What will it mean to have a second Republican regent on the board?
In the weeks since the University of Michigan Board of Regents election on Nov. 3, regents and community members have contemplated the effects of Republican Sarah Hubbard ousting Democratic Shauna Ryder Diggs, bringing the board’s Democratic majority down from 7-1 to 6-2.
The eight-member board oversees the University’s three campuses, health system and athletic department. It handles long-term strategic planning for the University, while the administration is responsible for daily operations.
With regents appearing on the ballot state-wide, every voter in Michigan has a say in their election. Hubbard won election over Ryder Diggs by just over 4,000 votes, while incumbent Democrat Mark Bernstein retained his seat.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the election, Hubbard said she hoped to bring a new perspective to a board. According to Hubbard, the board was imbalanced “from a Dem-Republican perspective.” She added that her donation history to both Republican and Democratic candidates indicates a history of bipartisanship.
“That being said, I do think what we have right now is only one Republican on the board, (which) means that those discussions are not robust,” Hubbard said.
In November interviews with The Daily, Regents Mark Bernstein (D), Jordan Acker (D) and Paul Brown (D) said the board has a proud tradition of nonpartisanship.
“I think that one of the wonderful traditions of the board is that even if we think differently ideologically, when we walk into that room, when we walk into our meetings, no matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, our top priority is what’s best for the institution,” Acker said.
Brown has studied the board’s membership and actions over the last forty years. He said Hubbard’s past experiences will change the dynamic of the board.
“I think the way it will change has nothing to do with the fact that (Hubbard is) Republican, but hopefully some life experiences will be what impacts the board the most,” Brown said.
In an interview, Hubbard cited her “humble, more middle-class” background growing up on a farm in rural Michigan, as well as time as a small business owner, as evidence that she will bring a different point of view to the board.
“I just bring a different perspective,” Hubbard said. “I run in different circles and I have a different network of people I listen to related to these kinds of decisions.”
Hubbard said she doesn’t expect to automatically side with Regent Ron Weiser (R), the other Republican on the board, in all decisions.
“It’s just having more confidence, probably, in those discussions to carry forward on some philosophies that might differ,” Hubbard said.
Weiser did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Campus activists react
Because Regents are elected and accountable to the public, University campus activist groups often target them. Tyrice Denison, a recent graduate of U-M Flint who organizes for the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, said regents can give a voice to students when the administration is resistant to changing the status quo.
“(The administration) can be reluctant to look at their budget in different ways to make sure that all their students are supported in a way that they need to be,” Denison said. “The regents are a big way to push them to change that.”
Members of the One University Campaign, which launched in 2018 to petition the University to direct more equitable resources towards the Flint and Dearborn campuses, speak during the public comments section of nearly every Board of Regents meeting.
After the University administration’s proposed 2020-2021 budget initially failed to pass in June due to a 1.9% tuition increase, $20 million of funds allocated to the Dearborn and Flint campuses flipped the votes of Regents Ackerman and Brown in favor of the budget.
Denison, who organized for One University as a student, said the group was crucial to securing those funds.
“There’s obviously still more to do, but I don’t think that $20 million fund happens without the Regents, and I don’t think it happens without our advocacy and advocacy of other groups pushing them to make sure that happened,” Denison said.
Denison called Ryder Diggs a progressive “champion,” noting that she was one of two Regents to ultimately vote against this year’s budget.
“I think she understood the impact that the tuition increases were going to have this year, and that so many other schools were able to freeze tuition, and there was no reason that the University of Michigan couldn’t have done it in the middle of a pandemic,” Denison said.
Members of One University, including LSA senior Amytess Girgis said they will miss Ryder Diggs’s prescence on the board.
“Shauna uniquely had empathy for the issues we were talking about on the Flint and Dearborn campuses,” Girgis said. “She was a huge advocate for making U-M Flint and Dearborn more affordable, tuition wise, for low income students.”
Girgis, a Rhodes Scholar-elect, also said Ryder Diggs always made time to listen to One University, noting that the Dearborn and Flint campuses have much higher proportions of students of color than the Ann Arbor campus.
“She was one of two Black women on the board,” Girgis said. “She offered a perspective that few others could.”
As a board member, Ryder Diggs was publicly quiet but privately active in promoting the causes of student activists, she told The Daily after the election. She met with students regularly, articulating their concerns to the leadership team while also explaining the complications of the University.
“The way I tried to do that was by listening first,” Ryder Diggs said.
Ryder Diggs compared the University to a ship, where even a seemingly small change of course can lead to vastly different destinations in the future.
