The Larry Nassar turmoil at Michigan State University has sparked renewed demands to refom the way Michigan governs its major state universities. Amidst all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, will anything actually result in change to the current system?
In a word, no.
Legislation has been introduced in the state capitol to impose term limits on the governing boards of Michigan’s three major research universities, to convert the process of selecting them from electoral to appointive (by the governor), and to eliminate the state Board of Education altogether.
All these measures require amending the state Constitution. That means a 2/3 majority vote in both the state Senate and House of Representatives is needed to get them on the ballot. That’s a tall order. It could happen theoretically in the Senate, where the GOP holds a 27-11 supermajority, but Democrats in the state House are strong enough (with 46 seats) to block passage in that chamber.
Why would Democrats stymie a plan to “reform” Michigan’s process of selecting college boards that has produced members who appear, in the Nassar fiasco, to be tone-deaf, arrogant, and incompetent? It’s all about “power” and “control.” Democrats have dominated elections to the state education boards since the adoption of the current Constitution beginning in 1964. Despite the fact that there have been multiple Republicans elected to statewide office (right now is a good example — the GOP dominates everything in state government except the university boards), Democrats have controlled these panels the vast majority of time, as they do today.
Here’s how overwhelming the Democrats’ superiority in ed boards races has been: the Republicans haven’t controlled the MSU Board since 2006, the state Board of Education since 1996, the University of Michigan Board since 1970, and they have NEVER had a majority on the WSU board (the best they’ve been able to muster was a 4-4 tie in 1995-96).
Michigan has allowed straight ticket voting for 125 years (we’re one of only 10 states that permit it). Voters can cast an all-encompassing vote for one party’s nominees for every office on the ballot, including the four state education boards, simply by checking a single box at the top of the broadsheet. Before 2016, Democratic presidential nominees had won six straight elections in Michigan, beginning in 1992. As a result, Dems had won more than 90% of the ed board seats on the ballot in presidential years during that time. Republicans have done better in gubernatorial (non-presidential) years — GOP candidates like George Romney, Bill Milliken, John Engler and Rick Snyder have won 10 of 14 goober elections since adoption of the 1963 constitution — but haven’t been able to make up for the Democrats’ presidential year success.
Some would say — wait! Didn’t the Republicans win five of the eight statewide education board seats in 2016, when President Donald Trump narrowly carried Michigan? Yes, but even with that victory, name one statewide education board the Republicans now control — the answer is NONE.
However, the Republican-controlled Legislature does have some ability to affect change at the present time, or at least have a debate about it. Few realize that the Legislature and governor have the power under the Constitution to define the mechanism “as prescribed by law” or “as “provided by law” by which members of each of the four major boards are elected.
Only members of the state Board of Education (SBE) must be nominated by (political) party convention, according to Michigan’s Constitution which also stipulates that they must be elected at large (statewide) and are entitled to eight-year terms. But WHEN those members must face the electorate is left up to the Legislature and governor to determine. For example, by statute four seats could be filled in every gubernatorial election year (rather than presidential) rather than the current system wherein two seats open up every two years, regardless of what kind of election it is. The Legislature and/or governor might make other changes as well.
Members of the state’s three major research universities —the U-M Board of Regents, the MSU Board of Trustees, and the Wayne State University Board of Governors — do NOT have to be nominated by party convention. They could be nominated on a non-partisan basis, and/or in a primary. They must serve eight-year terms, yes, but they could be elected by districts (as many states do), if the Legislature and governor so determine. Any of these changes could be enacted by a simple majority vote in the Legislature.
Here’s something else —the elections for these offices used to be in the spring of odd-numbered years, and there is reason to believe that the 1961-62 Constitutional Convention “blew it” by changing them to November general elections in even-numbered years.
Yet no Legislature or governor in the past half-century has undertaken to change this arrangement. In fact, the Capitol poohbahs have made it worse — just in the past few years they’ve loaded up the November ballot with offices like school and library boards, making ours the longest ballot in the nation.
The bottom line: Michigan LIKES to elect its top politicians, including judges. We don’t want them to be appointed. We never have, except to fill vacancies. We’re one of only four states that elect our major research universities statewide. The U-M Board of Regents has been elected, not appointed, since the Constitution of 1850. MSU’s governing body and the SBE have been selected by voters since the early 20th century, and WSU since the late 1950s.
Michigan’s electorate also likes autonomous institutions of higher learning shielded from meddling by other state agencies and officeholders. Partly as a result, U-M has achieved prominence as one of the top public universities in the entire world.
However, the citizenry also doesn’t like supercilious ineptitude. We can only hope interim MSU President John Engler will take care of that problem.