Over 40 University of Michigan students met virtually Tuesday night to discuss the possibility of student representation and voting rights on the University’s Board of Regents. Organizers of the newly-formed Coalition to Elect Students to the Board of Regents said they were disappointed to see the board vote to raise tuition and attach a COVID fee in a special meeting Monday without public comment.
Rackham student Spyros Kasapis opened the meeting by explaining the sentiment behind the bipartisan and independent group.
“Students should have a say on decisions made regarding them,” Kasapis said. “There is a clear disconnect between the student demographic and the Board of Regents, which consists of majority white, middle-age, career politicians. Students believe this is ridiculous and absurd and demand change — real change.”
In the short term, the coalition aims to see an ex-officio, non-voting student member on the board and a student on the Regents ballot for the November 2020 election, Kasapis said. Long term, the group would like to amend the Michigan Constitution to add one or more designated student seats on the board. Kasapis said they can either lobby the Republican-controlled state Senate for a constitutional amendment or gather hundreds of thousands of signatures for a ballot initiative to put the issue before voters.
LSA junior Sam Braden pointed out the board could also add an ex-officio student member by vote of five of the eight current Regents. An ex-officio member could propose amendments to items such as the budget that the board would have to vote on.
“Or they could propose an idea or change anything,” Braden said. “I think an ex-officio member would be relatively effective.”
Two of the eight University Regents are elected to eight-year terms every two years in statewide elections. Running as an independent, a student candidate would need 40,000 signatures to get on November’s ballot, Braden said. However, he said the Green Party or Working Class parties could be open to a student running on their ticket, as they don’t usually put up candidates in the Regent elections. Running under these minor but officially recognized parties would alleviate the student candidate from a signature requirement. A student seeking a nomination from a minor party would need to receive the nomination at the party’s nominating convention by August 4.
In 2018, Regents Jordan Acker (D) and Paul Brown (D) each gained more than 1.5 million votes. Kasapis acknowledged that a student winning a Regent seat is unrealistic given the resources and power of the Democratic and Republican parties. However, he said a student on the ballot would still send a message.
“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness,” Kasapis said. “Putting someone on the ballot is a very good chance to reach out to local media, people to see the names, people to see that students are interested. Just to make it clear, we’re not trying to elect someone. We’re trying to make a point.”
As The Daily reported in May, student representation on the board would not be unique to the University. The University of Texas system has a student advisory council and a non-voting student member on their board and the University of California board includes non-voting student committee members and a student member with full voting power.
Rackham student Hayden Jackson was on the Academic and Student Affairs Committee during his undergrad at University of California-Riverside. He said the process was valuable for student input and transparency, and that student representation is both needed and possible at the University of Michigan.
“U-M just kind of sucks at involving students in things,” Jackson said. “That’s just the reality of it.”
As the Tuesday meeting was open to the public and the group’s first, not all participants were in agreement about the most effective methods to enact change at the University. While the coalition’s stated goal is student representation on the Board, LSA junior Trenten Ingell, who is suing the University for a Winter 2020 tuition reimbursement in a class-action lawsuit, advocated for a tuition strike.
“We can directly threaten the financial stability of the University by threatening to disenroll, by threatening to not pay tuition as an undergraduate population — a tuition strike,” Ingell said. “If we can do that, I think that would be a much more decisive and problematic position to take against the University.”
LSA junior Annie Mintun, who started a widespread petition calling on the University to freeze tuition after the board’s deadlocked June 25 vote, said the coalition was not formed to directly respond to the tuition increase.
“Running for the Board of Regents, reforming how the election works, that’s not going to do anything to tuition,” Mintun said. “I think we all realize that, but I think it’s important that a lot of the anger is also about the fact that they didn’t allow for a public comment period.”
LSA sophomore Zaynab Elkolaly joined the meeting to challenge the group to consider the economic disadvantages students at UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn face in their potential campaign. She said the two satellite campuses, which are much more diverse, are disproportionately affected by the policies the board enacts.
“I just want to make sure that that’s supplemented into this dialogue, and we definitely focus on unilaterally advocating for other campuses besides just our own, because they represent more marginalized communities, and as public servants and organizers with morals, we should also be putting our effort in them,” Elkolaly said.
U-M Dearborn student Labiba Qazi, vice president of the UM-Dearborn Student Government, said student representation on the board was an achievable step towards equitable funding between the three U-M campuses, building on the $20 million in institutional aid from UM-Ann Arbor in Monday’s budget.
“We need someone who is on the student’s side,” Qazi said. “We can’t just have people looking after the endowment and looking after what the University — what the business benefits from.”
Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.