Democratic incumbent for Board of Regents Mark Bernstein discusses affordability, fall reopening
This article is part of a series by The Michigan Daily profiling four of the candidates seeking a seat on the Board of Regents this November at the University of Michigan.
University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein (D) says he’s running for reelection this November to settle unfinished business. In his first election bid in 2012, he drove a school bus around the state covered in slogans like “Keep College Affordable” and “Higher Education, Lower Cost.”
“I’ve had some success in that direction, and I’ve kept that promise, but there’s still a lot more to be done,” Bernstein said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Bernstein pointed to the Go Blue Guarantee, which offers free tuition to in-state students coming from families making $65,000 a year or less, as a major initiative he’s championed. He also said the University has reduced net tuition for most Michigan families since he was elected in 2012.
An independent report found accusations of decades of sexual misconduct by Martin Philbert, the former provost who rose to the second highest office at the University despite knowledge of allegations by numerous administrators.
Bernstein said misguided interpretations of fiduciary responsibility often lead organizations to work against victims’ interests. His campaign website says the University must be “victim and justice centered” and that “our bias should be towards the victims, not the institution.”
“It’s in the long-term interest of the institution to address these issues in a way that’s focused on making things right for the victims — for people who are harmed by the institution — because then you are preserving the integrity of the institution in the long run,” Bernstein told The Daily.
After this summer’s 1.9% tuition increase as part of a budget Bernstein voted for, some students advocated for drawing from the endowment to keep tuition frozen. Bernstein supported the tuition increase in June, explaining that it would only be students who could afford to pay tuition who would be bearing the brunt of the policy.
“Fundamentally, I believe that lower-income students who struggle to pay tuition can depend upon those who can to reduce the cost of their college education,” Bernstein said.
Carl Meyers, one of Bernstein’s opponents, told The Daily in a recent interview he wants to increase the University’s 4.5% yearly endowment spending target.
Bernstein said he’s open to exploring an increase in endowment spending if it’s needed to make college more affordable.
However, Bernstein said if the endowment were “spent down,” students would have to pay an extra $6,000 on average to make up the gap.
“The endowment right now is going a long way to helping keep the University affordable,” Bernstein said. “But there are very, very strict restrictions on that, and we have to be careful to honor those.”
At a Regents meeting in February, Bernstein announced that the board would not make new investments in fossil fuel companies pending a study of the investment policy. He also said he would not approve any new projects that didn’t take carbon neutrality goals into account. The investment freeze came on the heels of years of student activism demanding complete divestment from fossil fuels.
Bernstein told The Daily that he supports “exploring” divestment.
“(Climate change) is the existential threat facing society, and it’s easy to lose sight of this fact given the chaos and profound challenges that we face as a society,” Bernstein said. “Climate change isn’t going anywhere, and the University has to do its part — frankly everything possible — to help address this crisis.”
Asked for his thoughts on the University’s fall reopening plan, Bernstein said the University never “closed,” noting that Michigan Medicine and University researchers continued to work safely after the initial shutdown in March.
“The notion of reopening — we’ve been open, and open, I would say, successfully,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said with the University’s classes mostly online and residence halls operating at reduced capacity, a fully online semester wouldn’t greatly reduce the student density in Ann Arbor.
“It would have no meaningful impact, I would argue, on the spread of the virus, and in fact, it would very likely be even perhaps more dangerous,” Bernstein said. “Because we know from all the research on this that having some connection to our students — even if they’re studying mostly virtual — but have some engagement with them in a physical way, a real way, with student life on our campus then we’re able to impact behavior as a result as it relates to COVID-related issues.”
In recent weeks, the University has surpassed multiple metrics in place to trigger a reevaluation of campus operations. Residence halls have registered at least 283 COVID-19 cases since move-in in August, and Mary Markley Residence Hall is adhering to two weeks of enhanced social distancing after pop-up testing found a building-wide cluster.
Bernstein said some classes have to be taught in person and even minimal student engagement is much more impactful than none. He said for students who struggle with food insecurity, mental health and internet access, campus is the safest and best place for them.
“Once or twice a day I’ll say to myself like why, what is the point of this — wouldn’t this be so much easier just to be entirely virtual?” Bernstein said. “But those are the reasons that motivate us to do our very very best to try to navigate our way through this.”
The One University campaign has advocated for equitable funding for all three of the University’s campuses in recent years. Bernstein said the University’s Flint and Dearborn campuses are central to the future of the University and the state of Michigan. He pointed to the $20 million invested in the campuses in this year’s budget.
Bernstein said he supports extending the Go Blue Guarantee in a “thoughtful way” to the other campuses, such as the idea of “finish line funding” where more aid becomes available the closer a student gets to graduation. Bernstein says he believes these policies that are designed for each specific campus will be more beneficial than expanding the program exactly in its form for Ann Arbor to Dearborn and Flint.
“We know that those types of policies and programs will go a much longer way on those campuses to address the retention and completion issue than just simply extending the Go Blue Guarantee in a cookie-cutter fashion,” Bernstein said.
Some students know little about the Regents or what they do, nor do they know about the upcoming election for the board.
Bernstein said it’s important for anyone who cares about the University and its role in society to pay attention to its leadership.
“The direction, the values, the vision, the mission of the University — that’s established by the Board of Regents,” Bernstein said. “And if you want that direction to reflect your values, then you should pay close attention.”
Bernstein and fellow Democrat incumbent Shauna Ryder Diggs are running against Republicans Meyers and Sarah Hubbard. Hubbard has a conservative pro-life, pro-Second Amendment platform, but told The Daily in August she hadn’t “really had a chance to look at” issues before the Board of Regents. Bernstein said that while all candidates care deeply about the University, this year’s decision is starker in “this unusual moment.”
“Given the fragility of this institution that I fully appreciate in ways that I didn’t before I was on the Board, the notion of having two Trumpist Regents on our board is terrifying,” Bernstein said.
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.
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