Howes: Defections, denunciations at Big Three schools = dysfunction

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Take heart, Spartans. You're not the only ones burdened with a dysfunctional board of trustees overseeing one of Michigan's Big Three universities.

Enter now Wayne State and a board of governors at war with itself. Or with President M. Roy Wilson, denounced this week by Wayne State governor Michael Busuito as "divisive, incompetent or dishonest" — a debatable characterization that could just as easily have been leveled at Michigan State's former interim president, John Engler, by the, well, Democrats on the East Lansing board.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson in June.

Or the newest favorite: Busuito's email to Wayne State's chief of police demanding that he, the university's general counsel and the head of its information-technology department bar Wilson from the president's office after close of business on Tuesday. The reason: four members of the school's eight-person board voted to fire him — a strong-arm tactic of dubious effect more likely in a banana republic than a major university.  

All of these antics, and more, would be laughable if they didn't signal just how broken the governance model actually is at the state's largest, most prestigious, public universities. This is what you get when the overriding qualification for serving on one of the Big Three boards is the ability to survive the nominating gauntlets of the state's Democratic and Republican conventions.

Politics trump expertise, pretty much assuring executives with experience running large, complex organizations need not apply. Personal grudges fester (Wayne State); institutional butt-covering outranks transparency (Michigan State); and the most prized compensation is access to a posh suite at the Big House.

This is no way to exercise public oversight over Wayne State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan in this state — the only state in the nation to elect trustees to its flagship universities by partisan, at-large, statewide ballots. It's the definition of higher-ed insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.

I know, as the partisans have frequently reminded me, allowing a governor to appoint trustees would grease the way for the politically connected, members of the donor class or both to establish sinecures on the top boards. Could the result be any worse than the petty, insular cultures prone to infighting or, even worse, denying accountability for the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal at Michigan State?

The question answers itself. And at least one effort by former Gov. Rick Snyder to inject professionalism into a Big Three boardroom — namely, Michigan State — appears to have failed miserably, chiefly because the board's clubby culture of denial vanquished an outsider's attempt to let "the truth ... come out" about the Nassar scandal.

The resignation late last month of Nancy Schlichting from Michigan State's board is an ominous signal. Here's the retired CEO of Henry Ford Health System, a trustee of Duke University and the Kresge Foundation, among other boards, a longtime leader in the metro Detroit business community, relinquishing her seat after just 10 months.

"During the last year, though, it has become very clear to me that my commitment to have an independent review of the Nassar situation, and to waive privilege so the truth can come out, is not shared by the MSU Board Chair, legacy board members, and some newer trustees," she wrote in her resignation letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Schlichting added: "I deeply regret that my Board service has been so short, but hope that the next appointed trustee will be able to make a greater impact than I have." 

Meaning the governance of that place is more screwed up than you may appreciate, governor, and getting someone with capability to take the seat will take some doing. That's a warning Whitmer should heed, coming from a longtime CEO whose bio of accomplishment stands in marked contrast to most of those sitting on the boards of Michigan's Big Three universities.   

Yes, I know: ours is an age that glorifies hackery over professionalism, inexperience over experience, CEOs with vision over those with legit management chops, first-time politicians and diplomats over pols and generals steeled by challenges met. For half the population or so, amateur hour apparently is acceptable atop major institutions.

It shouldn't be, which is why the fad is likely to pass when it fails to produce the desired results. The abrupt departure of Schlichting from the Michigan State board is a disincentive to others of her stature that would replace her: despite the crushing ignominy of the Nassar scandal and its searing impact so many young women, leadership's appetite for change is limited.

The residents and would-be students of Michigan's Big Three universities deserve better. But until they pressure state lawmakers for change, even if it means changing the state constitution, they deserve what they get.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.