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Gubernatorial appointment “cleanest way” to ensure accountability in university trustees

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

The Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal resulted in a tidal wave of criticism aimed at, among others, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.

There's a growing movement to change the way we choose the trustees for Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.

State Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, is expected to introduce legislation today calling for a constitutional amendment to change the selection process for the boards of the state's big three universities. You can read a draft of the joint resolution here

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, joined Stateside today to discuss what his group believes are best practices in trustee oversight of public universities.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

How Michigan does it differently

Michigan is the only state to elect its trustees for public universities via a statewide citizen vote, Poliakoff said. 

Three other states elect their trustees, or regents, through district-level elections, but he said a statewide general election is "unique to Michigan."

Michigan's method is not recommended by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. It recommends trustees be appointed by the governor, and that's what's being proposed here in Michigan.

Why the American Council of Trustees and Alumni recommends gubernatorial appointments

“The accountability line is so much clearer when the appointment is gubernatorial,” Poliakoff said. “That’s to say, a trustee needs to be a person chosen for skills that the trustee will bring to the board, and needs to be someone whose appointment can be traced back to the appointing authority for accountability. And gubernatorial appointment is the cleanest way to do that.”

Some critics have said a gubernatorial appointment wouldn’t take politics out of the equation, but would rather shift it to the governor. Others have worried the governor then would be able to stock the board with political allies, or reward certain donors.

“It is not a silver bullet,” Poliakoff said, “but the governor will be in the public eye for those choices, and that is much better than people being chosen essentially for their political charisma rather than for the integrity and the expertise that they will bring to higher education governance.”

He said a high-quality board encompasses a large range of skills fitting for the institution, and that’s easier to achieve when the selection process goes through the governor’s office.

“And again, it reflects on the governor,” he said. “The voters will ultimately be able to hold the governor accountable for playing politics rather than serving the best interests of the state and the institutions that serve that state.”

“It has an openness, a transparency, and a cleanness that is better than any other existing system,” he said.

While the idea has been aired, Poliakoff said he wouldn’t recommend that the legislature vet or approve choices made by the governor.

“It seems to add more complication than it does light,” he said. “And then the accountability line is murkier than it would be with direct appointment.”

On term length and limits

Poliakoff said Michigan’s term lengths right now are too long.

“The system in Michigan of eight year terms that are renewable is simply an invitation for old ways of thinking to be replicated over and over again,” he said.

He said terms should last no longer than six years, and that they should not be renewed more than twice.

On what Michigan needs right now

Poliakoff said it’s crucial for university boards to be transparent.

“It needs to be accountable so that the awful things that happened at Michigan State University are far less likely to happen again,” he said.

He said he’s “very heartened” by MSU's choice for interim president.

“I think Gov. Engler understands the need to be transparent and accountable and will bring that ethic to the board as well,” he said.

“As I said before, [being a university board member] is a very difficult job and it will certainly be helped enormously by having a board that is willing to show itself to the public, to reform, to show that it has discovered weak points and that it is engaged in remedy of those weak points. That’s what Michigan needs right now.”

For the full conversation, listen above. You’ll hear Poliakoff describe the kind of person that makes an ideal trustee, and why it’s “not uncommon” for public universities to struggle with the makeup of their boards.

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