When I retired from Washington politics a year ago, I thought I had finally separated myself from click-driven “gotcha” journalism that is making public service a challenge. Unfortunately, I now find myself and my alma mater struggling uphill against an all-too-familiar media obsession.
The University of Michigan has one of the most transparent endowment investment strategies among universities. As a regent, I have always been an open book and accountable to the people of Michigan. Yet a local newspaper ignored those facts in order to advance a questionable agenda. This is an issue for many political and community leaders: Preconceived notions trump facts, which is how we end up with sensationalistic stories that don’t fully represent reality.
It is one thing to publish an article on how I received campaign donations from two people whose firms happen to manage University endowment investments. After all, those facts are public record.
It’s another to cast that story as bombshell investigation — a long and winding story that makes every attempt to turn a coincidental set of events into a nefarious conflict of interest with a disingenuous hint of a quid pro quo. To say this mortifies me would be an understatement.
Virtually every campaign donation came years after any vote by the board – all of which were unanimous and public when they did occur. Suggesting a connection between the two is an irresponsible stretch, and the timing of events makes that very clear.
All of U-M’s investments are available in the public record for anyone to access. The University only makes investments that are in the best interests of our students and faculty. Board members vote in a public manner to approve investments that the CIO staff — our investment professionals who research, identify and conduct due diligence on the investments that are brought forward for the board’s review—has identified as supportive of that mission. That’s what board members should do as part of their governance responsibilities: Ask questions, but draw on the advice of University officials who are subject matter experts.
As a regent of the University of Michigan, I make decisions based solely on what is best for the institution. I have been devoted to that throughout my two decades of service and have always felt it is my responsibility to ask tough questions, push the University to be better, and support the University however I can. Related to that, I have always welcomed logical scrutiny because I believe it is important to hold all elected officials accountable.
But unless we want to continue to divide ourselves and dissuade people from jumping into public service, it’s critical we do that in a responsible manner. Blurring facts to support a narrative is not the way to do it, yet too often that is what we see in today’s world. It’s no wonder that we are in a time of declining trust in social institutions.
Washington’s historically divisive politics and attitudes have no place in Michigan, but it takes all of us working together to ensure that is the case. That’s not to say we shouldn’t hold each other accountable. In fact, we must, but it’s imperative that we do so with facts and reasonable context. Otherwise, we risk diminishing the value and credibility of public service even more.
Andrea Fischer Newman is a University of Michigan Regent