals who participate in the process to engage with total candor, full transparency, and complete cooperation.”
MSU’s Faculty Senate is expected to vote Thursday evening on a resolution that calls for Vassar to resign and if Vassar does not, the draft resolution calls for the board to remove Vassar as chair and the governor to begin the process of removing her.
A regularly-scheduled board of trustees meeting is scheduled Friday at 9 a.m.
Any changes to the larger system of electing university board members would take some time.
Eric Lupher, president of Citizens Research Council, a Michigan public policy research group, outlined the process in a 2018 blog post.
“Because provisions for governance of UM, MSU, and WSU are contained in the Michigan Constitution, change would require a vote of the people,” he wrote. “This could occur with a constitutional amendment initiated by the people or by legislative resolution. Or, Lupher wrote, a constitutional convention could make changes.
Lupher told Bridge this week the current fighting at MSU may be one more brick leading to the need for reform but also may not be the tipping point.
He said he does not see a high likelihood of a citizen-led process to change the constitution right now and generally, higher education governance hasn’t risen to the level where corporations or foundations want to invest money in a campaign to change the constitution.
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