Six candidates running for the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents in the fall election fielded questions yesterday from faculty members at a forum held at Palmer Commons.
The candidates included Democrat Laurence Deitch, a current Regent seeking his third term in office; Democrat Denise Ilitch; Republicans Susan Brown and John LaFond; Green Party candidate Ellis Boal and Libertarian Party candidate Eric Larson. There are two openings on the Board of Regents in the upcoming election.
The candidates began the forum by giving short opening statements explaining why they should become regents.
Not surprisingly, financial issues like limiting tuition increases figured heavily in the opening statements.
LaFond, who served as an executive at Ford Motor Company for 34 years, said changes to the University’s leadership style will be need to help contain the costs of attending the University.
“I think the most important issue that confronts us is to raise the level of bold and decisive leadership,” he said. “University leaders, including the regents, I believe, must develop more productive ideas that will create a quality educational experience as well at an affordable cost.”
Deitch, a corporate lawyer at the firm Bodman LLP in Detroit, said keeping student costs low while juggling the University’s increasingly limited resources would be the most challenging aspect of his job if elected to a third term.
He said the key is to figure out how to grow the University’s existing resources, like its $7.6 billion endowment, and also keep the University’s programs accessible to qualified students from modest backgrounds.
“The old saying that came from the 19th century was that (the University of) Michigan provides an uncommon education for the common man,” he said. “I believe in that as a principle.”
Susan Brown, a former member of the Board of Trustees at private Kalamazoo College, expressed support for University President Mary Sue Coleman’s aggressive fundraising campaigns.
If elected as a Regent, Brown said she too would use fundraising campaigns to limit increases in University costs for students.
Libertarian Eric Larson, a physician in Grand Rapids, said the University should save money by outsourcing some jobs not related to academics.
He suggested hiring private companies to handle the University’s groundskeeping and janitorial services. He also said the University should consider implementing more online courses to save money.
“I think the University of Michigan has an opportunity to consider providing online University classes developed by the faculty and taught by the faculty,” Larson said. “It’s a low cost way of providing educational opportunities for people who are unable to attend the University of Michigan.”
Later in the forum, a faculty member’s question for the candidates asked them how they would approach the issue of diversity at the University and whether they would support outreach efforts to ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds attend the University.
Boal, who in the 1970s as an activist fought for affirmative action at the University, was unequivocal in his support for student diversity programs.
“I don’t think there’s any question whether I would continue those policies today,” Boal said.
Ilitch said she supported the outreach programs the University has implemented since the passage of Proposal 2 in 2006 which banned race-based affirmative action.
She said she would back any new initiatives or programs that would create a more diverse student population on campus.
Deitch, who said one of his proudest days was watching the University’s affirmative action case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, said he too would also continue the University’s existing outreach efforts to bring students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus.
“We’ve broadened the definition of underrepresented groups to have a socioeconomic basis to it, and I agree with that,” he added.
Larson, disagreed with Ilitch and Deitch, arguing that diversity was more than a person’s race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. He said diversity has more to do with a diversity of ideas.
“I think, as a Libertarian certainly, the most important thing is to focus on diversity of opinions and views and your talents,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we again focus on the inherent qualities of people — that’s what makes a difference in incoming students.”
The last topic addressed by the candidates centered on what kind of control they believed the University administration should have over the Michigan Athletic Department, which oversees the school’s athletics teams and operates on a budget separate from the University.
In a few words, Boal of the Green Party said Michigan Stadium should be sold and the football team eliminated. Boal pointed to the University of Chicago, which cut its successful football program in 1939 and now has only a Division III football team.
“I think it’s unbecoming and undignified for so much attention to be paid to athletics, particularly in football and basketball,” he said. “The University of Chicago has no football team, and Michigan should do the same.”
Boal’s fellow candidates disagreed.
Each said Michigan athletics are a part of the University’s tradition and an important aspect of the University.
Larson said the economic benefits of the Athletic Department, which gives money to the University’s general scholarship fund every year, are important to the University as well.
“It doesn’t make any economic sense to eliminate athletics,” he added.
Deitch also expressed his support for the Athletic Department.
“I think successful, competitive intercollegiate athletics are part of Michigan’s culture,” he said. “It’s part of the gestalt of the place, and I don’t want to see that change.”
He added, however, that oversight over Michigan athletics was crucial.
“I think control of intercollegiate athletics falls in the Office of the President, with the support of the Board of Regents and with a significant input from faculty,” Deitch said. “Because while it is part of the gestalt, we’ve got to make sure the tail doesn’t overwhelm the dog.”