The most important decisions made at this University are ultimately decided by the infamous group known as the University Board of Regents. Think of the regents as a crew of eight sitting at the adult table at Thanksgiving, having influential discussions and making key decisions at the behest of stakeholders.

None of the regents, who are elected in statewide elections, are current students. Students should not settle simply for a seat at the little kids table. When it comes to voting on University policies like approving Big House renovation plans or tuition hikes, direct representation of the student body is essential and valuable. We should advocate for the creation of a position specifically for students on the Board of Regents.

The regents and University administration do have some avenues for student input, most notably through the appointment of students to advisory committees. The opportunity to serve on committees is valuable, but the debate and discussion about the regental decisions mostly happen behind closed doors at so-called executive sessions prior to the public meetings. The regents have public meetings monthly, but the votes cast at those meetings are practically formalities. To have genuine influence, students need representation at the meetings held behind the scenes.

Several state university systems across the country have reaped benefits from having students represented on their boards. I recently talked to a student regent at the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. He told me that a few years ago, a student regent brought up the issue of textbooks to the board, resulting in the expedient creation of a textbooks task force. At the time, he said, the board did not understand the urgency of textbooks and that a student perspective on the board was helpful in acting quickly on the issue.

Textbook prices have been an issue on our campus since at least 1998. Applying pressure directly to the regents would be more effective than having recommendations and proposals slowly percolate through an elaborate system of advisory committees. Perhaps the issue would have been addressed sooner if we had a student on our Board of Regents.

One worry is that student regents would be uninterested or unqualified to address topics that are not related to student affairs. In an interview, a student regent from the University of California system dismissed that claim, saying that any decision made at a university affects students, even if some issues are of greater interest than others. Beyond that, the nature of governing boards is that there is always a specialization in issue areas amongst members, he said.

There have been several efforts to create a student regent position for the University of Michigan since the late 1960s. In the late 1990s, the Michigan Student Assembly created the Student Regent Task Force to try mobilizing support for the idea. The difficulty is that creating a student regent position would require amending the Michigan state constitution. Amending the constitution is a difficult process, which requires approval on a statewide ballot. Securing a spot on a statewide ballot is difficult in itself.

It is possible for a student to run for a position on the Board of Regents in a general election, but because of the rigors of modern elections, the chances of a successful statewide student campaign are slim. Students will only have ensured representation on the Board of Regents by creating a spot reserved for a current student.

Even though the process would be difficult, it is possible. Many universities across the country, and in the Big Ten conference have student regents. Those schools faced the same obstacles that exist in Michigan and overcame them. Last month’s rally in Lansing to show support for higher education funding illustrated that there is some capacity for grassroots mobilization and unity across campus lines that could be cultivated – a necessary component in any effort to create a student regent.

At a time of continually rising tuition prices and controversy over regental decisions – like the alleged sequestering of public comments during regents’ meetings – it is more important than ever to have a direct student voice on the University Board of Regents. Students bring a progressive, unique perspective to University issues. With a student regent as a liaison to the board, the regents would be better equipped to make University-wide decisions because the students’ perspective would always be present.

The regents and the University community have a relationship. The creation of a student regent would improve the relationship for the better.

Neil Tambe can be reached at ntambe@umich.edu.

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