It’s no secret that Ann Arbor is a bastion for pizza lovers. Smaller places — like New York Pizza Depot (NYPD) or Joe’s Pizza — offer some great options for paper-thin New York-style pizza, while places like Pizza House and Cottage Inn fulfill every other pizza lover’s desire. Everyone has their favorite place, memories of nights with friends and delicious pizza attached to each one. I was shocked when I heard that my sacred pizza place, South U Pizza, was being shut down this past December.
I was waiting for my red-eye flight back home for Christmas when my boyfriend texted me the bad news. My eyes welled up with tears, not only due to the countless memories I had made there but for the loss of their buffalo chicken pizza, which was lathered in a pool of buffalo sauce and grease so thick it soaked through their paper plates. I mourned the death of the best pizza I ever had.
It was only after the loss of this great pizzeria that I realized how nostalgic a pizza pie can be. Most American childhoods are marked by this universally beloved Italian food, steaming on table tops at birthday parties and sleepovers. Even former President Barack Obama isn’t immune to the greasy goodness of a Little Ceasar’s Pizza, albeit on a sterling silver plate rather than a paper one.
It was way back in 2011 when Obama made his way to Detroit, a pizza mecca in its own right, for a pizza party fundraiser. Hosted by Denise Ilitch, the daughter of Little Ceasar’s founders Mike and Marion Ilitch, guests dished out $10,000 for dinner and a photo with the president. The cocktail reception, and the chance to talk to the president, set guests back another $30,000. These numbers are paltry compared to the millions of dollars Ilitch, the local philanthropist, businesswoman and University of Michigan Regent, spent to host it at her home in Bingham Farms.
Obama repaid Ilitch’s generosity in 2016, with an invite not to a pizza party, but to his final state dinner alongside celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Rachel Ray, Jerry Seinfeld and Chance the Rapper. It was her third time in the Obama White House after two visits with her family’s Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings. While Ilitch’s political bona fides and connections may seem hard to beat, her position is hardly unique among her fellow regents.
University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) represents another famous Michigan pedigree, appearing on my television at least three times during the Super Bowl in his family’s famous Sam Bernstein Law Firm commercials. University Regents Paul Brown (D), Michael Behm (D), Katherine White (D) and Jordan Acker (D) are also prominent Democratic lawyers with more accolades and accomplishments to count. But the political influence of the University’s Board of Regents isn’t limited to the Democratic party.
University Regent Ronald Weiser (R), the sole Republican on the board, served as ambassador to the Slovak Republic under George W. Bush and chairman of the Michigan Republican Party from 2009-2011 and 2017-2019. In this position, he oversaw the red wave that flipped Michigan’s legislature and helped them maintain their death grip on it in the 2018 elections. After working to raise $1 billion for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as national finance chairman of the RNC, he is now serving in the same role for the re-election campaign of Stephen King’s arch-nemesis, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Even Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs (D), a Grosse Pointe dermatologist with her own line of skin-care products, holds great political power as one of Michigan’s 17 Democratic superdelegates.
Elected by millions of Michiganders to serve their eight-year terms, the Board of Regents is no ordinary school board. Besides the power they hold as individuals, regents manage the school’s roughly $12 billion endowment, investing in new programs, buildings and the stock market. The school’s Wall Street investments have proven controversial in the last few years. Last year, the University’s Central Student Government passed a resolution to investigate withdrawing money from businesses that work with Israel, citing their violations of international law against Palestinians. The regents denied it to maintain the strength of the investment portfolio. This isn’t the only time regents have prioritized the wishes and futures of donors over those of their students.
Written in chalk on buildings and sidewalks around campus are various mantras calling for the regents to divest the more than $1 billion the University has invested in gas and oil companies, reminders of the Global Climate Strike this past September. The University and the Regents have ignored these demands and had climate protesters arrested at sit-ins, ensuring the University maintains its spot near the bottom of Big Ten schools when it comes to reducing emissions. Their staunch refusal has baffled teachers and students who expect better from what they thought was Michigan’s most elite and progressive institution.
Long seen as a role model for the state, the Regents’ refusal to act sends a message that inaction on this existential threat to humanity is fine by them. Coming from a group of people who have helped elect presidents and countless other government officials in both major political parties, this message is beyond worrisome with implications reaching far beyond Ann Arbor.
In an America where Citizens United all but ensures elections go to whoever has the biggest bank account, the positive influence of wealthy donors like Ilitch and Weiser is going to be essential in getting Michigan and the nation back on track to keep our climate liveable. If the Regents don’t vote for this essential progress in their official roles, then they are unlikely to push other people, many who rely on their financial support, to do the same.
While the Regents recently took a small step in the right direction by voting down a $50 million investment in gas and oil company Vendera Resources, they still have a long way to go before they prove themselves to be leading us in the right direction. With Earth’s climate quickly reaching a tipping point, the Regents are shirking their responsibilities to their students to strengthen the money-making machine the University has become. While South U and their iconic buffalo chicken pizza may be doomed, our world doesn’t have to be.