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Time is now to reform university trustee selection

Feb 10, 2018

The push is on to change the way Michigan selects trustees for its Big Three universities.

Using statewide ballots to choose trustees is no way to govern highly paid university presidents running multi-billion dollar institutions.

Michigan is the only state in the country to do it that way.

In the school of bad practices, the home of the Green and White perennially contends for Number One. Time for that to change.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State is exposing just how ineffective the state’s trustee selection process is. Talk to experts in the field and the first thing they say is let the governor appoint them.

But as I’ve been hearing over the past week from some Big Three trustees, that just won’t do.

They say it would give too much power to the governor, whoever that happens to be. That it would enable the governor to reward big campaign donors. It would disenfranchise “The People” – most of whom don’t have a clue who they’re voting for.

What the current process decidedly did do at Michigan State is install a set of trustees whose claims to fame are football, the name on the basketball arena and lots of longevity. But not much else.

Michigan lawmakers should get serious about reforming the way trustees are selected. Gov. Rick Snyder could back state Rep. James Lower’s bill to abolish all three boards at the end of the year and let the next governor appoint them.

I know: no one will finance a ballot initiative and, failing that, it’ll never garner two-thirds majorities to make its way on to the November ballot. Not without substantial change to the details – chiefly, a check on any governor’s ability to stack the boards with partisans. Because that’s what all governors would do, especially those from the other party!

That objection – which I’ve heard repeatedly over the past several weeks – shows just how partisan the boards actually are. Is that any way to govern flagship universities? Shouldn’t be, but it’s what we’ve got, courtesy of the good ol’ state constitution.

Which doesn’t make it smart. Nor does it make the trustees accountable.

There’s got to be a better way.

Jim Anderton, a one-time president of Lansing Community College, explored one idea in his PhD dissertation 20 years ago at Michigan State. Empower the governor to create a “trustee nominating committee” with equal parts Republicans and Democrats, he said. Let them choose, vet and recommend candidates to the governor.

Appoint trustees to staggered terms.

Limit them to two eight-year terms.

Try to reduce partisanship and elevate technical and financial expertise – a far smarter goal than rewarding those who can wheel and deal best at state party conventions.

This is an idea whose time has come. And if reform-minded lawmakers, to the extent there are any, can’t use this debacle at Michigan State to force a good, hard look at how governing boards are selected, what will?

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.