Michigan State University’s terrible handling of the Larry Nassar case is now driving calls to not only replace the MSU Board of Trustees governing body, but abolish elected boards at our three leading universities in favor of gubernatorial appointments.
These elected bodies can function effectively, and live up to their mandate under the Michigan Constitution that created them, if the members take seriously their role as the decision-making body directly accountable to the people. This responsibility demands the MSU trustees should all resign, now.
The framers of our state constitution thought education and higher education were so important that they made the State Board of Education and the governing bodies of our three leading public universities — Wayne State University, University of Michigan and Michigan State University — independent, statewide elected officials. They gave the elected members eight-year terms to buffer them from day-to-day political worries, able to focus on the best interests of Michigan students and the education institutions that serve them.
Having served for 16 years as an elected State Board of Education member — six years as president of our board — I know the system can work well. Our board was known for seeking and most often gaining strong, bipartisan agreement on education policy decisions best for students. We sought out and listened to our constituents. We hired (and once had to fire) three CEOs during my tenure.
The system goes awry when board members forget who they work for, and defer too much to staff and their CEO. Having worked with MSU President Lou Anna Simon for many years, I know of many great things she has done for this important university. She helped MSU become one of the top-ranked global universities in the world. Yet she also cared deeply about staying true to MSU’s land-grant university roots, which puts serving the people, businesses and farmers of Michigan first.
But in the Nassar case, in propping up, versus actively tearing down, an institutional culture that protected and perpetuated sexual harassment and predation, Simon made poor decisions. And the MSU trustees — many of whom I know well as fine people — deferred too much to Simon’s judgment. No one appears to have said: “No, we are not going to proceed this way” and insist that the institution tell the public what was going on, and take responsibility for fixing the culture.
It may be too late to salvage the system of popularly-elected education boards, but the MSU trustees — as the democratically elected governing body of the institution — should show they believe in political accountability.
John Austin served as an elected State Board of Education member for 16 years.