Editorial: University board secrecy undermines public trust
The current showdown among board members at Wayne State University has brought the problems surrounding these elected governing bodies into sharp focus. The secrecy many of them have embraced has contributed to a lack of confidence in Michigan’s leading public academic institutions.
That needs to change.
While WSU is the latest to make headlines, other universities have also recently been in the spotlight. Michigan State University’s handling of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal and its aftermath rightly earned it national and international scorn — and much of that can be attributed to the board of trustees' lack of transparency and openness.
A faction on Wayne State’s board of governors earlier this month took advantage of a secret, unannounced meeting — and an out of town member — to vote to oust President M. Roy Wilson, with whom they have multiple disagreements.
Wilson has the support of half the board, including board chair Kim Trent, and those members believe this vote was illegitimate because of the questionable legality of the meeting. Wilson says he’s planning to stay in his post.
But the fact the governors felt empowered to take the vote in this undercover way is alarming. Many elected board members come from the private sector and may not be familiar with the rules governing public meetings. Others just don’t care.
Most public bodies in Michigan are subject to the Open Meetings Act, which calls for government business to be done in public — with a few exceptions. Yet a 1999 state Supreme Court decision related to university presidential searches has been interpreted by university boards to apply much more broadly in regard to what they can do behind closed doors. Universities that used to abide by open meetings provisions widely stopped doing so. Therein lies much of the problem.
Jane Briggs-Bunting, founding president and board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, says 20 years after that court decision, lack of openness on these university boards is “far, far worse.”
“Of all places in government, universities should be the most open and transparent,” she says, given higher education’s aim to promote free discussions.
Experts in state transparency laws say beyond an amendment to the Michigan Constitution clarifying how higher education boards should conduct their business, there isn’t a lot of room for recourse.
The state constitution gives the three flagship institutions — the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State — wide independence and treats them as a co-equal branch of government. That makes intervention by the Legislature limited, beyond applying budget pressure and raising public awareness of the problem.
And other attempts to challenge the current interpretation in the courts have proven unsuccessful in recent years.
The constitution says that “formal” university meetings should be done in public, but the boards get to decide what constitutes a formal meeting.
Universities' interpretation of the legal precedent from 1999 has caused chaos and shaken the public’s confidence in state universities. A ballot initiative could be difficult to pull off, but it’s the best way to ensure long-term guidelines are put in place.
In the meantime, board members should take it upon themselves to abide by the Open Meetings Act. MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam has proposed his board do that. Others should follow suit.
Michigan taxpayers, who send about $1.5 billion a year to public universities, should demand it.