August 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Universities don't get a pass on transparency

The University of Michigan's Board of Regents should be subject to the same laws as any other government board. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Public institutions that receive public money should conduct their business before the public. Period.

Yet some of Michigan’s top state universities are avoiding such transparency.

The state’s Open Meetings Act calls for government bodies to do their work openly, and the Michigan Constitution specifically requires the governing boards of state universities to follow that mandate.

Institutions like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, however, are maneuvering around the law by taking a very literal interpretation of the constitution.

The UM Board of Regents is one of the worst offenders. The constitution specifies “formal” meetings should be open to the public, so regents conduct most of their discussions and business privately during what they say are “informal” meetings.

The regents still hold monthly meetings open to the public, but those are typically for formal votes on matters they’ve debated extensively and privately prior to that meeting. That’s an arrogant abuse of the public’s right to know.

Those discussions are what the public should be privy to. It’s true the constitution gives the governing boards of state universities wide authority and general supervision of their institutions.

But this oversight comes with a responsibility to the public — that’s especially true for the statewide-elected boards of UM, MSU and Wayne State University.

Even though Michigan’s investment in higher education has fallen in the past decade, taxpayers still pour a hefty sum — $1.5 billion this year — into the state’s 15 schools and taxpayers should have input in how that money is spent.

As a defense, universities point to a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision related to a Michigan State presidential search.

The trustees did much of their search in private and the Lansing State Journal sued.

The court sided with the university, saying the constitution gave universities the authority to decide when to hold informal meetings publicly. Yet the ruling also made it clear this case related narrowly to presidential searches.

Universities have applied the decision more broadly.

Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, wants to close this loophole and increase university transparency by clarifying the constitution’s language.

He introduced a resolution in March calling for a constitutional amendment. If the Legislature approves the resolution, it would then go before voters.

The resolution calls for changing the wording in the constitution from “formal sessions” to “meetings,” and the new language also states that records of the governing boards are public records.

The resolution has sat in the House Education Committee since spring, but McMillin says he’s considering moving it before the committee he chairs — the House Oversight Committee, which may be a better fit.

Once next week’s primary election is over, McMillin thinks the resolution will gain some traction. In addition, a lawsuit filed in July against the UM Regents for lack of transparency has focused new attention on the problem.

“It’s pretty clear it needs to be dealt with,” McMillin says.

McMillin believes that transparency isn’t a partisan issue, and he expects broad support for the resolution.

While the First Amendment does not call for open government meetings, that kind of openness is vital for a free press to do its job.

“Open meetings of public entities, including universities, are an essential ingredient to a fair and representative democracy,” according to a statement from the ACLU of Michigan.

The Legislature should make McMillin’s resolution a priority, and Michigan taxpayers should demand a chance to vote on it.

Universities are public institutions; they should behave that way.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News. @ingrid_jacques