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Appointing trustees would not depoliticize university boards

The dysfunction among Michigan State University’s trustees has captured the attention of some legislators. Their solution is to appoint trustees for the state’s three largest universities. The rationale is that voters are overly political when electing trustees, so a gubernatorial appointment would somehow be better.

The problem with this approach lies in the Michigan constitution, which specifies that the people of the State of Michigan will elect the boards of these three universities. Currently, the governor appoints the board members of all other public universities in the state.

Personally, I would like to see voters elect all board members for all universities as a way to eliminate the possibility of an over-zealous governor replacing board members – like what happened at the New College of Florida earlier this year.

At the same time, I would also like to see the voters hold their elected officials accountable for what happens (and doesn’t happen) at our higher education institutions. For example, voters should hold elected trustees accountable when they divert general operating dollars to debt service for building projects that are not central to the mission of the institution.

Thinking about the Health and Fitness Center, which drained millions of dollars from WCC’s general fund during the pandemic. The building was never authorized by the public, has never lived up to its fantastical financial projections, and is a financial drag on the college. Simply put, the college has more pressing priorities that the millions of dollars WCC has flushed on the Health and Fitness Center could have addressed.

The public elects community college trustees as a way to maintain oversight authority over the millions of tax dollars a community provides for the institution. Unfortunately, in WCC’s case, the overwhelming majority of the trustees come from Ann Arbor, as they have historically.

Trustees should represent all taxpayers in the district

WCC would benefit tremendously from trustees who represent all areas of Washtenaw County. Areas outside of the City of Ann Arbor supply the majority of tax revenues to WCC, yet these areas have virtually no representation on the board. A way to correct this is to divide the county into seven districts, from which one trustee should be elected.

This would break up the “Ann Arbor monopoly” on the WCC Board of Trustees and would bring a fresh – and hopefully more balanced – perspective to the Board of Trustees. It would also ensure that all taxpayers have a louder voice in how the college spends taxpayer resources, especially when they clearly and purposely don’t serve the needs of WCC students.

Politicizing board appointments won’t help higher education in Michigan but democratizing them sure would.

Photo Credit: KOMUnews , via Flickr