In his bid for a seat on the University of Michigan Board of Regents, John LaFond has invested $27,500 of his own money to get his message to Michigan voters.
LaFond, who has attended regents’ meetings for the past 18 months, has criss-crossed the state discussing his goals for the University. Chief among them: keeping tuition costs down.
“It’s one of the best universities in the country, and I want to keep it there,” he said. “But it’s becoming unaffordable for families throughout the state.”
The Republican hopeful said he would draw on his business background to help tackle the problem.
“The University seems to be suffering right now from a lack of bold and decisive leadership,” he said. “It seems to be mired in a ‘same-old process way’ that basically continues to increase tuition. Spending seems to be out of control and something needs to be done.”
LaFond, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters in Business Administration from the University, is a retired executive at Ford Motor Company. He served as the chief engineer on an alternative fuel project with the goal of using natural gas to power trucks and vans.
While at Ford, LaFond served as director of a joint program between the company and the University, with the goal of improving technology transfer between Ford engineers and University researchers and students.
After his retirement from Ford, LaFond continued to serve as chairman of the Aerospace Engineering Advisory Committee, a board of industry professionals.
Aerospace Engineering Prof. Wei Shyy, who serves as the department’s chair, said LaFond has “gone out of his way” to work with faculty to understand different “individual views and competing opinions.”
“He’s very conscientious,” Shyy said. “He definitely has the University’s best interests in mind.”
LaFond said he would encourage the University to engage in partnerships with industry, something he said would have many benefits, including keeping curricula relevant and encouraging University graduates to stay in Michigan.
Partnerships with industry, LaFond added, would also serve as another possible revenue source for the University. Businesses, he said, would want to invest in the University if it meant they would be able to recruit better-trained candidates.
“There are private enterprise businesses and venture capitals in the United States who are going to be more than willing to help with this,” LaFond said. “If the university can demonstrate that its own house is in order with regard to spending, then I think that the business environment will be more compatible with providing revenue streams that can be directed at helping to fund tuition for students.”
But to do that, he said, the University needs to get its own finances in order. LaFond said the administration needs to better address the rising costs of energy, health care and facilities maintenance to keep the cost of tuition down.
“Certainly, right now there seems to be a lack of focus on spending control,” he said “The University seems to be in a world of its own.”
LaFond has been endorsed by the University’s Republican regents, Andrea Fisher Newman of Ann Arbor and Andrew Richner of Grosse Pointe Park. Right to Life of Michigan, the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity and Citizens for Traditional Values have also backed his candidacy.
On his campaign website, LaFond posted a letter to Michigan Republicans, in which he pledges “strong conservative values will be my guiding standards as I make decisions.”
LaFond said he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research, and said he would encourage University scientists to use adult stem cells in their research.
He said he opposed extending health care benefits to the same-sex partners of University employees. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this summer that the state’s ban on homosexual marriage precludes public institutions like the University from extending same-sex partner benefits.
Currently, the University has a provision which allows employees to provide health care benefits to an “other qualified adult” — someone who has power of attorney over the employee, has lived with the employee for at least six months, shares a credit or bank account and is the primary beneficiary in the employee’s will, life insurance or retirement plan.
“I think we’ve got to keep in mind, if there is a law in place, the University — as well as all the other citizens of the state — must abide by that law, and certainly I would seek to encourage the University to do that,” LaFond said of the policy.
LaFond said his fiscal conservatism would make him an effective regent on the eight-member board, which has a 6-2 Democratic majority. Two seats currently occupied by Democrats are up for grabs on Election Day.
“There is no other regent, either here now or as one of the candidates, that is more prepared than I to do this on the first day,” he said.
Of the four major-party candidates running, LaFond is the second-highest spender, ranking behind Democratic hopeful Denise Ilitch, who spent about $35,000 on her campaign by September. While Illitch and the other candidates received donations from supporters, LaFond’s campaign is entirely self-financed.
After Republican presidential candidate John McCain pulled his campaign out of Michigan, LaFond said he redoubled his campaign efforts, increasing the time he spent talking with students and their families. He said he wasn’t worried about the possible effects of a Republican loss at the top of the ticket on his candidacy.
LaFond, who has two sons that attend the University, said he was committed to winning the election and serving the University.
“It’s a great university,” LaFond said. “I wouldn’t be giving my heart and soul to any other cause than this one.”