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Republicans pressure universities on speech, board elections

As part of the state Legislature’s response to Michigan State University’s handling of Larry Nassar, lawmakers are asking the state’s 15 public universities to explain their policies on sexual misconduct.

But, the questions are not stopping there.

In fact, sexual misconduct is serving as an entree for discussions on a litany of complaints that conservatives and Republicans have about how politics is discussed on university campuses.

A letter, signed by the Republican chairs of the House and Senate university budget subcommittees, is asking universities directly what they do to protect controversial speakers from harassment on campus.

And, the letter is a big deal. The money that lawmakers appropriate to universities is a big part of their budgets. So, any time the budget writers ask questions, the assumption is that dollars are at stake.

Conservatives have long complained that their views don’t get a fair hearing on campuses that they say are dominated by liberal thought.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan have some ideas on how they want to fix this.

There’s a resolution in the state House that would let the Legislature overrule university and community college policies on campus free speech. In the state Senate, there’s a bill that would sanction universities and community colleges that don’t expel students who heckle and shout down speakers multiple times. Those protesters, however, say they’re simply exercising their free speech rights.

Meanwhile, after the dismal way in which the MSU Board of Trustees handled the Nassar situation, Republicans are also taking aim at how MSU, U of M and the Wayne State University boards are selected.

Right now, boards at the Big Three universities are chosen in statewide elections.

Republicans are pushing a resolution that would ask voters to amend the state constitution to let the governor make those board appointments.

Republicans say it’s about accountability, that a governor would do a better job of vetting board candidates than voters.

"The Legislature is proving that the issue of dealing with campus sexual misconduct is not immune to the effects of politicians..."

But let’s not ignore the fact that Republicans have long been frustrated with the fact that Democratic university board candidates tend to win even in GOP sweep years, largely because of Democrats who vote a straight ticket from top to bottom of the ballot.

So, campus sexual misconduct is a serious problem that the Legislature will engage on in 2018.

But the Legislature is proving that the issue of dealing with campus sexual misconduct is not immune to the effects of politicians seeking political advantage.


Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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