Robert Steele, a cardiologist at St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ypsilanti, has an extensive history with the University of Michigan and the entire higher education system. And he hopes to use this experience if elected to the University’s Board of Regents.
“I’ve been around the idea of what is going on in education for a long, long time,” Steele said. “And now is a big transition time.”
In 2012, Steele lost in the election for University Regent. This year, he is running on a similar platform, calling for increased attention to transparency within the University and giving back to the state.
Steele graduated from Inteflex, the University’s six-year integrated medical training program, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1978 and his medical degree in 1981. In 1987, Steele became a clinical assistant professor at the University, a position he held for more than 20 years.
Steele’s grandfather, Harold Steele, who graduated in 1925, played football for Michigan under Fielding Yost. Harold Steele spent the majority of his career in public education, both at the high school and college level. His grandmother, Francis Steele, graduated from the University in 1924 and in 1964 became the national co-chair for the endowment campaign.
Steele’s father, Harold Steele, Jr., graduated from the University’s Dental School in 1952, spent 30 years on public school boards and founded a community college. His mother, Eleanor Steele, graduated in 1949 from the School of Social Work and now teaches at Perry Nursery School.
“I have a lot of institutional memory here,” Steele said. “I have watched the campus change.”
Currently, the regents are accessible through e-mail and phone to commenters, as well as give the public the opportunity to speak during the public comments portion of their monthly meetings.
Steele said his primary initiative — to increase transparency at the University — involves hosting public office hours to engage with the community both on campus and rotating office hours in different districts of the state.
“The students, let alone the faculty and some administrators, are hungry for this,” Steele said. “They want (to give their) input.”
Steele noted that this initiative was part of his platform in 2012.
Lack of administrative transparency has been an ongoing topic of conversation over the last few years. In July, The Detroit Free Press sued the University over violations of the Open Meetings Act in regards to the Regents monthly meetings.
“We are elected statewide and yet have no interaction with the public,” Steele said. “It is just astounding to me.”
Steele said he intends for these hours to not only be for the faculty, staff and administrators, but also the people who live in the city and run the city.
Additionally, if elected, Steele said he would initiate posting the checkbook and budget publicly online. According to Steele, the Regents need to represent the state and the taxpayers’ view of their state-chartered University.
In 2011, state appropriations were cut 15 percent. The past three years, however, funding for higher education has been on the rise, including a 6.1-percent increase for the 2015 fiscal year.
“This state appropriation in essence is the venture capital that allowed the University to flourish,” Steele said. “The University has used that venture capital extremely well. They have parlayed into this $9-billion endowment and this incredible physical plant that you see here.”
With this investment comes responsibility, Steele said.
“The University must absolutely do more to propel and assist in the future of the state,” Steele said. “I think we need to work on making sure our best and brightest come here and are encouraged to stay, as a way to pay back the state, a return on investment.”
Steele proposes that the University grants tuition refunds to students who graduate with STEM degrees and stay in the state for five years. He said this program should be funded by the University’s endowment to ensure state taxpayers receive their best possible return on investment.
“We don’t want them to come here and then leave — we need them to stay in the state, we need to encourage them,” Steele said. “We need to do everything that is going to align the incentives between the University and the student and the output of the education.”
He also proposes that the University offer discounted tuition to students who enroll in the spring and summer terms as a means to improve the financial situation for both the University and the student.
In July, Wayne State University announced a 30-percent decrease in tuition for classes taken in the spring and summer semesters of 2015.
To improve the student loan program and decrease taxpayer expenses, Steele proposes that the University finance the student loan program through the unrestricted portion of the endowment.
“The University has plenty of horse power in their endowment to fund their own student loans, a hundred percent,” Steele said.
Beyond financial initiatives, Steele said he believes higher education could be changing drastically and the University needs to be at the forefront of this.
Spending needs to be controlled, especially when a large transition in higher education could dramatically disrupt the University, Steele said. He said he believes the University — and universities nationwide — currently spend money on excessive facility projects, such as dining halls and dorms, in order to attract students.
“We have highly qualified candidates and they are going to come here if they are accepted,” Steele said. “They aren’t coming here whether we have the wood burning oven or not.”
Today, higher education is still driven dramatically by the degree, Steele said. He believes this could be changing drastically as alternative methods of education become available and people consuming education do not care about the credit.
“If that happens the higher education disruption is going to be insane,” Steele said. “It will be like landlines versus cellphones.”
Coursera is a prime example of this future, Steele noted.
“I think the University of Michigan is far more likely to weather that storm because we have so much research here and we have a lot of students who need to be here physically on the campus,” Steele said.
For Steele, a critical function of the Regents is to understand this change.
“We need to have a board that understands these potential disruptions with large organizations with big fixed capital costs in this transition that is driven by technology.”