Column: Boost accountability of university trustees

Michael Webber, Rob VerHeulen and Jim Lower

Trustees at the “Big Three” universities — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — have little to no accountability. They serve eight-year terms, and it’s extremely difficult to remove them from their positions.

We recently introduced a three-piece legislative package calling for a constitutional amendment to increase the accountability for future trustees at the Big Three universities, as well as the state school board. House Joint Resolution DD, along with its two companion bills, would bring these positions in line with every other university in the state, where trustee appointments are made by the governor and trustees who fail to perform their public duties can be held responsible.

Under the current system, leaders from the major political parties select candidates to run for Big Three university trustee positions during their state conventions. Often, the people selected are well-known for being big donors to their respective parties. During the statewide election, most voters know little about the trustee candidates. They simply opt for the most recognizable names, or select a candidate based on political affiliation.

Michigan is the only state in the entire country where university trustees are elected in this manner. The majority of other states rely on a gubernatorial appointment process, like our legislation proposes.

If House Joint Resolution DD is approved by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it will be placed on the statewide ballot for voter consideration. Michigan voters will decide whether Big Three university trustees should continue to get special treatment, or whether they should be appointed by the governor like all of the other public universities in our state.

If they support the proposal, the governing boards at MSU, U-M and Wayne State, as well as the existing state school board, would be abolished on Dec. 31, 2018. The next governor would appoint eight trustees with staggered terms to each university.

Gubernatorial appointees for university trustees go through a thorough vetting process and are reviewed by the Senate. The process allows the governor to select qualified individuals based on the skills they would bring to the university, rather than political appeal. Most importantly, they would be directly accountable to the governor, an improvement over the current system in which university trustees are nearly impossible to remove, even after they’ve lost the public’s trust.

The controversy surrounding MSU has created a tremendous amount of public interest in this issue. It’s time to put this proposal before the voters and give them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the current system is working.

State Rep. Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills, represents Michigan’s 45th House district. Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, represents its 74th district, and Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, represents its 70th district.