“Groups like One University are groups that have really changed the course of the institution,” Ryder Diggs said. “And I felt my role as a board member was to try to kind of make it possible.”
Hubbard told The Daily before the election that lowering tuition was one of her main goals.
“I think that it really is incumbent upon the Board of Regents to try and keep a lid on those costs,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard said she is interested in “hearing out” student activist groups such as One University and the Climate Action Movement, a group focused on pushing for divestment from the over $1.1 billion of fossil fuel money the University currently invests in its endowment.
“I’m interested in lots of different issues — I can’t say that I would personally highlight exactly the same issues (Ryder Diggs is) highlighting, but, certainly the issues between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses, the importance of making sure Flint and Dearborn are treated fairly and you know, given the respect that they’re due is certainly very, very important, and hopefully she’s not the only Regent that was interested in that,” Hubbard said.
Denison said that while he has many disagreements with issues on Hubbard’s platform, his group would like to work with all regents.
“If she is interested in making sure that Flint and Dearborn students are supported and that our institutions are continuing in an equitable way, then sure, I don’t think we would turn down anyone just because they have a difference of opinion from us,” Denison said.
Girgis criticized the Democrats on the current board, saying they didn’t take full advantage of their 7-1 majority to institute more progressive policies.
“I hope the presence of Sarah Hubbard will force the other Democrats on the Board to frankly get a stronger spine and stick more firmly to the Democratic values,” Girgis said.
LSA junior Luke Dillingham, a CAM member, said working with the regents can be both productive and frustrating.
“There are a lot of promises made that are not kept to what we would think, or the administration is frequently very slow-moving and it’s hard to build any inertia with them,” Dillingham said.
Hubbard previously told The Daily that social and political issues should not be a factor in determining investments, as the University’s job is to get the “best return on the dollar.” Dillingham disagreed, stating: “The endowment is in fact political.” The University has divested money from its endowment for ethical reasons twice before: from apartheid South Africa and from the tobacco industry.
While some say the Board has been slow-moving in the past, February’s freeze on fossil fuel investments suggested there was some progress being made toward examining divestment. However, Dillingham still has doubts.
“I have a lot of apprehension about whether or not the University will make good on its promises and actually seem to work to make its investments in line with the ethics and values that it claims to aspire to,” Dillingham said.
Losing Ryder Diggs
Both Acker and Brown expressed more concern with losing Ryder Diggs’s perspective and knowledge than losing her political identity.
“Losing Regent Ryder Diggs is a tremendous loss for the institution,” Acker said. “Not because of partisanship, but frankly because of her knowledge of the Medical Center, her knowledge of what it was like to be a resident there, as well as a student.”
When asked after the election for her most proud accomplishments on the Board of Regents, Ryder Diggs listed expanding the medical center’s role in Southeast Michigan regional healthcare as the University’s first physician-Regent, creating measurable equity and inclusion goals and increasing lecturer and graduate student instructor pay and pioneering the Go Blue Guarantee.
She said if she had more time on the board she would continue to focus on improving the undergraduate experience. She would also explore how the University can reach older populations to promote “continuous learning.”
“I think the University has such a role in how people learn over the course of lives, not just at this — what we may think of as a sweet spot — between 17 and 25 or 28, but how you learn through the years, through your 30s, 40s and 50s.” Ryder Diggs said.
Ryder Diggs said Hubbard, someone who has worked in several industries, can bring the continuous learning perspective to the board.
Hubbard said she hopes Ryder Diggs continues to stay involved with the University and student groups she has worked with.
“However she best feels that she wants to stay involved, I hope she does, because I think her commitment is to be recognized,” Hubbard said.
Ryder Diggs said she would, noting that you don’t have to be a board member to positively impact the University.
“I’m still going to contribute, even as an alum and a citizen of the state who cares about the University of Michigan,” Ryder Diggs said.
With this transition, Acker and Brown remain in good spirits, continuing to have hope for the new Board and the perspectives Hubbard will bring to table.
“I know that she (Hubbard) ran for this office for the right reasons,” Acker said. “She loves the institution and I am hopeful that that tradition of keeping partisanship outside of the board will continue.”
Brown did, however, share concern about getting Hubbard up to speed.
“Obviously, with any change, there is a period of time when an individual board member may not have the full breadth of understanding or knowledge about the University,” Brown said. “We are in the midst of a crisis and having eight board members that are all up to speed, understanding an issue, is really important.”
Hubbard said she has a lot to learn, but is seeking advice from anyone who is willing to share it.
“I feel like I know a fair amount about the University right now, but nothing like what I will be learning over the next several months and years, and I’m looking forward to that,” Hubbard said.
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