Column: Make public universities more open
Michigan State University, its board of trustees and its interim president have been through some scathing criticism with the handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. And though repeatedly vowing to embrace accountability and transparency, they’ve earned failing marks all around.
However, there is one step forward that MSU’s elected trustees could take that would provide some assurance that the cloak of secrecy surrounding recent board actions and those in the future would be permanently lifted. That step is to start following the requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) even though university lawyers insist their boards are exempt from the law.
A 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision, involving MSU’s board during a presidential search, ruled that at least for presidential searches, boards were exempt from the OMA. Sloppy language in the opinion, however, has allowed elected and appointed boards at all 15 Michigan public universities to interpret the decision as completely exempting these “constitutionally created” institutions from OMA. The only reason these boards have public meetings at all is that the Michigan Constitutions does mandate formal action be taken at “formal sessions” in public.
Adhering to the Open Meetings Act would require much more transparency than currently exists at all of the state’s public universities. Under OMA, city councils, school boards, township boards, county commissioners, etc., all have to conduct the public’s business, except for a limited number of exceptions, at meetings open to the public. That means no secret pre-meetings, retreats, lunches, dinners or informal working sessions where issues are debated and resolved short of a formal vote at the next meeting.
But university board members do all that and more in secret with tax payer dollars and student tuition. In 2017-18 Michigan’s public universities received $1.6 billion about 3 percent of the state’s overall budget and just 21 percent of the actually operating costs of the universities. About 71 percent of university’s operating costs are by tuition and fees. That’s two significant reasons that elected and appointed public university boards should operate with transparency and accountability in public meetings.
At MSU the 2017-18 operating budget included $281 million in state appropriations and nearly $983 million in tuition. Yet decisions on issues such as tuition and fee increases, residence hall rates, hiring executives and faculty, awarding honorary degrees and selecting a new president (which will be happening at MSU soon) are presented, argued, debated and thrashed out behind closed doors.
From board members’ perspective, this has saved hours of time and potential embarrassments at those formal board sessions which, before the 1999 court decision, could last several hours. Now those meetings are much shorter with “consent agendas” and frequently no debate or discussion on most or all agenda items.
The public comment period is usually an exercise in futility since decisions have already been made.
It’s time for all candidates running for elected board seats at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University to agree to operate as intended under the state Open Meetings Act. That same pledge of openness and transparency should be a requirement for trustees at Michigan’s 12 other public universities appointed by the governor.
Perhaps MSU’s board could have handled the ongoing Nassar sexual abuse scandal more responsibly and compassionately if it had not been cocooned in a culture of secrecy. It’s time to demand change.
Jane Briggs-Bunting is board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former faculty member at Michigan State and Oakland Universities.