Approaching the end of his first week in office, University President Mark Schlissel convened his first regularly scheduled monthly meeting of the University’s Board of Regents Thursday afternoon — and it was explosive to say the least.
In addition to normal agenda items, the regents voted against a proposal to include “close-proximity” fireworks displays at Michigan football games this upcoming season. The proposal had originally called for displays at two games — Miami, Ohio on Sept. 13 and the night game against Penn State on Oct. 11.
After Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs (D) motioned to vote separately on the two games — citing that there were different considerations for a day game versus a night game — the board struck down the Miami, Ohio proposal by a vote of 4 to 3 and the Penn State proposal by a vote of 5 to 2. Regent Katherine White (D) was absent from the meeting due to a commitment with the U.S. Army Reserves.
Split votes on agenda items are a rarity for the board. On July 11, The Detroit Free Press filed a lawsuit against the University in state court, claiming that the regents consistently violate the Open Meetings Act by discussing matters behind closed doors before voting at monthly public meetings.
In the lawsuit, the Free Press cited that, out of 116 votes between January 2013 and February 2014, the board only held discussion on 12 and there were only eight occurrences of a no vote by any regent.
Regent Laurence Deitch (D) was a strong opponent to the measure, citing three primary concerns: the show would be an unnecessary risk, it would be disrespectful to local residents and it does not uphold the tradition of Michigan athletics. He voted against both proposals.
Deitch also criticized the University’s Risk Management Services, a unit of the Treasurer’s Office that reviews such proposals and works to guard the University against loss of finances, personnel and facilities. While the proposal from ACE Pyro carried insurance up to $5 million, Deitch said this amount was drastically insufficient for a stadium that holds over 100,000 spectators. In the event that a “catastrophe” occurred, he said he was concerned that panic could ensue in the stadium and place patrons in danger.
“That’s ridiculously low,” Deitch said, when presented with the $5 million figure. “We have 100,000 people in an enclosed stadium, and if that’s what risk management approved, we ought to review risk management.”
Regents Andrea Fischer Newman (R) and Andrew Richner (R) voted to approve both fireworks displays. Richner said such displays are common at large sporting events around the nation and were generally enjoyed by fans at such events.
“We’ve done it before, we did do it responsibly,” Richner said. “It was limited and appropriate.”
Regent Diggs voted against fireworks at the Oct. 11 night game against Penn State, but in favor of the Sept. 13 day game against Miami, Ohio.
Regents Mark Bernstein (D), Julia Darlow (D) and Denise Ilitch (D) opposed both proposals.
Bernstein echoed the claim that the proposal didn’t uphold the tradition of Michigan athletics, which he said prides itself on simplicity and tradition, not spectacle.
“I love Michigan football for what it is: its tradition, its pageantry, its history, our team, our fans and everything that it stands for,” Bernstein said. “And also for what it is not. It remains — or it should be — a place that resists the excesses of our culture, to be intrinsically simple.”
Bernstein said fireworks and similar displays are reminiscent of professional athletics, not the Michigan tradition. He concluded by recalling what his grandfather, a long-time Michigan football supporter, may have felt at the idea of fireworks displays during games.
“He would ask, ‘What about this is necessary?’ ” Bernstein said. “I would answer that it’s not necessary — the fireworks should be on the field, not above it.”