It was all on the table on Thursday night — well, on the screen, at least.
Regent Mark Bernstein, one of the newest members of the University’s Board of Regents, held a Twitter Town Hall to answer students’ questions. Topics ranged from renovations of the recreational sports facilities and the Michigan Union to college affordability — all answered in 140 characters or less.
The event was co-hosted by the Central Student Government, whose president, Manish Parikh, was standing by to help run the event. Students from various campus groups were also on hand to promote the event through their own tweets.
The original intent of the event was to help acquaint students with the function and responsibilities of a regent, Parikh said. He estimated that about 120 students tweeted at Bernstein over the course of the evening — more than he was anticipating. On average, Bernstein had to answer 2 to 3 tweets per minute to keep pace with the incoming ones.
Many of the early tweets focused on the renovation of the recreational centers on campus and the Michigan Union. The regents first discussed the issue at their November meeting, when they considered what kind of fee would be acceptable to finish the renovation while keeping costs down. The “Building a Better Michigan” campaign initially called for a fee between $100 and $200 per student per semester to complete the renovations, but the regents later balked at the figure.
Business junior Michael Proppe, president-elect of CSG, asked Bernstein whether he considered a $65 per semester fee acceptable for the project.
“I think $65 per semester is a good deal. What do you think?” Bernstein tweeted.
LSA junior Sasha Shaffer, vice president of Maize Rage, tweeted back, “compared to other big ten schools that is way low They have far superior facilities and will continue (to) if it is $65.”
In an interview after the event, Bernstein said the regents are continuing negotiations and he expected action as soon as Thursday or in the “next few weeks.”
“There’s no doubt that private sources of funding have supported this University through difficult times and enabled us to think about these projects,” Bernstein said. “The unions and the rec centers should be included in any fundraising activities that the University engages in, but we also know that the type of support that we need to do these projects takes a very long time to obtain.”
He added that the University does have space on its balance sheet to take on more debt to finance renovations.
In a tweet addressing college affordability, Bernstein also stated publicly for the first time that the University hopes to raise a full $1 billion for financial aid in the capital campaign beginning this fall.
“Financial aid will be the major priority in the upcoming campaign,” Bernstein said. “My guess is that is probably the largest amount ever raised for financial aid in the history of certainly public education.”
He added that increased state support and cost containment would continue to be the University’s main tactics to hold down tuition increases.
“We have to bend the cost curve for students and their families,” Bernstein said. “We have done a good job, but we can do better … Without a doubt, the regents are very sensitive to this issue.”
LSA sophomore Marissa Solomon tweeted at Bernstein, asking about his take on the drive for the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. The Divest and Invest movement has been campaigning for the University to shed the nearly $900 million worth of stocks and funds invested in traditional energy stocks. The total value of the endowment is nearly $8 billion.
“Interested in learning more about this,” Bernstein tweeted. “Not sure if this approach is in the best interest of UM for several reasons.”
Bernstein declined to address a question about the Coalition for Tuition Equality and Wednesday’s protest directly in an interview, but in his tweet he praised students for being socially active.
“@UMich has long tradition of student activism. Part of our history/culture. Proud of this engagement,” Bernstein wrote.
Parikh said he anticipates that his presidential successor will try to foster new opportunities for both regents and university administrators to engage with students about topics affecting the university.
“(Bernstein) really is a students’ regent,” Parikh said. “I think it sends a strong message to students that the regents are there for them, are listening to them, and are actually trying to engage them.”