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At the June Board of Regents meeting, it was announced that Regent Paul Brown (D) would succeed Regent Jordan Acker (D) as Chair of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents for the 2022-2023 academic year. The Michigan Daily sat down with Brown, who officially assumed his new role on July 1, to discuss his goals for his tenure as chair, the presidential transition and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: As we head into the fall semester, what are your personal goals for your term as Chair of the Board of Regents?
Paul Brown: Going into fall semester, my number one goal is a safe and smooth entry for all the students, especially those who have had to experience some of the inconveniences of the COVID period. We may only have another year with them on campus, and we really want to make sure that experience is the full Michigan experience that we have to offer. I recognize those were really, really hard times for everyone and I hope that they don’t have to experience it again.
Some of the goals I have just as a regent are, number one, to provide a world-class education to all of our students at an affordable rate. Now, affordability is different for every student. As you’ll notice, with our last budget that we approved, we had a tuition increase. But that tuition increase is really designed to make Michigan more affordable to everyone, whether it be to those who are fortunate to have a home with a high family income or those that are not. State government has obviously decreased its contribution percentage to higher education. It’s been left to the universities to redistribute that wealth. So it’s really important to me that we are disciplined in our cost structure and also progressive in our fee structure. I think we’re doing a very good job at achieving at least the latter.
Again, COVID-19, and the shutdown that occurred because of it, gave us a vision of different ways to provide education, different ways to provide student experience and different ways to provide mental health services to students. I hope and want to make sure that we use those lessons to increase efficiency as well as improve the services that we provide to the students.
TMD: As Robert Sellers retires from his position as chief diversity officer, how do you expect the role will change during Tabbye M. Chavous’ time in that position? How do you think Chavous will uphold Sellers’ legacy, especially as we shift to DEI 2.0?
PB: A lot of it is to be determined. Robert did an amazing job of really building the program from the ground up. And that was a huge Herculean effort that he had to do to achieve that. I really think we have a good foundation and structures throughout the institution. I would say that because so much work has been done to build the structures, there wasn’t enough progress in creating diversity, whether it be the actual objective numbers that equal diversity in some metrics, or the actual climate on campus, and that’s understandable because it was just building it from the ground up.
Now, what I’ve encouraged for the next phase 2.0 is to really be able to take advantage of those structures and tweak them where needed and really focus on achieving the ultimate goal of DEI programs, of objective diversity in terms of numerical metrics, as well as the climate (and) the atmosphere on campus.
TMD: Over the summer, the board approved a $15 minimum wage. What were some of the reasons that decision was made? What role did student activism play in that decision? Did the board sacrifice other investments to make this possible?
PB: That was an issue that I ran my campaign on four years ago. Student activism played some role, but it was definitely a priority of the entire board for many years. We were able to get it for full-time employees two budgets ago, and then we were finally able to extend it to all employees, student and part-time, this past year.
Every budget, cost, and expense (supporting the minimum wage) means we can’t spend that money, means we can’t reduce tuition, or hold down tuition somewhere else. It absolutely affected what we could do in other places, but we felt it was important to hopefully lead society, to be an example to society.
TMD: The summer also saw the election of Dr. Santa Ono as the 15th President of the University of Michigan, starting in October. What are your thoughts on Ono? What are your hopes and expectations for his presidency and his relationship with the board?
PB: I have a huge amount of respect for Dr. Ono, and personally, I find him to be a great friend already. My expectation is nothing but success; I think all communities in our ecosystem are absolutely going to love him. That is the reaction we had through our process of interviewing many great candidates, especially several internal candidates, all of which would have made great presidents here or anywhere else.
I always say that, too often, institutions hire their next leader as a reaction to the previous leader, and that is inappropriate. You need to hire the next leader in anticipation of the challenges that you’ll face in the future, not those of the past. That said, Santa Ono really is the right person at the right time, both as a reaction to previous administrations, who had pluses and minuses, as well as an anticipation of the future.
TMD: Following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the future of abortion access in Michigan is currently unclear. Do the regents plan on doing anything to ensure access to abortion education for students at Michigan Medicine? Are there any concerns about the status of abortion accessibility in Michigan affecting enrollment?
PB: Obviously the Supreme Court decision was horribly disappointing. As an attorney who practiced in federal court as a law clerk right out of law school, I thought the decision was wrong. But it’s now the law of the land and I must respect that. We worry about it every day, not so much about enrollment or attracting talent because the University of Michigan is so strong as a brand and a place to come learn and teach and work. But, we worry about it for our patients and our employees in their own personal health care needs. So we’ve worked very closely with the great administration of the hospital to make sure we work within the law to provide robust education and health care in that area.
TMD: Following the release of the WilmerHale report on former Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson on Aug. 3, it was widely reported that athletic director Warde Manuel had known of the investigation’s findings since May and that the regents disagreed with Manuel on how to handle firing Pearson. How has this impacted Manuel’s relationship with the board going forward?
PB: I think the question misrepresents the scenario. Yes, the WilmerHale report came out long before the athletic director decided to not extend or give the hockey coach his contract. But in the interim, between the release of that report and that final decision, the athletic director was continuing to do more research around the issues that were pointed out in the report. The report didn’t find a hockey coach culpable. But it also highlighted a couple of areas of concern around the program that the investigators were not charged with investigating further. So it basically asked us a bunch more questions that we needed to go find the answers to, and that’s what the department director did in constant consultation with the Board, and we all came to the same conclusion at relatively the same time. I think, if anything, it strengthens the relationship of the board with the athletic director.
TMD: What is your take on how Michigan has handled Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) — an NCAA policy that permits athletes to profit off their personal brand outside an academic institution — so far and where do you hope to see that evolve for athletes at Michigan?
PB: The rules around Name-Image-Likeness are clear as mud. I think the NCAA is doing a disservice to its member institutions as well as the students by not clarifying those rules. The University of Michigan always wants to be the cleanest and the shiniest example of the best practices in college athletics. And so, we are, I think correctly hoping for clarity. But, the one thing I do understand about the rules is that the universities are supposed to not be involved in that process. And so, I know Warde in particular has never discouraged any group in supporting our students. That said, some of our peers are maybe going over that line in terms of university involvement in the process. And so we have to figure out very quickly if we’re allowed to or not. I was actually putting together outlines of plans that I think will help build the best NIL program in the country.
TMD: On Friday, Michigan Medicine nurses voted to authorize a strike alleging unfair labor practices. What are your thoughts on a potential work stoppage and how is the board working to actively address the nurses’ concerns?
PB: I think a work stoppage would be completely devastating to the institution, but more importantly, to the patients that rely on the world-class care that they get from our nurses, and I’m hoping and praying that it does not happen. Some of the regents are speaking to the nurses to understand what their issues and demands are, and also to the administration to understand what constraints they’re working under in terms of things they can offer the nurses. I think the issue lies in these ratios that have been spoken about by the nurses … But there are issues claimed by the administration around the ability to manage the ratios proposed by the nurses.
A strike would not help the nurses’ case, and not negotiating and finding a solution would not help the University as a business. So hopefully we can come together and figure it out.
TMD: In celebration of the first game day being last Saturday, and the first evening game being this weekend, what is your favorite game-day drink?
PB: It’s not all that exciting, but I’m an apple cider guy. So that’s what I love. I finally get to get it now that it’s fall and football season.
Daily Staff Reporter Riley Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.