Give voters chance to improve U-M, MSU and WSU

Transparency and consistently competent governance are among the improvements Michigan’s three major universities need to help the state meet its pressing need for a more talented and highly skilled workforce.

Both issues are addressed in proposals offered by state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, to change the way regents and trustees are selected at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University, and to bring them fully under the Open Meetings Act.

Governance issues have periodically plagued the three schools, which are the only ones among the state’s 15 public universities with elected boards. Regents and trustees are nominated by political parties and appear on the statewide ballot for eight-year terms.

The ballot box has proven to be an inconsistent method of seating quality boards to oversee schools that combined manage more than $7 billion a year in spending. Along with being educational institutions counted on to provide the talent to grow Michigan’s economy, the colleges are big businesses, operating hospitals, research labs and real estate portfolios.

They need leaders up to the challenge.

McBroom is asking the Legislature to put two proposals on the November 2024 ballot. The first would replace the elected boards with members appointed by the governor and subject to the consent of the Senate.

In theory, this would assure higher caliber board members are selected to meet specific needs faced by each school, rather than elected through a haphazard political process.

“Too often, the candidates nominated for university boards by both parties are more interested in free football and basketball tickets than they are in how the schools are governed,” McBroom says.

“They often lack the qualifications needed to do these very important jobs.”

All three of the universities have in recent years faced challenges that have stressed the capabilities of their boards. Michigan State most notably has bungled the handling of several incidents of sexual impropriety, including the serial molestation case of Dr. Larry Nassar, which resulted in a $500 million settlement with his victims.

The University of Michigan Regents faced similar criticism involving accusations from hundreds of former athletes against a deceased sports doctor.

And at Wayne State University, half of the board sued the other half for holding secret meetings.

By contrast, the appointed boards at the remaining 12 public universities have rarely been involved in such controversies.

As a companion proposal, McBroom is asking that voters get the opportunity to bring more transparency to the universities, which currently are not subject to the same public access rules as other government entities.

That special status stems from a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court ruling, that cited the autonomous governance of the schools.

McBroom’s proposal would change the state constitution to bring universities fully under the open meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act.

These are good steps toward standardizing university governance in Michigan and getting better performance from the schools, along with making them more accountable.

To get them on the ballot, McBroom needs the support of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate.

That’s a high bar. But the changes are necessary to elevate the performance of these three vital institutions.

— The Detroit News


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