Ron Weiser hones in on controlling tuition, budget in third bid for regent

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 7:39pm

 Ron Weiser in his office on Main Street on October 29, 2014.

Ron Weiser in his office on Main Street on October 29, 2014. Buy this photo
File Photo/ Daily

 

This article is part of a Michigan Daily series profiling the four candidates seeking a seat on the Board of Regents this November at the University of Michigan.

In Ron Weiser’s third bid for a seat on the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents, the former ambassador and University philanthropist wants voters to know he means business — literally.

Weiser founded prominent real estate firm McKinley Associates Inc. nearly 50 years ago, and served as ambassador to Slovakia under former President George Bush from 2001 to 2005. He also chaired the Michigan Republican Party from 2009 to 2011. Currently, he has a role in Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign by fundraising as part of the Trump Victory Committee.

He previously ran for regent unsuccessfully in 2014. In 2012, Weiser began a campaign for the role but dropped out to focus on his position as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee.

In his 2014 campaign, Weiser focused on issues of student affordability but ultimately lost the race to current regent Mike Behm (D) by a margin of 4,835 votes. This time around, he said he hopes to capture the seat by honing in on rising tuition rates and a growing budget.

“We need to keep the University as affordable as possible,” he said. “It’s not fair to burden kids.”

Weiser pointed to his diverse background in both bureaucracy and business as reasons he’s well suited for the job.

“There’s no businesspeople, especially ones that have been involved in bureaucracy,” he said of the University's current Board of Regents. “I learned a lot in the State Department about getting things done.”

One current regent, Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms), does have notable business experience — she is president of Ilitch Enterprises, owner of Denise Ilitch Designs and the owner and publisher of Ambassador Magazine. Ilitch and fellow sitting regent Laurence Deitch (D–Bloomfield Hills) are running incumbent campaigns to regain their seats come the general election Nov. 8. Carl Meyers, Republican and former treasurer of the Michigan GOP, is also competing for a seat on the board.

Weiser’s campaign website touts his ability to “run the U of M like a business.” In an interview, however, he softened that claim slightly.

“I would run the University not like a business, it’s more like an NGO,” he said, referring to non-governmental organizations. “Students are customers... I always take time to meet with students.”

To combat the increase in costs in light of dwindling state appropriation to higher education, the current Board of Regents approved a 3.9-percent tuition hike for in-state residents and 4.4-percent increase for out-of-state students this summer.

Weiser is opposed to the board’s decision, and has proposed a freeze on individual in-state tuition from the time students begin at the University. Fellow Republican candidate Meyers proposed similar actions to stop tuition increase, and disapproved of raising University President Mark Schlissel 3 percent in light of the increase to student fees.

“No one will pay more than they did freshman year,” he said. “There are always ways to spend on students … when we cut costs and find new funding sources.”

Much of Weiser’s platform also focuses on his background in philanthropy and ability to fundraise. On campus, the former Dennison Building is now named after Weiser’s following his $50 million donation toward building renovations in December 2014. The former ambassador also founded the University’s Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies and the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia after returning from his posting in Slovakia in 2008. As of this February, Weiser’s donations to the University totaled $95.9 million.

As the vice chair of the ongoing Victors for Michigan donation campaign, which aims to fundraise $4 billion, the largest goal of any campaign launched by a public institution of higher education, Weiser said increasing charitable contributions is a priority for him.  

“With philanthropy, we’re looking for a place where we can make a difference first in the world,” he said. “I can provide time to the University and commit to the fundraising responsibility as regent.”

Weiser’s political leanings — specifically his role as vice chair to the finance committee for Trump’s campaign in Michigan — have prompted some pushback from his Democratic opponents. In an interview with The Michigan Daily earlier this week, Deitch said Weiser’s political views were fundamentally “incompatible” with the University, in part due to his support for Trump.

Speaking to his political leanings, Weiser said his focus was on progress.

“I support politics of change, and Democrats are not bringing change,” he said.  

Weiser’s other focus areas include socioeconomic regional diversity, equality between Ann Arbor and the University’s other satellite campuses in Flint and Dearborn and transparency in the board’s proceedings. Specifically, he plans to invest more resources into students on all three campuses by having faculty travel between the locations and research the best practices for broadening students’ financial backgrounds.

“We can learn a lot about each other,” he said. “The Board of Regents has the capacity to be more than it is … and I care about this University because of what it can do.”