Four candidates who are currently running for a spot on the University of Michigan Board of Regents met Monday morning at the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building for a Q&A moderated by Silvia Pedraza, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee of School Affairs (SACUA).
The candidates are running for two spots in the Nov. 8 general election to serve an eight-year term. The contenders include incumbents Katherine White (D) and Michael Behm (D) as well as Green Party nominee Sherry Wells and Republican candidate Sevag Vartanian. Lena Epstein, the other Republican nominee for Regent, was not in attendance. The board currently consists of two Republicans and eight Democrats.
All of the candidates gave brief statements before the Q&A session. Questions were chosen prior to the event and were asked either directly from the attendees or anonymously from Pedraza.
Behm spoke first and discussed the challenges the University has undergone during the past eight years of his tenure. He said while the University still has not addressed all of its problems, it has taken strides toward making campus a safer, healthier and more inclusive place to learn.
“One of the prime problems that I found out was with communication,” Behm said. “There was an issue you would go forward and address and instead, that did not occur with the administration, as evidenced by the no-confidence vote. So those are some issues issues that were interrelated with labor issues and also safety and the environment of safety and assault on campus.”
Behm acknowledged the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against University officials that have surfaced in recent years, specifically mentioning the allegations against former University Provost Martin Philbert, as well as the thousands of abuse allegations made against late University athletic doctor Robert Anderson. Behm also discussed the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the University and the firing of former University President Mark Schlissel as some of the biggest challenges the board has faced during Behm’s time as a regent.
Behm said all of these challenges have led students, faculty, staff and other Michigan residents to develop a lack of trust in University administration, which he said is something the board must rectify.
“These (issues) are interrelated in many ways,” Behm said. “I feel as though the board has to tackle them.”
White spoke next and reiterated to the audience that she is the only current member of the board who works as a professor, as she is a law professor at Wayne State University and in the classroom on a regular basis. She said her teaching experience has made her a valuable asset on the board in the past when making decisions that affect academics. Like Behm, White also discussed the challenges the board faced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were a lot of challenges with the refrigeration of the Pfizer vaccine … (and) getting personnel in protective equipment,” White said. “All (healthcare providers) are what I would call at war for two years trying to fight the pandemic.”
White also commended healthcare workers at Michigan Medicine for their work over the past year and said the University needs to continue supporting its frontline workers.
The third speaker was Wells, who received her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and previously worked as an attorney. She said her legal experience will help her listen to and empathize with the many diverse voices on campus. Wells also said her skillset and her fresh perspective on academic affairs at the University make her a good candidate for the board.
“The advantage of being new to the University of Michigan in so many ways, is that I use my attorney skills,” Wells said. “Listening, learning, researching, and legislating and administering … is what the board does.”
Vartanian, the final speaker, said he did not see being a regent as a partisan position. Coming from a finance background, Vartanian said he believes he could help the board decide how to best use the University’s $17 billion endowment, among other discretionary funds.
Vartanian said he wants to prioritize listening to the student body to ensure that student voices are represented and that their needs are met.
“I am not here to impose any of my ideologies on you,” Vartanian said. “I just want to do what is best for the students.”
After giving their initial speeches, the speakers were asked questions about health precautions and reproductive rights on campus.
Medical School professor Gary Hammer asked about reproductive healthcare for women on campus following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June and how the candidates see the role of the University as a provider for that care.
Behm and White both agreed that they would support reproductive rights for students,, faculty and staff on campus. White also said she would want to support more research pertaining to women’s health and reproductive care.
“It would be beneficial for the University of Michigan to not only continue but further the study and research of how certain issues affect women in particular,” White said.
Vartanian said his personal and political views on reproductive rights are irrelevant to his campaign but mentioned that the regents will have to follow what the state of Michigan decides for reproductive rights. Currently, abortion is legal in Michigan under a preliminary injunction but the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative is on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot to codify abortion rights into the Michigan state constitution.
“I don’t want to be involved in anybody’s healthcare decisions,” Vartanian said. “As a regent, however, we also have an obligation to obey the law of the state.”
Aileen Das, professor of classical studies, asked the speakers for their opinions on masks and current COVID-19 health and safety protocols on campus. At the start of the Fall 2022 semester, masks were no longer mandatory in classroom settings, drawing mixed feedback from members of the campus community.
All candidates agreed that the University should prioritize lessons learned from the pandemic, such as the importance of how virtual classes and recorded lectures have supported students when they are unable to attend class.
“It’s very important for the University to get back to having in-person classes,” White said. “But it is also important for the University to learn how to do hybrid learning.”
Pedraza said she believes the third question is most important: each candidate’s goals for the board and their plans if elected.
Wells said she thinks it is important to know how to build connections in the University. She believes that it is the regent’s responsibility to listen, ask and learn from all that are connected to the University and focus on education.
“The role of the regents in regards to the faculty, which help keep the University at least as famous as its football team, is to engage and encourage the primary mission of education,” Wells said.
Vartanian said he believes the University should prioritize research programs and keep tuition rates stable. In June, the Board approved a 3.9% tuition increase for out-of-state undergraduate students and a 3.4% increase for 3.4%.
“The school has increased (tuition) 38 years in a row, and much of it has been at twice the level of overall inflation,” Vartanian said. “We will need to make some financial decisions because the tuition spikes cannot keep going up.”
White stressed the importance of programs such as the Go Blue Guarantee and the Yellow Ribbon Program, which support low-income and veteran students, respectively. White said the Faculty Senate and SACUA should continue to be utilized for voicing matters pertaining to diversity and inclusivity.
“Through these organizations, we work together through the faculty governance process in order to have the faculty, the professional staff and the administration voice matters in the University,” White said.
The candidates moved to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. In 2016, the University launched its five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan (DEI 1.0) in an effort to increase minority student enrollment and support socioeconomic diversity, among other goals. In March 2022, the University announced a transition period before entering into its next five-year plan.
Behm said he believed that having a balanced student body that reflects the state of Michigan would benefit diversity. White and Wells added that more should be done to include people of different backgrounds among students. Wells recommended changes to the admissions process, like dropping the requirements of standardized tests, a policy more universities across the country are now adopting.
“Not everyone is wired to take those kinds of tests,” Wells said. “John F. Kennedy Jr. passed the bar exam on his third try.”
Vartanian voiced his support for a program called the “SMASH program,” which focuses on supporting people of Color as they pursue careers in the STEM field.
“I think the public-private partnership in areas like this is the type of thing we need to explore,” Vartanian said. “If we are just providing educational opportunities in the summertime and just providing room and board, I am completely behind that.”
The final question dealt with labor unions on campus, which include the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization. Vartanian said he is primarily focused on students’ well-being and said the University is an institution with limited resources. Because of this, Vartanian said the University needs to find the best ways to use those resources.
“I’m guessing there will be instances where, yes, I will support (unions), and there are instances where I won’t support them,” Vartanian said.
Behm said, officially, the University has a neutral stance on unions, but he and White are fully supportive of them.
White shared her own experiences being in a union and said both she and Behm have worked together to support unions across campus. Wells reaffirmed that she is supportive of unions.
Elections for the new members of the board will be held on Nov. 8, 2022.
Daily News Contributor Ji Hoon Choi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.