The Ford School of Public Policy hosted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan on Wednesday evening for a Q&A-style discussion with about 50 student attendees. Moderated by Celeste Watkins-Hayes, interim dean of the Ford School of Public Policy, the event gave students the opportunity to ask the governor about her plans to address policy issues impacting students such as gun violence, mental health and climate change. Whitmer went on to speak later in the day to a larger audience of students and community members in a conversation with CNN anchor Chris Wallace.
Whitmer began the event with an overview of her legislative career and said her roles as a Michigan state representative and senator as well as a policymaker-in-residence at the Ford School in 2015 have informed her perspective on public policy.
“I was in the legislature for 14 years, and I was in the (political) minority the whole time, which means I got my teeth kicked in, day in and day out, and when I left the legislature, I thought, ‘My days in public service are behind me,’ ” Whitmer said. “It was being (at the University) that inspired me to get back into public service. It was students. They were so engaged and energetic and enthusiastic and it was like the shot in the arm I needed to regain my love for public service.”
Student attendees were given the opportunity to pose questions to the governor about the policy issues that mattered the most to them. Public Policy junior Andrew Roman asked Whitmer what policies she would like to see implemented in the state to combat gun violence, and how expansive those policies should be. Roman, who is from Oxford, Mich., and has two brothers who attend Michigan State University, said in the wake of the mass shootings at Oxford High School in November 2021 and MSU in February, he wants to see concrete policy action in that area.
Whitmer said she recognizes that the high rates of firearm violence in the U.S. stand out against global trends. Whitmer added that she is grateful for the community response to the shooting at MSU, noting the action oriented conversations around legislative and community change.
“Every day, the number of lives that are lost to gun violence is staggering,” Whitmer said. “This is a uniquely American problem. I’m pleased to see that the reaction to the latest mass shooting here in Michigan has spurred some serious conversation and stakeholders coming to the table to say ‘What can we do here?’”
Whitmer has been vocal when calling for stricter gun control after the shooting at MSU, which left three students dead and five in critical condition. Whitmer has specifically called for laws requiring secure firearm storage and universal background checks for all firearm purchases, as well as a “red flag law,” which would allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others. The Michigan Legislature, which has been controlled by Democrats in both chambers following the November 2022 midterm elections, recently introduced gun reform 11 bills aimed at gun violence prevention.
Whitmer said she believes the current bills in the state legislature present a promising opportunity to reduce gun violence in Michigan, but more work is needed to address the issue on a national level.
“There’s nothing you can say to a parent who’s lost a child or to a student who is scared to go to school,” Whitmer said. “But what we can do is try to take action and do our part to mitigate the likelihood of this happening. I think we’re on the precipice of seeing some real action in the legislature. Will this solve all the gun violence in America? No. Do we have a lot more work to do? Absolutely.”
After the event, Watkins-Hayes told The Michigan Daily she was particularly moved by the constructive discussion on gun violence between Whitmer and students at the event.
“That is a policy debate that so many people want to see action (on) but are pessimistic about whether it can really happen,” Watkins-Hayes said. “We’ve seen so much violence within educational institutions — at K-12 schools, but also (in) higher education. This is supposed to be a place where people feel safe, where they can focus on being educated and inspired, and to have the threat of violence whenever students gather is one of the most disheartening things that we face.”
At the event, Public Policy graduate student Tania Harris highlighted recent controversy related to teaching critical race theory in Michigan state schools and asked Whitmer how she will work to protect public education and ensure inclusivity in school curricula.
Whitmer said she believes elected officials should work to ensure public education approaches different histories and backgrounds in an equitable way.
“I’m going to make sure that in Michigan, we don’t slide backward and do all young people a disservice by not teaching them accurate history and exposing them to different cultures,” Whitmer said. “That’s what education is about. That’s what it’s supposed to teach us: how to be critical thinkers and understand information and do better.”
Debates on education about race, gender and sexuality have gained traction in recent years, with major political figures as well as some local elected officials and school board members working to eliminate these subjects from public school curricula.
Public Policy senior Irving Peña asked Whitmer how she plans to address the growing mental health crisis, particularly among young people in the state. Whitmer highlighted previous investments she has made to expand the state’s mental health infrastructure, such as grants to support people pursuing careers in social work. In her budget proposal for FY 2024, Whitmer asked for $325 million in funding to build a new psychiatric hospital in metro Detroit. However, she added that building new hospitals is not sufficient on its own to address the ongoing mental health crisis.
“Building out a psychiatric hospital … is not going to be enough to address the mental health needs,” Whitmer said. “That’s why I really would like to see us have mental health parity in health care coverage, it’s why we need to put more resources in encouraging people to go into social work and psychiatry and psychology. So there are a lot of pieces of this, but we’re making strides.”
Watkins-Hayes asked Whitmer about what she called the “tale of two Michigans,” in which residents are both leaving Michigan for other states, while others are moving to the state as it becomes a climate refuge given the vast freshwater supply from the Great Lakes. Whitmer said she is working to reconcile the “two Michigans” by attempting to attract new talent to the state while simultaneously protecting natural resources.
“We’ve got to have a plan to protect and be good stewards of the water that defines us, but also a strategic plan to grow our population and keep our talented young people and draw others here,” Whitmer said. “This is an important moment where we see how climate change is impacting people’s lives. We have a duty to help solve that and help our fellow Americans and humanity.”
In her 2023 State of the State address, Whitmer also outlined her plans to retain and attract young people to the state, including announcing her “Make it in Michigan” plan which aims to increase access to higher education and improve quality of life for families statewide. Whitmer reaffirmed this commitment Wednesday evening when speaking to U-M students, explaining that in addition to funding for education and employment opportunities, the state must work to protect civil and human rights.
“We want young people and talented people of all ages,” Whitmer said. “We want people to know Michigan is a place where you can live a great quality of life, a low cost of living and having all of the rights that every human being should expect. That’s what we’re fighting for in Michigan.”
After the event, Public Policy graduate student Ally Stavros told The Daily she was impressed by Whitmer’s remarks throughout the event and recognized the difficult nature of the questions students asked.
“I think we gave her some challenging questions in the sense that there’s no right answers to a lot of the things we’re asking about,” Stavros said. “I think she answered exactly as I’d expect her to answer. … I don’t think she said anything I didn’t expect.”
Watkins-Hayes told The Daily she was excited to see students in conversation with Whitmer. She said student political engagement is always critical.
“Whenever we can hear from our elected officials and have conversations as students, but also as citizens and as voters, I think it’s a great day and a great opportunity,” Watkins-Hayes said. “So I’m so glad that we had a number of students that took advantage of that.”
Daily News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at email@example.com.