Plan to scrap elected university boards stalls

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A potential ballot proposal to dissolve elected boards governing Michigan’s three flagship universities and allow the next governor to appoint replacements may be dead on arrival in the Legislature, where it would need two-thirds majority support in the House and Senate in order to make the ballot.

The House Elections and Ethics Committee ended a vigorous debate on the proposal Thursday morning without a panel vote or plans for another hearing.

“I think we’ve seen healthy opposition from the Democratic side, so this probably won’t have wings as far as taking off in the Legislature,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, who supports the proposal. “From here, I’m pessimistic.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, a DeWitt Republican who would have to authorize any floor vote, does not personally support the proposal but told reporters later Thursday it is “certainly a fair debate to have.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University has exposed some shortcomings in the way trustees are selected, but they disagreed on the best solution to ensure maximum accountability to voters.

The proposal introduced by Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, would amend the state constitution of 1963 to oust elected members on the MSU Board of Trustees, the University of Michigan Board of Regents and the Wayne State University Board of Governors in 2019.

It would also disband the elected state Board of Education and have the governor appoint members, subject to review of the state Senate.

Members on all four boards are currently elected by statewide voters after major party candidates are first nominated for the ballot at Republican and Democrat conventions. But governance boards at Michigan’s 12 other public universities are appointed by the governor, and Lower argued that model is working at those schools and should be replicated.

“All we’re voting for is to give people the choice: is the status quo working? I think in many cases, it isn’t,” Lower said.

Miller, who proposed a separate constitutional amendment that would enact term limits for university trustees, said he thinks the current process for getting on the ballot is too political, pointing to his own observations at Republican state party conventions.

“Nobody likes to talk about this,” he said, “but the candidates who win are usually the ones who can jump the highest on the conservative measuring stick and get up there and prove that on issues like illegal immigration or stuff that has nothing to do with a university board who can jump the highest on that conservative measuring stick.”

Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said he was “disgusted” by the way the MSU Board of Trustees had handled the Nassar scandal but told colleagues the proposal does not address his main concern with university governance.

“The biggest problem is these board positions aren’t really chosen by the voters at all,” he said. “They’re chosen at convention. And the convention is full of party insiders and precinct delegates.”

Perhaps voters should select university nominees as well, Moss said, suggesting a more traditional primary election format for the university posts.

Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, also criticized MSU trustees but said has not seen any evidence that replacing elected members with gubernatorial appointees will increase their accountability to voters.

“I believe in representative democracy, and a key component of representative democracy is obviously voters participating in that democracy through their ability to directly elect someone on their behalf,” he said. “I just feel like this is crossing a line.”

Leonard, who is among those calling for the entire MSU Board of Trustees to resign, said he is open to a conversation about whether members should be elected by region, instead of a thorough statewide vote, and whether universities have too much autonomy under the state constitution.

“I don’t know that I’d want to go so far as having the governor actually appoint the boards,” he said. “I do like the fact that the boards, or the trustees and the regents, are accountable to the voters.”

Miller would need a simple majority to get the proposal out of his committee but said he does not think it would be able to win super majority support on in the full House.

“A lot of people want to do it different ways, and anytime you get into the constitution, you get very diverse opinions,” Miller said. “It’s very hard to tackle something like that that’s involved in the constitution.”

The debate was one of the first public hearings on a legislative proposal in the wake of the Nassar scandal, which has inspired lawmakers to introduce or announce a variety of bills to require sexual assault reporting by athletic coaches and expand statutes of limitations for victims, among other things.

“I don’t have a problem having a conversation about governance, but as of right now, the urgency should not be about how we change governance, it should be about how we stop sexual assault on campus,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.