Column: Make university boards accountable

James F. Anderton

Trustees and regents compose the governing body and are the ultimate enabler of what happens at their institution. Once the trustees/regents of Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University are elected, they are accountable to no one during their eight year elected term. Unfortunately, we have just witnessed the ultimate tragedy of an unaccountable board.

The existing selection process for boards at Michigan’s three largest state universities must be improved, Anderton writes.

The board selection process for these three institutions must change if their members are to be held accountable during their terms.

Whether the Board of MSU and its administration knew of Nassar’s misdeeds, they should have. If they didn’t know, they allowed, and perhaps fostered, a culture of silence that likely masked many items that should have been brought forward, discussed, and resolved. If they knew, or had an inkling of knowledge of Nassar, they had a responsibility as fiduciaries to take immediate and definitive action.

My Ph.D., obtained from MSU in 1997, focused on governing boards at land-grant universities. I researched this topic because Michigan is the only state in the nation that has state-wide, partisan elections for its land-grant institution (MSU) and two other major universities — and few know who or what they are voting for. (If you’re a Michigan voter, can you name the trustees/regents of these institutions?)

The existing selection process at these three institutions must be improved.

The members of each university board should consist of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, equal numbers of men and women, and at least one minority — eight in total. This is representative of our state population. Having equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans serving staggered, eight-year terms, with one Democrat and one Republican appointed every two years, will focus the boards on their institutions’ needs, not politics.

No member should serve more than one, eight-year term — even those who are given two-, four-, and six-year terms when the new boards are constituted. This means members will not need to pander to their party or the voters for re-election.

I also strongly recommend the establishment of a board nominating committee (BNC). There is a need to remove politics, to the greatest extent possible, from the university board member selection process. The BNC would consist of the same composition as the university boards, be appointed by the governor, serve staggered terms, and serve a maximum of one eight year term. The initial BNC would be constituted and serve the same terms as members of the initial university boards as above. The BNC would identify and recruit or solicit trustee/regent candidates, vet them, and forward three names to the governor for each open position. Governor appointments to become trustees/regents would be subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Additionally, each board should elect a chairperson who will create agendas and preside at meetings of the board. Currently, at MSU, the “principal executive officer” (the president) presides. This makes no sense. The board should run and control its meetings — and the meeting agenda.

There should also be an executive session at the conclusion of each university board meeting at which only trustees/regents are present. Each board’s principal responsibility is to select and assess the work of the president. This cannot be accomplished when the president is sitting at the head of the table and running the meeting.

Passing the above recommendations would demonstrate the Legislature wants to minimize politics and assure the best qualified individuals serve on these boards. If we don’t make these changes, we have learned nothing about the process that enabled Nassar for over 20 years. Let’s do this once and do it right. We owe these changes to Nassar’s survivors and for the betterment of these institutions.

James F. Anderton has a Ph.D. in educational administration and has served in the leadership of several colleges.