The words are buried in Michigan’s constitution as it read in 1850, and they don’t form the most inspiring quote you’ll ever read.

Jessica Boullion

This one seemingly mundane sentence, though, has been crucial to the University’s development. The clause grants the University a degree of constitutional autonomy that few public universities enjoy, guaranteeing that the University can manage its own affairs with minimal interference from the state government: “The board of regents shall have the general supervision of the university, and the direction and control of all expenditures from the university interest fund.”

Constitutional autonomy may seem like an abstruse subject, but it’s an important one.

In an essay titled “The Michigan Saga,” former University President James Duderstadt cites it as a crucial factor in the University’s successes.

“Throughout its history, the state of Michigan has rarely been among the national leaders in its support of public higher education,” Duderstadt writes. “Rather, many (including the author) believe that the real key to the university’s quality and impact has been the very unusual autonomy granted the institution by the state constitution. The university has always been able to set its own goals for the quality of its programs rather than allowing these to be determined by the vicissitudes of state policy, support, or public opinion.”

The University hasn’t always had it so easy. The state’s first constitution, ratified in 1835, gave the state legislature the authority to appoint professors, regulate expenditures and otherwise manage the University’s affairs. Similar methods of governance had failed at public universities in other states, and Michigan was little different.

A report by a committee of the state Legislature in 1840, when the University had yet to enroll a single student in a college course, summarized the problem in these terms: “State institutions have fallen into the hands of the several legislatures, fluctuating bodies of men, chosen with reference to their supposed qualifications for other duties than cherishing literary institutions.

When legislatures have legislated directly for colleges, their measures have been as fluctuating as the changing materials of which the legislatures were composed.”

In short, government bureaucrats should keep their grubby hands off higher education.

A state constitutional convention in 1850 took on this problem. The resulting constitution took authority over the University away from legislators and placed it in the hands of an elected board of regents. It also sought to ensure that those regents would gain experience by giving them six-year terms (lengthened in 1863 to eight years) instead of the two-year terms that leave the legislature constantly fluctuating.

Of course, simply writing a constitution that provided authority over the University to the regents didn’t prevent attempts at political meddling.

The state Legislature pressed for decades in the late 19th century for the University to establish a school of homeopathic medicine, which the University resisted. In one of the many lawsuits that arose out of that dispute, the 1896 case Sterling v. The Regents of the University of Michigan, the state supreme court upheld a broad view of the University’s constitutional autonomy, a precedent that solidified the University’s status.

Constitutional autonomy has had some unusual consequences.

In 1911, for instance, part of the Old Medical Building caught fire and was destroyed. The state’s fire insurance fund refused the University’s claim on the grounds that the University was separate from state government in general and was therefore ineligible for coverage – which must have come as a shock, as the regents had cancelled the University’s fire insurance when the state fund was established in 1900.

Legislative attempts to interfere with the University have led the regents to sue the state from time to time to uphold the University’s autonomy. One such case occurred after a 1982 state law ordered the University to divest from apartheid South Africa.

The regents divested 90 percent of the University’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa, but kept the remainder in order to defy the intrusive state law – and ultimately to defeat it in court.

The University’s constitutional status has defused, deflected or delayed all sorts of political interference through the years, preserving academic freedom and the institution’s self-determination alike. Constitutional autonomy helped in recent years when the Michigan branch of the American Family Association worked with conservative legislators in an ultimately futile attempt to stop the University from offering a section of English 317 titled “How to Be Gay.”

Autonomy lets the regents set tuition as they deem necessary to uphold the University’s academic quality, even though frustrated parents might prefer lower tuition in exchange for lower rankings.

Despite rulings that the University’s constitutional autonomy extends to its ability to set admissions requirements, affirmative action opponents were ultimately successful in changing the University’s admissions policies – but it took more than one trip to the supreme court and a state constitutional amendment to do that.

In 2010, Michigan voters will decide whether to hold another state constitutional convention. In an era of short-sighted polices promoted by inexperienced, term-limited state legislators, 160 years of constitutional autonomy for the state’s flagship university could come to an end. But the possibility of the state meddling wouldn’t be the end of the world. At least there will be fire insurance.

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