New legislation may give governors power to appoint members of education boards

Sunday, February 4, 2018 - 8:44pm

Following controversy surrounding the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, state Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, introduced legislation Thursday to change the way higher education board members are elected.

Currently, members of the state Board of Education and the boards of the University of Michigan, MSU and Wayne State University are selected through a statewide popular vote after being nominated by political parties. For many other universities in Michigan, board positions are already appointed by the governor.

If the legislation passes, Michigan’s three biggest universities would be under more government control through a constitutional amendment. It requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Michigan State Congress to be put on a ballot.

The plan would call for the boards to be terminated at the end of 2018, allowing the governor to appoint eight members on Jan. 1, 2019. The state Senate would be able to provide advice and consent.

Two of the appointed members would serve for two-year terms, two for four years, two for six years and two for eight years. Any successors would be allowed to serve eight-year terms.

According to MLive, Lower said he wants this legislation to make university boards and Michigan’s Board of Education more cohesive.

“I believe voters should have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not the current system is working,” Lower said in a statement. “I have long considered the nomination and election process for these positions to be problematic. Voters often simply opt for the most recognizable names, or randomly bubble in their choice.”

The legislation comes after the MSU Board of Trustees has come under fire for standing behind former President Lou Anna Simon after Detroit News investigation found Simon and thirteen other high ranking University officials knew of MSU sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar's sexual misconduct.

Simon eventually stepped down from the position on Jan. 24, the final day of Nassar’s sentencing. 

A week later MSU of Trustees appointed a new interim University President, former Governor John Engler. Student and faculty have protested the decision, asserting Engler is another University insider. MSU faculty has formally held a vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees.

Regent Ron Weiser, R, did not express support for this legislation, however. He said the Board of Regents at the University is bipartisan and operates in the best interest of students.

“This, probably, in my opinion, is throwing the baby out with the bath water. There certainly were errors made by Michigan State and its executive and regents and trustees and that doesn’t mean all boards should be changed. Right now, we have a system for choosing who the Regents are. It makes it less political than if the governor picks them.

While Weiser said he recognizes the errors made at MSU, those errors don't have to have implications for other universities.

“This, probably, in my opinion, is throwing the baby out with the bath water. There certainly were errors made by Michigan State and its executive and regents and trustees and that doesn’t mean all boards should be changed. Right now, we have a system for choosing who the Regents are. It makes it less political than if the governor picks them.”

State Representative Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) agreed in that everyone at MSU needs to be held accountable, but he said this proposal is not productive towards that goal. He said if anything, more public oversight is necessary for the process of appointing board members.

"We need to hold everyone who was part of this tradgedy accountable, from the top down. However, this proposal will not achieve that outcome now or in the future. Appointing trustees shields from public oversight. Elections provide the highest form of accountability.

Rabhi said if politicians want a cohesive school board appointment system, all universities should have their governing bodies elected.

"Instead of making the process less democratic at a critical time and shileding key decision-makers from public scrutiny, we should remember that democracy is our greatest tool for accountability and that every election matters no matter how big or small."

Furthermore, Weiser said this legislation could impinge upon the autonomy of the University.

“The University of Michigan, as you know it, is independent from legislature and has, for years, operated in a way that has made it one of the best Universities in the world so why do you want to change something that’s good already?" Weiser said. "I personally don’t think it’s a good idea.”