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Nassar scandal shows precisely why the state selects its trustees the wrong way

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Michigan’s Big Three universities have a big problem, and it starts in the boardroom.

Michigan is the only state in the country that elects its major university trustees by at-large statewide ballots. They don’t represent districts.

Few have the sharp business acumen needed to govern multi-billion dollar institutions. And as the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal in East Lansing shows, it doesn’t hold them accountable, either.

Michigan State’s board is mostly a collection of old jocks, a few small business people and an octogenarian football coach. Not a senior business executive or CEO among them. A deep bench it ain’t.

Where, exactly, has that august board been in the downward arc to ignominy? From this week on, the name “Michigan State” will be synonymous with “Penn State” — shorthand for officially sanctioned molestation.

Spartan Nation has more to blame than Nassar. He’ll spend the rest of his miserable life in prison, his victims will try to go on with their lives, and Spartans will be forced to live with trustee bumbling. They’re elected to oversee leadership, to ask hard questions, and to act.

Too much to ask. Instead, their moral stain is marked by cluelessness and good ol’ butt-covering. Which raises a question for anyone who cares how Michigan State, the University of Michigan or Wayne State are governed:

Is there a better way to select trustees than statewide ballots that favor party affiliation, powerful friends or fading football glory? No other state — not one — chooses trustees for their flagship universities the way Michigan does.

The head of the Association of College Trustees and Alumni says boards should be, quote, “composed of people who have the technical expertise and independence to serve the public.” At Michigan’s Big Three schools, they mostly don’t. MSU has small business people and former athletes. Michigan has lawyers and more lawyers. Only Wayne State has a CEO — one — in the traditional, non-retired sense of the word.

That’s no way to select the higher ed equivalent of corporate boards of directors overseeing billions in public money. Yet that’s exactly what Michigan does — a cozy, back-scratchy set up that guarantees good seats at the next game.

A change would require a constitutional amendment and if there’s any time to push for that, it’s now. Because the constitutional fig leaf currently protecting Michigan State’s trustees is a barrier to accountability. 

So are their eight-year terms. How many Spartan faithful will still be steamed at, say, Trustee Joel Ferguson when his name again appears on the ballot — in 2020? Or George Perles, in 2022? Or Dianne Byrum in 2024? Their protection may be a constitutional right, but it’s wrong.

Apparently in Michigan term limits are good for the governor and state Legislature, but not those governing our flagship universities. The better to get prized suites, sideline passes and a new bauble from the last bowl game.

This is no way to govern multi-billion dollar public institutions largely financed with taxpayer dollars. It’s certainly not the way to run Michigan State — especially not now.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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