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Howes: Michigan needs to change how it chooses trustees for its flagship schools

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Take heart, Spartans. You’re not the only ones burdened with a dysfunctional board of trustees.

Enter Wayne State University and its board of governors, at war with itself. And at war with President Roy Wilson, whom one board member denounced this week as “divisive, incompetent or dishonest.”

That same board member e-mailed the school’s chief of police, general counsel and head of IT. The order: by close of business Tuesday, President Wilson was to be barred from his own office.

Why? Because four members of the eight-person board voted to fire him – without an apparent quorum. It was a strong-arm tactic more akin to a banana republic than a major university … meaning it was standard procedure in Michigan.

All these antics would be laughable if they didn’t signal just how broken the governance model is at the state’s Big Three universities. This is what you get when the overriding qualification to serve on the boards is the ability to survive the state’s Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

In the most rarefied circles of Michigan higher ed governance, politics trumps expertise … assuring executives with experience running large, complex organizations need not apply. Personal grudges fester at Wayne State. Institutional butt-covering outranks transparency at Michigan State. And the most prized compensation in Ann Arbor is access to a posh suite at the Big House.

This is no way to exercise public oversight.  We’re the only state in the nation to elect trustees to its flagship universities on partisan, at-large, statewide ballots. It’s higher ed insanity – doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.

Most other states allow their governors to appoint trustees. I know what you’re thinking: that just greases the skids for the politically connected, the donor class or both to establish residency on the Big Three boards.

But think about it: Would that be ANY worse than the clown show that passes today for major university governance?

Uh, no. Governor Rick Snyder tried to inject some professionalism into the moribund Michigan State board when ol’ George Perles stepped down last year. The guv named former Henry Ford Health CEO Nancy Schlichting in his place. She’s a highly respected executive who sits on the boards of Duke University and the Kresge Foundation.

She lasted 10 months.

She pressed for transparency, to ensure “the truth” would “come out” about the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal that scarred the university’s reputation … claimed a presidency … and traumatized way too many young women.

But it quickly became clear, Schlichting recently told Governor Gretchen Whitmer, that her fellow board members didn’t share her conviction.

Her resignation, and the continuing games, are an unambiguous warning: this will continue until Michigan’s method for picking Big Three university trustees joins the real world.

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.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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