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About 60 people convened Monday at Palmer Commons for a Senate Assembly forum to discuss University of Michigan Board of Regents candidate platforms for the upcoming Nov. 6 election. Incumbents and first-time candidates covered topics such as financial aid, academic freedom, the recent reprimanding of Prof. John Cheney-Lippold for his refusal of a recommendation letter and more throughout the event.
The forum was designed to allow students and faculty hear each candidate’s position on various issues and participate in an open Q&A discussion.
The meeting began with each of the five candidates outlining their platforms. Incumbent Regents Andrea Fischer Newman (R) and Andrew Richner (R) spoke with challengers Jordan Acker (D), Paul Brown (D) and Kevin Graves (Green Party) to outline each of their respective platforms. There are two open seats on the board.
The candidates responded to questions regarding the nature of academic freedom at the University. Newman said academic freedom is a cornerstone of the University and should be treated accordingly.
“It’s easy to say that the entire current board and new board members are all strong supporters of academic freedom. I think it’s the linchpin of any great institution and it’s certainly made this institution great,” Newman said. “I think that academic freedom is the basis of our institution and without it, getting any sort of structure of scriptures on something would be inappropriate unless it was something harmful being taught.”
Another question referenced the problem of high and increasing tuition at the University. Acker said the problem is worsening and must be acted upon. Last June, the regents voted to increase in-state tuition by 2.9 percent and out-of-state tuition by 3.9 percent.
“We can never be losing middle class kids in the state of Michigan to out-of-state schools,” Acker said. “That is the bread and butter of this institution. I think the facts speak for themselves. We haven't gotten any closer.”
When asked about how the board will handle fostering a diverse student body, Brown said the Board of Regents must act to increase student diversity instead of assuming it will increase on its own. The diversity rates for the 2018 freshman class have increased marginally since 2017.
“We have to achieve (greater diversity) and the numbers continue to go down,” Brown said. “Whether that means hiring people who are from a community to live in the community, to recruit and prepare students to apply to the University, whether it means putting resources in place for when those students arrive to give them a safe place where they can succeed. We have to put our money where our mouth is. There’s no easy solution to a hard problem, but there are solutions.”
When discussing the relationship between the three University campuses — Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint — Richner said the campuses have to do a better job working collectively.
“One thing we have to be careful about is sharing state appropriations because the state considers the three campuses as independent units,” Richner said. “We’re running the risk if we start sharing resources that that's going to impact our state appropriations negatively for this campus in particular, but there are opportunities to work collectively. We need to do more cooperatively.”
The discussion soon shifted into the recent reprimanding of Cheney-Lippold for denying a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad in Israel. The University froze Cheney-Lippold’s sabbatical eligibility and credits for two years as well as removed his eligibility for a salary increase for the 2018-2019 school year in response to his actions. Board members spoke of their opinion on the actions of the University and were met with further questions and concerns from the audience.
When asked why the professor should be forced to write a letter for a student to attend the Tel Aviv University, Graves responded with a question, asking why there could not be another person or body to write the letter instead.
“I would ask why can’t there be another recommendation by another professor so you wouldn’t have to go against your values,” Graves said. “Why can’t the Board of Regents write your letter of recommendation so you don’t have to feel pressure to do what you (don’t) want to do?”
According to Richner, political views in no way can interfere with a student’s educational opportunity.
“Our first priority has to be the academic and personal success of our students,” Richner said. “The personal views and political agenda of a particular faculty member cannot take precedence over our students, our job is to educate our students.”
When met with concerns from the audience, Newman said the situation is synonymous with a faculty member not deciding to write the letter of recommendation for a different political reason. This was met with further outbursts from the audience members.
No audience members were willing to respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.