Regents should not be chosen along regional lines

Despite the Republican Party’s overwhelming victory at the Nov. 5 polls, Michigan Republicans are demonstrating that they are not content to rest on their election-day triumph. Instead, while most of the Michigan public’s attention has been focused on those elections, and as the Democrats across the country have begun reformulating their campaign strategies, some state Republicans have been quietly pushing legislation that could radically transform the governing boards of the state’s three largest universities.

State Rep. James Koetje (R-Walker) introduced a bill (House Bill 6483) on Nov. 7 that would “amend the Michigan Election Law to create four districts for the election of members of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, the Board of Trustees of Michigan State University, and the Board of Governors of Wayne State University.” In other words, the bill would require that two seats on each of those university’s governing boards be held by representatives from four distinct Michigan districts. The districts would correspond to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which divides the state into four regions with roughly equal populations.

Because most of Michigan’s population is concentrated in Southeast Michigan, the districts are geographically disproportionate. The 4th District, for example, comprises nearly three-fourths of the state’s area, while the 1st District is composed of only Wayne, Monroe and Lenewee Counties. These divisions work fine for the appeals court, but as apportionments for the election of officials to a public trust they are unacceptable.

The governance of Michigan’s public universities should reflect the mandate of the entire state, not regional preferences susceptible to geographic politicking, which is precisely the effect that HB 6483 is likely to have. The bill threatens to divide the state and institutionalize perceived geographic and cultural differences. Michigan politics are already fraught with counterproductive rivalries – East vs. West, city vs. suburbs, the Upper vs. the Lower Peninsula – that define citizens in only parochial and geographic terms.

Social and economic concerns are not naturally confined to specific political boundaries. The state’s persistent problems are more often universal than they are regional. By districting the governing boards of the state’s biggest universities, the state would only encourage Michigan voters to see themselves in terms of their districts rather than Michiganders who possess a common stake in the future of their public universities.

Furthermore, the bill would limit the potential pool of candidates because board officials would be required to be registered in the district they run in. Thus, candidates from regions with more than two qualified candidates would be prevented from serving on university boards.

Koetje’s proposal adds up to nothing more than an underhanded Republican power grab for control of Michigan’s universities. And while it would be easy to dismiss their partisan maneuvering as politics as usual, Koetje and Michigan Republicans should not be let off the hook if they continue their fight to district university Boards. Their myopic politicking will only compound the crude regionalism that undermines Michigan’s common causes.

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