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Whose job is it to keep an eye on university trustees?

Jan 26, 2018

One of the central problems of any government or corporation is this: Whose job is it to keep an eye on those in charge? Political science professors are fond of quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who supposedly put it this way: Who will guard the guardians?

Well, Plato never actually said that; some Latin poet did, hundreds of years later. Plato did, however, worry about it. Americans used to think we’d solved the problem.

We have, after all, a democracy in which we elect our leaders, and three branches of government that share power and keep an eye on each other. That’s what we were taught in school, and I more or less believed it for years.

Except the problem is this:

It isn’t enough for the guardians to guard each other; we have to pay attention, too. The notion that we can safely rely on voters to choose the guardians in every case is also deeply flawed. I am well educated, for example, and probably reasonably intelligent, but I’m not competent to decide who should lead the Centers for Disease Control.

Our average voter also doesn’t have the time, training and background to decide who should run our major universities, and my guess is that most people would admit that.

However, guess what: We do elect them, even though a lot of people who voted probably don’t realize it. Most Michigan public universities, like Northern, Eastern, Western and Central, have their governing boards appointed by the governor.

But our most important giant research universities – the University of Michigan, Wayne State and Michigan State – are governed by eight-person boards elected by a vote of the people.

The candidates, however, are nominated by the two major political parties. Now, I’d like to tell you that the parties strive to choose candidates who are experts in issues of university governance, but that would be a lie. They pick either politicians on the way up or way down, those who have ties to politicians or other important interest groups, or those with famous names.

Debbie Dingell was a hard-working and conscientious member of Wayne State’s board before she was elected to Congress, but she wasn’t elected to a university board because of that.

She was elected because her last name was Dingell. If you don’t have a famous name, your chances depend on whether it is a good year for your party. I’m talking about this today, because what happened at Michigan State was in part an epic failure of the board of trustees.

Last night, someone intimately familiar with the process told me they never met as a body without President Lou Anna Simon being there; they accepted her assurances, and they don’t seem to have even considered calling for an independent investigation.

This is a board that includes a couple former football players and an 83-year-old ex-football coach whose term has another five years to run. It’s not hard to imagine we’ll see another system failure at one of our major universities again.

Yet passing a constitutional amendment to change and improve this isn’t likely, because that would take a lot of work. However, eight years from now, the voters will be asked if they want to call a convention to overhaul Michigan’s constitution.

And I’m not planning to vote no.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. 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.