Column: After Nassar, reform constitution

Dennis Lennox

The resignation of Lou Anna Simon as president of Michigan State University and subsequent hiring of ex-Gov. John Engler as her interim replacement doesn’t end the constitutional crisis exposed by the evil of Larry Nassar.

Simon resigned after the political pressure and public outcry became too much. I petitioned Gov. Rick Snyder to remove Simon and the MSU Board of Trustees through a seldom-used provision of the state constitution. When he refused, I filed a lawsuit, Lennox v. Snyder, in the Court of Claims seeking a removal inquiry. Then there was the speaker of the House of Representatives, who has considered impeachment of the trustees. It shouldn’t have taken this much pressure for Simon to quit — or, to literally quote her resignation letter, take one for “Team MSU.” But it did.

And it happened because of a horribly misinterpreted constitutional arrangement that gives academic autonomy to the 15 public universities in Michigan. In the case of MSU, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan the degree of autonomy is even greater because each governing board is constitutionally elected in statewide general elections.

The framers of the constitution didn’t want the governor or members of the Legislature interfering with academic freedom by dictating what professors can teach students. However, they never intended universities to become a fourth, co-equal branch of state government.

Yet, that is precisely how MSU, WSU and UM have been allowed to operate. It also doesn’t help that term limits have destroyed state government to the point where many in the corridors of power couldn’t even tell you what is in the constitution.

MSU and UM are, by far, the worst offenders. For years, they have engaged in deliberate and systematic violations of fundamental transparency laws.

Legislators mostly dismissed past calls for reform as being too in the weeds. After all, it’s not like Michiganians pay much attention to what happens on campus outside of sports.

At least until now.

The Nassar affair exposed the MSU Board of Trustees to be nothing more than a club for rich old donors and has-been jocks. They showed themselves to be incompetent and ill-equipped to be anything other than a rubber-stamp for Simon, who herself was complicit in the failure to safeguard.

Then there’s Snyder.

Not only has he refused to initiate an inquiry even after legal advisers to former Democratic and Republican governors said he had the clear authority to do so, but Snyder wouldn’t even beseech the trustees.

Regardless of whether Snyder removes the trustees — a judge has yet to rule on my legal action seeking to compel an inquiry — changing who sits on the board won’t resolve the constitutional crisis.

The Legislature must amend the constitution by limiting the autonomy only to matters of academics and academic freedom. If they acted now, it could be on the ballot in August’s primary election for ratification by the electorate.

MSU and the other universities cannot be allowed to operate above the law.

Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.