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Howes: Continuing trustee antics at the Big Three universities scream "Don't come here!"

Old Main building exterior
Wayne State University

How screwed up is the governance of Wayne State University? So much so that Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and bi-partisan leaders in the state Legislature signed a letter this week urging Wayne State’s warring board of trustees to, quote, “make the right decision.”

Not on hiring a new football coach or building a new business school. Not on anything that would improve the educational product coming out of Midtown. No – the full complement of Michigan’s political leadership wants the dysfunctional trustees to – wait for it – adopt a “code of conduct.”

If they don’t, they risk the Higher Learning Commission revoking the university’s accreditation. Why? Because a commission investigation found at least one trustee had meddled in management decisions. This shows yet again that too many trustees of Michigan’s Big Three public universities don’t understand the difference between management and governance.

And they don’t understand that the continuing antics, the meddling, the preening for media attention are a screaming billboard to prospective academic talent. The message? “Don’t come here!”

Whitmer and the others who signed the three-paragraph letter have it exactly right, of course. Wayne State is a great educational asset. It graduates more professionals who build careers in the state than any other university. It’s a “critical part” of Michigan’s history and it should be a vital piece of defining its future.

Except Wayne’s a mess at the top. A faction of the so-called “leaders” is caking itself with the mud of petty squabbles – score settling – and repeated attempts to fire university President Roy Wilson. That’s when they aren’t trying to tell other school executives how to do their jobs.

daniel howes
Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News
Detroit News

By now, astute listeners should have discerned a pattern coming from Big Three board rooms, especially in Detroit and East Lansing. Trustees elected to govern mostly can’t – in part because the chief qualification for nomination is ties to special interests in the state Republican and Democratic parties.

How do I know this? Because the total lack of chops among too many board members is revealed repeatedly by serial crises at Michigan State and continuing squabbles at Wayne State. How else do I know? Because a sitting board member at one of the schools told me how, for example, the Democrats pick their candidates:

Near the end of the party convention, the progressives gather with the trial lawyers and the unions. If the would-be candidates are acceptable to the power brokers, they’re nominated – making Michigan the only state in the country to elect trustees to its Big Three schools on partisan, statewide, at-large ballots.

Look at the results.

Yes, I know: changing how Big Three trustees are chosen would require amending the state constitution. It would require devising an alternative, like allowing the governor to make board appointments, as she does with the rest of the state’s public universities. It would require valuing competence and experience over connections and party politicking.

Most of all, it would require acknowledging the current system mostly doesn’t work – as Wayne State’s trustees are proving, again.

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.

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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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