Howes: Time is now for state university trustee reform
Thanks to Michigan State University’s botched handling of the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal, a push to change the way trustees are selected to govern Michigan’s Big Three universities is gathering momentum.
It should. The state’s only-in-the-nation system of electing trustees for MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University on statewide, partisan ballots politicizes the boards. And it effectively insulates their members from accountability for their actions — or their failure to act.
State Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, is sponsoring legislation that would enable the next governor to appoint new slates of trustees at each of the three schools starting Jan. 1, pending consent from the state Senate. The existing boards, as well as the state Board of Education, would be abolished on Dec. 31.
The legislation is certain to face opposition from the grassroots in both parties who reflexively insist direct election of trustees is the best way to make the boards accountable to the public. The MSU board’s bungling of the Nassar fiasco says otherwise, and two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate should summon the courage to say so and put a reform measure before voters.
Nassar’s years-long abuse of hundreds of young women is a stain on MSU, its executive management and governance from the boardroom. It’s also an indictment of the way Michigan names trustees to its Big Three universities, theoretically prestigious jobs whose election is disconnected from any relevant expertise.
Lower’s legislation will be hampered by a predictable objection: How would vesting the governor with appointment power to the boards of MSU, Michigan and Wayne State eliminate politics from the process? Why would it deliver more accountability than, say, serial appointments of emergency managers in Flint, whose mismanagement culminated in the Flint Water Crisis?
Other objections: Governors are elected on partisan ballots, too. They can use appointments implicitly to repay political debts, to reward supporters, to exile skeptics. They’ll stack boards with ideologically aligned members, because they can.
Fair questions, but not disqualifying. Gubernatorial appointments to boards of flagship universities, a practice backed by the Association of College Trustees and Alumni, also would empower a state’s chief executive to remove trustees who fail to govern responsibly or competently. And the details matter.
The proposed legislation echoes a joint resolution introduced in December 1999 by then-state Sen. John Schwarz, R-Battle Creek. Senate Resolution O proposed to amend section 5 of Article VIII of the state constitution. It said board members of the Big Three universities would be appointed by the governor, would not serve more than two terms, and “not more than five board members shall be members of the same political party as the governor.”
The effort failed. But the crisis that so far has claimed MSU’s president, its athletic director and a good chunk of its credibility should persuade state lawmakers — and Gov. Rick Snyder — to reform this year the way Michigan selects trustees to its top three universities.
One suggestion: peruse an obscure doctoral dissertation, “Constituting Governing Boards of Land-Grant Universities,” written in 1997 by James F. Anderton IV for his Ph.D. in educational administration at Michigan State. Now executive chairman of Maplegrove Property Management LLC, he makes the case for gubernatorial appointments — with a twist.
A one-time president of Lansing Community College, he acknowledges the political dimension of gubernatorial appointments and instead calls for creation of a “Trustee Nominating Committee.” Members would be appointed by the governor; composition would be equal parts Republican and Democrat; and the incumbent governor’s party would get one additional appointment to represent the tie-breaking vote.
The committee would recruit, vet and recommend three candidates to the governor for each trustee vacancy. The so-called TNC would seek a diverse array of expertise, with special emphasis on strong financial, academic, research and, yes, even athletic accomplishment. And each trustee would serve just one eight-year term.
“Mine is more of a bipartisan approach,” Anderton said in an interview Monday. “It essentially takes politics out of it, to the greatest extent possible.”
He should know, having served roughly one year as president of LCC: “My incumbency lasted for a year — at which time I resigned. The entire time was fraught with turmoil between four of the seven elected trustees and myself. This is all a matter of public record.”
Michigan needs to reform how trustees are selected to oversee to its Big Three universities. Blindly trusting that party conventions will populate statewide ballots with qualified trustee candidates is the triumph of hope over experience — and ignores the undeniable ineptitude of MSU’s trustees in the Nassar scandal.
This state can do better. Its leaders should use the crisis in East Lansing to deliver competence and accountability to the boardroom there, and beyond.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.