Commentary
11:56 am
Mon April 16, 2012

Commentary: Who really runs Michigan’s universities?

Most people would probably say their presidents. Based on a non-scientific experiment I’ve been conducting in casual conversations, a fair number of people, can even name the presidents of those schools.

Well, at least the one they attended.

The presidents of Michigan’s three biggest universities have the highest name recognition -- Mary Sue Coleman at the University of Michigan, Lou Anna Simon at Michigan State, and Allan Gilmour at Wayne State. But ask who appoints them, and you mostly get blank stares. Most people seem to think they are appointed by Michigan’s governors. In reality, they are appointed by that particular university’s board of trustees, or, in the case of Wayne State, board of governors. These boards hire and fire their school’s presidents, and determine their contracts and salaries.

University boards set tuition rates, approve or reject budgets, and generally wield a lot of power. But who selects them?  You may not realize it, but when it comes to Michigan’s three major universities, you do. Or, at least, can.

Michigan, unlike most states, has two different kinds of public universities. Most of our 15 state schools have their boards appointed by the governor. But the U of M, Michigan State and Wayne State have theirs chosen by a statewide vote of the people, just like the governor himself. And the candidates for these boards are nominated by our major political parties and placed on the ballot.

The only problem is that most people don’t notice.

There are so many names on the ballot in most elections that most voters do one of two things, They vote a straight party ticket, or they pick and choose candidates for offices they know and care about, and skip the rest. Which means that millions of voters don’t bother to vote for major university trustees. Four years ago, a former student of mine decided she wanted to run for Wayne’s board. I told her two things. First, I thought she was great and would vote for her.

Second, she needed to know she was going to lose, because she was running as a Republican. She stared at me. I explained. “This is a Democratic year. Barack Obama is going to win Michigan easily. More people will vote the straight Democratic ticket, and all GOP board nominees will be swept to defeat. “But if you really want to do this, run again in two years. Odds are, that will be a Republican year.” Sure enough, she lost and then she won. Ironically, since fewer people vote in off-year elections, she got far fewer votes when she won than when she lost.

You may wonder whether this system makes sense. Our major universities are enormously complex. Should they be governed by  partisan politicians?  If I didn’t know better, I’d say, emphatically, no. But the system actually seems to work.

I think that’s because the board members aren’t paid, serve eight-year terms and don’t tend to see this as a stepping stone. Virtually every one I’ve ever met took their jobs seriously and worked hard at them. Our big three universities are hugely important to this state’s future. You might want to think about finding out who is running this fall. And actually casting an informed vote.