Regent Denise Ilitch highlights college affordability in reelection bid
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.
A member of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents for the past eight years, Regent Denise Ilitch (D) is running for her second term this November.
Current Regent Laurence Deitch (D), Ron Weiser (R), former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and Carl Meyers (R), a financial advisor in Dearborn, are also on the ballot as major party candidates.
A University alumnus, Ilitch stands out on the board for a steady history voting against tuition increases. Her campaign emphasizes the need for accessible, affordable education at the University.
“I am laser-focused,” Ilitch said when describing the priorities of her campaign. “I want to stay laser-focused on an affordable, accessible, quality education for all students.”
Ilitch was the first member of her family, which included seven siblings, to attend college. She started her business career as a pizza maker in her family’s business, Ilitch Holdings, Inc., and worked her way to the position of president. She is currently president of Ilitch Enterprises LLC, and co-owner of 220 Restaurant Hospitality, an Italian-American food restaurant located in Birmingham.
Ilitch said along with tuition, votes to increase mental health funding and has worked to improve awareness of sexual assault on campus were some of the most impactful parts of her first term, issues that Ilitch highlighted as important moments of her tenure.
“I strongly support the safety programs for our students,” Ilitch said. “Sexual assault prevention is a huge issue on many campuses across the country and including ours.”
As part of her campaign, Ilitch is calling for the creation of a committee on the board dedicated to researching potential sources of revenue besides tuition. She was one of the three regents to vote against a 3.9 percent tuition increase this June, and the only Democrat to do so. She said she believes that the current cost of education and the consistent yearly increases of tuition are not sustainable.
“I don’t think a student should have to mortgage their future in order to have one,” Ilitch said. “That is why I have advocated for alternative sources of income to the University so tuition does not burden our students and their family.”
Ilitch said she believes some of the unintended consequences of yearly tuition increases can already be seen at the University, like the lack of diversity. The University's student population is predominantly white, with 56.2 percent reported by the Office of the Registrar in 2015.
“I’m not convinced our educational cost structure is sustainable,” Ilitch said. “The lack of diversity — economic diversity and race diversity — is because of the rising cost of tuition.”
She highlighted the University's new five-year Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, which outlines strategies for enrolling and sustaining a diverse group of students and faculty, as one option to solve the issue, though she noted the importance of student imput.
“We definitely need our students involved actively and we should work in strong collaboration with them,” she said. “The more that we can learn about these issues the more we can be reactive to it and navigate a healthy conversation around these topics.”
Despite pushback from other candidates concerning the decision to increase University President Mark Schlissel’s salary by 3 percent in September while student debt is increasing, Ilitch said she supports his pay raise. She feels that though the increase in pay is well deserved, student debt remains an important, exclusive issue.
“I think it is important to reward strong performance,” Ilitch said. “There are lots of ways the University can cut costs.”
A strong supporter of student involvement in board decisions, Ilitch said she has met with Central Student Government President David Schafer and CSG Vice President Micah Griggs, LSA seniors, before to discuss the best way to increase collaboration between University students and the board. If re-elected as regent, she said she would like to see a consistent relationship between the board and students that remains strong despite changes in students and board members
“As students change, the relationship should stay strong,” Ilitch said. “It is important to hear directly about student experiences at the University. Many of us rely on our own personal experiences, but I really welcome the input from our students. I think they are brilliant.”
As a mother of two, Ilitch said she often considers the University students her own and tries to consider how their parents would feel when making decisions. Her perspective, she said, is one of the reasons she persistently advocates for providing students with a well-rounded and affordable collegiate experience.
“Many times, it’s pretty simple, I have a mom hat,” Ilitch said. “When making decisions that affect many people at the University, I think of all the moms and dads out there who send their children to school and I feel like a gatekeeper.”