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Jonathan Vaughn wears many hats. He is a former collegiate athlete, a survivor of the late University of Michigan athletic doctor Robert Anderson and a business owner. Vaughn has been camping outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house for more than 50 days in protest of the University’s handling of the hundreds of sexual assault allegations against Anderson.
Vaughn said his reason for running for the Board of Regents is simple: the current regents have failed at their stated mission of “developing leaders and citizens.” In an interview with The Daily, Vaughn said the University’s handling of past and current sexual assault cases and the administration’s marginalization of students of color are all examples of the failing of the Board of Regents.
Since his announcement on day 36 of his planned 100-day protest, Vaughn has continued his protest outside of Schlissel’s house. On day 41, The Daily sat down with Vaughn about what he wants to accomplish as regent and why he is running.
Vaughn said his experience as a football player at the University in the late 1980s and his return to campus in 2020 as a vocal advocate for sexual assault survivors show that he has the commitment necessary to represent the campus community on the Board of Regents.
“I’ll put my love for this University up against any other regents,” Vaughn said. “All the sacrifices I’ve made for this University during my time here, I never question that I am a Michigan Man through and through.”
Vaughn’s goals as regent would be to engage with the people of the University and to prioritize campus safety.
Through his protests on South University Avenue, Vaughn said he has had extraordinary access to U-M students. Vaughn estimated he has talked to 4000 or 5000 people and said the general disappointment in the University regents and administration is a common talking point.
“There’s an overwhelming unfavorable opinion or response from the students and the faculty in the office of the president and administration and the Board of Regents,” Vaughn said. “There is a loss of hope that the current leadership will protect, inspire and empower.”
This is particularly true in the era of the Anderson case, which may be the largest sexual abuse scandal by a single person in the documented history of the United States with thousands of complaints filed. Other U-M staff and faculty have been recently accused of sexual misconduct, including former violin professor Stephen Shipps, former computer science professors Walter Lasecki and Peter Chen, computer science professor Jason Mars, former American Culture professor Bruce Conforth and former Provost Martin Philbert, among others.
Vaughn said the regents haven’t taken responsibility for the actions of the University in dismissing and covering up the Anderson abuse complaints. While Schlissel and the regents have heard from survivors at Board of Regents meetings, Schlissel has not directly spoken to the protesters outside of his home.
Mike Cox, Vaughn’s attorney in the Anderson litigation and former Michigan attorney general, said that Vaughn would succeed as regent.
“He not only loves the University as an institution and for its traditions, and more importantly, he is focused on what is best for its current and future students,” Cox said. “By that I mean he knows the University is organic and to grow it must focus on its students. Further, he is smart, a hard worker and a critical thinker — all good things for a regent.”
The current Board of Regents is primarily focused on money and endowment growth, Vaughn said. As regent, Vaughn said he would not be concerned about money, stating that he “will not be bought.” Instead, Vaughn said he would direct the Board toward greater transparency and more frequent auditing of the services provided to the students.
“Universities can’t be the Titanic in today’s age because the Titanic is not agile,” Vaughn said. “We must become more agile in (our) thinking, more creative in (our) thinking. We must be able to take a top-down and a bottom-up view of everything. And so not only thinking about the long term financial welfare of the University, but the services that you provide here.”
Vaughn said that part of his goal in running for regent is to educate the public on the role of the board and their election process. He said that most students he speaks with do not know that the regents are a public office elected in statewide elections.
History professor Terrence McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library, said the Board of Regents effectively functions as a board of directors at a large corporation with the president acting as CEO. The selection of the University president is one of the main roles of the regents.
Historically, the most frequent occupation for regent is lawyer, McDonald said. This holds true today: six of the eight current regents are lawyers and the other two have degrees in business.
Vaughn says he is undaunted by his different professional background, saying that it will give him an advantage in representing the community. After attending the University, Vaughn spent a decade playing football professionally for the National Football League. For the last 18 years, Vaughn has been co-CEO of a Florida-based hospitality company with his brother, Britt Vaughn.
“I know people,” Vaughn said. “I have critical thinking skills and thrive under pressure and understand what true team play is. And at some point in time, your moral compass has to be greater than your legal compass in the way that you think and the way that you handle things because we’re talking about people’s lives.”
Vaughn has not yet announced what political party he will run with. Typically, the state political parties nominate their candidates for regent at the state convention prior to elections.
McDonald said no one has ever won a seat on the Board of Regents with a political party other than the traditional Republican or Democrat.
“One could imagine an independent campaign,” McDonald said. “It’s certainly possible, but you would have to figure out how you would somehow get your name out. You wouldn’t get anybody’s publicity. And independent candidacy is hard.”
Vaughn would need to obtain 12,000-24,000 votes if he does not run with a traditional party affiliation and would need to file before July 21, 2022 to get a place on the statewide ballot. A case, Graveline v. Benson, is currently pending before the 6th Circuit US Court of Appeals to reduce the number of signatures to 12,000 given that “no independent candidate for statewide office ha(d) ever satisfied Michigan’s current statutory scheme to qualify for the ballot over the preceding 30 years.”
“Whatever party I choose, or independent, I will not be bought,” Vaughn said. “I cannot be bought off of someone else’s agenda. I’m not asking for a handout to be a regent. I see issues that I think I can directly help solve. And the people who support me love this University (and want) to get back to being leaders and best.”
The University’s chapter of College Democrats issued their support for Vaughn’s decision to run for Board of Regents in a statement to The Daily.
“We support Jon Vaughn’s decision to run for a position on the University’s Board of Regents because of his dedication to making this campus a better and safer place for all,” the statement reads. “We also would like to emphasize our support for the work he and other survivors of sexual assault have been doing to keep our campus safe and advocate for the needs of the student body.”
Ryan Fisher, the spokesperson for the University’s chapter of College Republicans and LSA senior, said the Republican businesswoman Lauren Hantz is the only candidate for regent that they currently support.
“Vaughn has been a proponent of the University of Michigan community for a long time,” Fisher said. “With that said, we are going to hold off until he announces more of his platform and policy goals. (We) would love to see an emphasis on financial restraint, quelling the ongoing tuition increases, and protecting free speech for all on campus.”
All current regents declined to comment or did not reply to The Daily’s request for comment, except for Regent Denise Ilitch (D) who wrote in a statement that she applauded Vaughn’s dedication to the University.
“Public Service is an important calling,” Ilitch wrote. “I applaud anyone, including Mr. Vaughn, for considering serving our citizens.”
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.