The University Insider is The Daily’s first faculty and staff-oriented newsletter. This weekly newsletter will give U-M faculty and staff the ability to see the most important issues on campus and in Ann Arbor — particularly those related to administrative decisions — from the perspective of an independent news organization. It will also provide a better understanding of student perspectives.
Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer has selected University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein (D) as the leader of her gubernatorial transition team.
In this capacity, Bernstein will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of Whitmer’s governing infrastructure. This will include establishing senior leadership positions and key operators in the administration (including cabinet-level officials), building policy teams, conducting departmental reviews and generally ensuring that Whitmer and her team are ready to quickly begin effective work when she takes office on Jan. 1.
Bernstein was elected to the Board of Regents in 2012 with a campaign focused heavily on the high cost of college attendance at the University. This is a focus shared by Whitmer, whose 2018 campaign included increased increasing funding for state public institutions. Last summer, many speculated Bernstein might run for the governor’s seat himself, though he squashed these rumors by the time Whitmer’s campaign began to pick up steam.
Bernstein told The Michigan Daily he could not comment on his new role, instead referring The Daily to Michelle Grinnell, the communications director for the Whitmer transition team. In an interview, Grinnell pointed to Bernstein’s experience as a regent and education advocate as reasons for the choice.
“In addition to the shared values he has with Governor-elect Whitmer, as director of the Transition Office, (Bernstein) brings a wealth of experience in addressing complex issues in a thoughtful, pragmatic way,” Grinnell said in an email. “This will be critical to accomplishing the significant work … in a very short amount of time.”
Bernstein’s record as an effective pragmatist is corroborated by his colleague on the board, Regent Ron Weiser (R). Weiser has worked with Bernstein since he was elected to the board and knew him for years before then. Weiser, for his part, served on the finance team for Presisdent Donald Trump’s national campaign and inauguration committee.
“He’s very bright,” Weiser, the lone Republican on the Board of Regents, said. “He’s very articulate — very well spoken, and a very good advocate. He has a strong political center and I think that he will help them organize well and focus on things that are important for the future of the state. I think he does that at the (University).”
Public Policy junior Katie Kelly, the communications director of University chapter of College Democrats, expressed a similar confidence in Bernstein and a hope that he and Whitmer will continue their focus on education during the transition.
“(College Democrats) have a lot of respect for Regent Bernstein,” Kelly said. “We hope by having somebody tied so closely to the University that the administration will have more affordable University cost at the forefront of their policy formulation.”
College Democrats worked extensively for the Whitmer campaign and hosted a rally on campus on Oct. 19 with Whitmer and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaking at the event. Kelly, who is among those who worked to elect Whitmer, emphasized the importance of an advocate for education such as Bernstein shaping administration policy.
“Just having someone who has the voices of students in mind having a direct connection to the administration — as students, that’s an invaluable connection to have,” Kelly said. “One of the reasons we supported Gretchen Whitmer is that she supports students and has mentioned many times that affordable prices of colleges is one of her main priorities. So having someone like Regent Bernstein in her administration, we hope that they will keep students in mind while formulating policy.”
According to Grinnell, Bernstein has no plans for a permanent role in the Whitmer administration. His influence will nonetheless be felt as he helps craft the organizational structures that will shape the administration’s early days.
Whitmer and Bernstein also face the challenge of preparing to govern a state with centrist political tendencies. Though most statewide elected offices will be controlled by Democrats starting next year, Republicans hold majorities in both bodies of the state legislature, and the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives is split evenly between the two parties. Weiser, expressing further confidence in Bernstein’s abilities, said that his skills are well-suited to the divided government that Whitmer will face when she enters the office.
“I think he’ll do a fantastic job,” Weiser said. “He knows how to work with people, and he knows how to work across the aisle. And that’s going to be necessary for this new administration.”