Lawmaker proposes plan to appoint university trustees

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James Lower

James Lower / Michigan House Republicans

Rep. James Lower

LANSING – A state lawmaker seeks to change how Michigan chooses the boards governing Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, recently proposed a constitutional amendment to require the governor to make those appointments.

That is a change from the system of using voters to elect trustees. It would bring these three schools in line with universities across the state.  The state constitution requires trustee candidates for those three largest universities to be nominated at sparsely attended party conventions and elected on a statewide ballot in November.

A general election is rare among universities in other states, Lower said.

The amendment comes as citizens, politicians, students and faculty have called for the MSU Board of Trustees to resign or be replaced. The board has received harsh criticism for its response to the Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse scandal, and for its appointment of former Gov. John Engler as interim president.

Lower says he was toying with the idea of an amendment before the Nassar trial began.

“I decided to open up the conversation with my constituents after the trial began,” Lower said. “I gauged interest from both parties and decided it was time to try and get this amendment on the ballot.”

A board appointed by the governor may have handled the fallout of the Nassar scandal better than the current trustees, Lower said.

“The bar for removing and replacing trustees is much lower in cases where the board is appointed,” he said. That would have allowed the governor to remove board members during the Nassar proceedings and could have de-escalated the disappointment and anger from the general public, students and faculty.

“The burden of proof needed to make changes to board personnel is also very different,” Lower said. “Currently, unless they resign, the board members cannot be removed until their terms end.”

Critics of the board’s election process say that there is too much influence from state officials in the voting system. Historically, the political views of the board have reflected the views of the party that wins the majority in the state legislature elections. Lower says this is because most people pay little attention to the candidates, so they either choose a random name or the most familiar person.

Opponents of the bill fear it will not do enough to stop the political influence in member selection.

Susan Demas,  the owner of Inside Michigan Politics, a biweekly publication that provides political analysis, said the board members will remain a product of the party with the most political control.

“It seems to me that the political parties will still control who is on the board, without the input from the public,” Demas said. “I’m not so sure that we will see much actual change from this bill.”

Matt Grossmann, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, said  many of his students pay more attention to how their university is organized after the Nassar scandal sparked their interest.

“I would say the general knowledge that people have of the board is very low,” Grossmann said. “How many people know that the board is elected by general election, or that they’re very partisan elections? However, I have definitely noticed a rise in interested parties, whether it be students, faculty, or even journalists.”

The bill needs two-thirds of the House and Senate to put the issue on the ballot.  If it does, it  could be on the ballot in November. If voters approve it, the governor could appoint new board members at each university the following January.