About 50 members of the University’s Senate Assembly gathered at their monthly meeting to question candidates for the University’s Board of Regents at a forum held in Palmer Commons Monday afternoon.
Candidates discussed a wide range of topics, including whether the University’s focus should be on research or teaching, the number out-of-state students at the University, tuition hikes and the role of athletics at the University.
While there are 10 candidates running for positions on the board, only four attended the forum: Republican Rob Steele, Democrats Mark Bernstein and Shauna Ryder Diggs, and Eric Borregard, the Green Party’s candidate. The group was presented with a question and each candidate was allowed one minute to answer. Due to the format of the event, candidates did not get a chance to respond to each other.
Each was quick to highlight their connection to the University: Steele, Bernstein and Diggs are all alumni, and Borregard said his son attended the University.
The candidates acknowledged that one of the most important responsibilities as regent would be to select the University’s next president, as University President Mary Sue Coleman plans to retire in 2014.
They discussed how the new president should balance the diverse needs of the University and successfully manage the ever-changing budget. Steele said the new president must also provide creative solutions for declining state and federal budget appropriations, while Diggs said he or she must also lead by consensus and encourage efficiency to conserve the University’s resources.
Bernstein said the next president must address the transformative changes in education over the next several years, such as digitization and costs.
“There are going to be some universities that get this right, that figure this out; and those Universities are going to thrive and succeed,” Bernstein said, referring to the upcoming changes. “There will be others that won’t and those universities will pay a very, very steep price.”
Borregard said honesty and awareness of environmental issues should be key characteristics of Coleman’s successor.
Borregard, who referred to his own Green Party as “essentially socialist,” had unorthodox views throughout the forum, a fact acknowledged by the other candidates and the audience by occasional laughing and joking about his answers. Borregard used his time to discuss his desire for free tuition and highlighted the importance he placed on environmental consciousness at the University.
When it came to tuition, Steele, Bernstein and Diggs supported using the University’s endowment to reduce tuition costs. Steele suggested using the endowment rather than federal funds to help pay for student loans, and proposed creating a program where science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors who stay in Michigan for five years could receive tuition reimbursements.
Bernstein proposed using the University’s high credit rating and the endowment’s appreciation to fund low-rate student loans rather than actual endowment funding.
Diggs said the state must be held accountable for its funding promises and suggested the creation of endowment funds specifically directed toward student tuition.
“We can also have restricted funds for student tuition,” Diggs said. “We need to go to our donors, to our largest alumni group, and ask them to give money specifically to student grants — not loans, not scholarships, but grants.”
The candidates differed starkly on the importance of increased diversity, among both students and employees, and whether to grant undocumented residents in-state tuition.
Bernstein said he fought against 2006’s Proposal 2 — which banned the use of race in public university admissions in Michigan — and vowed to make diversity a priority by using geography and socioeconomic class to increase diversity.
He added he supported in-state tuition for undocumented students because forcing high-performance students to go to another school on a formality is a waste for the state and for the University.
“This should be a place that welcomes students, and to exclude applicants simply because of the misfortune of their parents … is disgraceful,” Bernstein said.
Diggs said increasing diversity should begin in lower levels of school, and admissions officers must inform students in middle and high school what they need to do to be accepted to the University.
She added that undocumented Michigan taxpayers deserve to have their children pay in-state tuition, but noted that if their parents do not pay taxes it could complicate the granting of in-state tuition.
Steele disagreed, saying socioeconomic and geographic diversity are more important, and the lack of diversity at Michigan stems from high school deficiencies that should be addressed on a state level.
“I don’t see any general benefit from the idea of speeding ahead of time or going for a certain percentage of each race,” Steele said. “We need to go for quality that is going to advance the whole society and have everybody benefit.”
He added: “Illegal, undocumented potential students should not have the same opportunities as legal, in-state Michigan residents.”
The candidates also differed in their views of the future size of the student body.
Berstein said out-of-state tuition subsidized in-state students, and general enrollment should be increased “just a touch” to increase revenue without decreasing quality.
Steele disagreed, and said while the best out-of-state students must still be recruited, the University must always be a place for the best students from Michigan. He added that out-of-state students do not significantly affect revenue because they also compose a large portion of financial aid recipients.
Diggs said the proportion of out-of-state students should not be increased just to augment profits and instead supports exploring other options. She added that in-state students should be given priority because their parents pay state taxes.
In closing statements, the candidates acknowledged that despite their differences, they did have common ground on areas like college affordability and maintaining the University as a nationally relevant university.
“Sorry, Eric, I’m not a socialist, so I’m not going to agree with you on much, but it was great to hear that my two possible members of the board that we had some places where can definitely work together,” Steele said, referring to Borregard.
In an interview after the forum, Diggs said she thought the questions touched on the most important issues, and noted the importance of reaching out to faculty.
“The faculty interacts with the students every day, minute-to-minute — they basically are the University,” Diggs said.
Steele said in an interview that he was frustrated with having only one minute to answer, adding it has been difficult to get his message across because the regents election is overshadowed by the presidential competition.
“Whether it’s the faculty, the parents in the U.P., whether it’s the business owners in the thumb or the high school teachers in Grand Rapids, we need to be meeting with all of these people,” he said.
In another interview Bernstein said it was important to talk to faculty because they are an important part of the decision-making process at the University
“Nobody knows this University better than many of the people in this room and getting the opportunity to speak about these issues with this group of stakeholders is invaluable,” Bernstein said.