When the Board of Regents fired former University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, The Michigan Daily Editorial Board was focused on the regents themselves. The regents — who serve unpaid for eight-year terms and are elected by Michigan residents — approve the yearly budget, appoint the president, oversee the University’s $17 billion endowment and regulate all three U-M campuses through the Regents’ Ordinance. They answer to Michigan voters, not the University community. How can the regents meet the needs of students, faculty and staff when those groups have little to no control over the board’s membership, and when regency itself is only a voluntary, part-time position?
The board has clearly made mistakes with its power, particularly in the last couple of years. In the words of the Editorial Board, “many of the trademark bad decisions made by Schlissel were directed, or at least directly influenced, by the board (of regents).” The regents’ decision to reopen student housing in the fall of 2020 is specifically cited. In the same month, the regents failed to temper the administration’s aggressive response to the GEO strike or act on the Faculty Senate’s historic vote of no-confidence on Schlissel. One University’s fight to provide the Flint and Dearborn campuses with equitable resources also faces resistance from the regents. More recently, the regents didn’t stop Schlissel from returning to campus as a tenured professor — despite an ongoing investigation into his actions. And, as the Editorial Board points out, the regents have also historically failed to address sexual misconduct throughout the University with any sort of vigor.
The regents were also criticized for raising tuition in the summer of both 2020, where it failed the first time it was proposed, and 2021. Each increase added just under $300 to in-state tuition and nearly $1,000 to out-of-state tuition. Financial aid awards were increased for low and middle-income in-state students, so many, myself included, weren’t impacted by the increase. Additional aid was not awarded to out-of-state students, who already paid the highest out-of-state tuition of any public university in the country.
Despite their importance to the University as a whole — out-of-state students make up nearly half of all undergraduate students and their experiences and ideas are invaluable to the growth of in-state students — out-of-state students suffered the brunt of recent tuition increases engineered by a board they have no say in electing. In fact, they have no say over how the University’s highest authority handles any of the controversial issues impacting students. Moreover, because the board appoints the president, and the president fills most high administrative positions, out-of-state students’ lack of input extends to the entire University administration.
Representation is only marginally better for in-state students and staff because they share electoral responsibilities with millions of other voters, most of whom have no vested interest in the University. The fact that University voices are drowned out was evident after the 2020 election, when former Regent Shauna Ryder-Diggs (D), one of two regents to oppose the 2020 tuition increase, narrowly lost reelection to current Regent Sarah Hubbard (R). Even by acting clearly in the interest of students, Ryder-Diggs was not able to keep her seat.
Because the average Michigan voter isn’t involved with the University, and because down-ballot races often draw careless decision-making, the board has become dominated by powerful, recognizable figures. Regent Denise Ilitch (D) is the daughter of the late Mike Illich, the founder of Little Caesars Pizza and owner of Detroit’s baseball and hockey teams. Regents Mark Bernstein (D), Jordan Acker (D) and Michael Behm (D) each come from prominent family law firms (Bernstein’s commercials have plagued my television my entire life). And, of course, Regent Ron Weiser, famous in part for calling Michigan’s top three state officials “witches,” is Chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a large Ann Arbor property owner.
The board members, who all have obligations elsewhere, aren’t paid either. That has two implications: the University will always come second to the regents’ paid obligations, and those without ample resources might not be able to serve on the board at all. The decision to bring students back to campus in fall 2020, for example, was allegedly influenced by Weiser’s extensive property interests. He went as far as donating $30 million to the University days before it announced it would reopen. All told, the board’s mistakes are due in part to regency’s part-time nature and because those affected are, at best, weakly represented.
The board has taken an important step by including students, faculty and staff in the Presidential Search Committee. Even then, University stakeholders shouldn’t have to rely on the board’s generosity to have representation. Changing how regents are chosen so that all relevant University stakeholders are always represented — while maintaining the centuries-old relationship the University has with Michigan voters — is the best way to tackle the University’s ongoing struggles. Current graduate and undergraduate students, members of the Faculty Senate and other University staff (including lecturers, MHousing and MDining employees and other support staff) should each be allowed to elect one regent. Terms should also be limited to two years instead of eight, encouraging the board to evolve with the campus population — or face a challenging reelection fight.
For the 2022 fiscal year, student tuition will account for $1.8 billion of the University’s budget, far more than the $322 million Michigan taxpayers will contribute. The University’s world-class faculty is critical not only to our institution’s prestige but to its ability to bring innovation to Michigan as a whole. And, of course, without additional staff, the entire campus would quickly grind to a halt. These three groups make major contributions to the University and as employees and attendees are most intimately impacted by the board’s decisions. It stands to reason that they should be allowed to directly pick at least a minority of the board’s members.
To account for the state of Michigan’s continued financial support of the University, the governor of Michigan should appoint three regents, one designated to represent each of the University’s campuses. Appointment would counter the importance of name recognition in an election and ensure that the Flint and Dearborn campuses are well-represented. It also isn’t rare — the University of California and University of Texas systems each have governor-appointed boards. The remaining two regents should continue to be popularly elected by Michigan residents. The University of Michigan is at heart a public university, an opportunity for Michiganders to get a world-class education in the comfort of their home state. Allowing voters some influence over their state’s premier educational institution is key to maintaining that relationship.
The board’s role in overseeing the University should be expanded too. Regency should be a job, not an opportunity for powerful figures to “give back,” without taking too much time from their other obligations. A more active board could more effectively investigate and remove administrators and professors suspected of sexual misconduct. They could spend more time receiving input from faculty and students. The board should also be compensated to account for their increased role and allow for candidates without vast independent wealth to serve.
Reforming the Board of Regents won’t magically cure the University’s decades-long struggle with sexual misconduct. It won’t eliminate COVID-19 cases among students or staff, offer all students affordable, reasonably located housing or make a U-M education noticeably less expensive. But it will give the University community’s most relevant stakeholders more opportunities to voice their concerns about and solutions for the University’s ongoing struggles.
Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.