Experts, Regents weigh in on Regent election process
The seats of Regents Andrew Richner (R) and Andrea Newman (R) on the University of Michigan Board of Regents are up for reelection this November. With Jordan Acker (D) and Paul Brown (D) challenging the incumbent candidates for a position on the Board, citizens across the state will get the opportunity to cast their ballots for who they think should serve on the University’s governing board for another eight years, as outlined in the Michigan Constitution. This process of electing governing boards applies to Michigan State University and Wayne State University as well.
Many other states appoint the governing boards of their public Universities and officials have long debated with process is best — election or appointment.
Michael Traugott, professor emeritus of communication studies and political science, explained how the system functions.
“In the past, a larger proportion of its the University’s budget came from tax money appropriated by the state legislature,” Traugott said. “But it’s the money of taxpayers in the state of Michigan that supports the University, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that the qualified residents of the state should be able to vote for (the Regents).”
Regent Katherine White (D) emphasized the historic aspect of the election process for the regents, noting the system is more resistant to political change.
“Over the intervening 164 years, this system of governance has held the University of Michigan free from untoward political interference, and has guided the University to its standing among the world’s leading institutions of higher education,” White wrote in an email interview.
White also said the statewide election of regents allows more voices to be heard.
“Because registered voters in the State of Michigan elect Regents, every two years voters have an opportunity to have their voices heard at the ballot box directly,” White wrote. “Direct election of the Board of Regents to all Michigan voters allows for a lot of participation.”
Former Regent Philip Power, who wrote an article following MSU’s conflicts with its governing board earlier this year, said there are two general arguments for and against the system. Power said one of the benefits is the direct connection of the citizens to the University. On the other hand, voters are much less informed.
“The argument against is that candidates for these governing boards are found way down the ballot,” Power said. “And worse, most people who vote at these elections have no idea who these candidates are, what their qualifications are or where they stand on the issues.”
Traugott explained the term “roll-off” that specifically applies to the concept of voters being less likely to vote farther down the ballot.
“There is a phenomenon called roll-off across the ballot where the farther down you go people don’t vote for these offices,” Traugott said.
Power added in his experience campaigning, there was a vast population that he couldn’t reach.
“When I was running, there were nine million people in the state, now how does one candidate for a not very well-known office way down on the voting ballot manage to talk to nine and half million?” Power said. “The short answer is you don’t.”
White said that most voters would have some relation to the University because of its influence as an employer and institution.
“The University of Michigan is one of the top-five employers in the State of Michigan, has an outstanding Health System ranked in the top five nationally, and has about 63,000 students across the three campuses,” White wrote. “Thus, all people in the State of Michigan have a stake in and have a relationship to University of Michigan.”
LSA sophomore Michael Briggs has been encouraging other students to register to vote. Briggs co-produced a non-partisan video series with the Washtenaw County government with steps on registering. Last gubernatorial election in 2014, 17.4 percent of the voting age population turned out to vote, a decrease from 21.9 percent in 2010.
Briggs said he emphasizes being an informed voter to the students he reaches out to, giving them resources and ways to become more informed.
“I always refer students to michigan.gov/vote and remind them to research every candidate and issue on their ballot,” Briggs wrote in an email interview. “I’m often asked by students about specific offices, such as regents. When this happens, I give the information I have and encourage students to do research independently about all the candidates.”
This election system, many regent campaigns are addressing issues that would impact students and recent grauduates such as increasing tuition rates, accessibility, health care, economic impacts of University projects and more.
Traugott said lack of information is one of the contributing factors to roll-off.
“I think that most people who go to the polls, who take the time to vote, are serious about their choices,” Traugott said. “The cost of information for these offices down the ballot is very high. It’s hard to find out specific issue positions, the only kind of clue or key that voters have is this partisanship reference.”
Power said the party that does well during midterms often mirrors the regents that are elected that year. He expressed some concern over this process.
“If the election year turns out to be a big win for the Democrats, the Democratic candidates get elected,” Power said. “If the election turns out to be a big win for the Republicans, the Republican candidates get elected … That seems to me to be a not very knowledgeable way to go about picking people who are going to be supervising the activities of three of the state’s greatest universities.”
Despite this aspect of the system, Power said the system has led to the selection of qualified people for the most part.
“Given the inherent difficulties of picking candidates for these boards, the people who I’ve known on those boards are very, very thoughtful people who genuinely are concerned about the future of their institutions,” Power said.