Michigan’s tough restrictions on embryonic stem cell research make it harder for University scientists to do work that their colleagues in states like California do every day. A measure on the ballot in November could change that. But University administrators and scientists — many of whom personally support the measure — are forced to walk a fine line at work that prevents them from open advocacy.
As a state institution and a tax-exempt organization, the University can’t take a stance on candidates or ballot questions. It can hold “educational” events about issues. So the University is hosting events and disseminating information that highlights the promise and positives of stem cell research.
A link from the University’s website leads to a page with information about stem cell research. The page includes information on adult stem cell research — which is already legal — as well as embryonic stem cell research, which is restricted. Featured prominently on the page is a series of videos on “The Science Behind Embryonic Stem Cells.”
Those videos feature Sean Morrison, the director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology. He answers questions like: “Many other states already pursue embryonic stem cell research. Why is it necessary here in Michigan?”
Morrison goes on to talk about the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research, but avoids taking a stance on the ballot question — even though he has been a staunch supporter of the measure when he’s off the clock.
Morrison is a member of the board of Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures. Although the group is not a part of Cure Michigan — the ballot initiative campaign — the group has donated $70,000 to the effort.
Other people with close ties to the University have shown strong support for the ballot initiative, which is labeled Proposal 2. Kenneth Coleman, husband of University President Mary Sue Coleman, has donated $5,000. Their son and daughter in law have also made contributions of $5,000 each. Cure Michigan’s leading donor is a trust controlled by A. Alfred Taubman—the namesake of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning — that has contributed $1,065,000 to the campaign. Regent Olivia Maynard (D–Goodrich) also donated $1,000. Regent S. Martin Taylor (D–Grosse Pointe Farms) is a Cure Michigan board member.
The University has also played host to a number of events about the benefits that could come from embryonic stem cell research. The most recent of those, sponsored by the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, was held Tuesday. Another, called “The Promise of Embryonic Stem Cell Research” was held last month.
The University used a similar approach when another Proposal 2 was on the ballot in 2006. That measure ended up prohibiting the University form using race- and gender-based affirmative action in hiring and admissions. Many University officials opposed that initiative.
In 2006, Mary Sue Coleman and Kenneth Coleman each donated $5,500 to One United Michigan, a group that campaigned against the affirmative action ban. Maynard, admissions director Ted Spencer and other high-level administrators also gave large contributions to the effort to fight the proposal.
But the University could only provide “educational” information about the effects of a ban. At a diversity summit a month before the 2006 election, Coleman gave a speech in which she outlined the harmful effects passage of the ban would have on diversity at the University of Michigan. But she avoided explicitly telling people how they should vote on Proposal 2.
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said parallels can be drawn between the outreach efforts.
“In both cases our principle goal was to educate on the topic that was being presented for the public to consider one way or the other,” she said. “Fundamentally it’s the same, It is education around an issue.”