As Michigan State University’s board members sat around a gleaming conference table in late January, they breathed a sigh of relief.
They had just appointed former Michigan Gov. John Engler to be the school’s interim president, and magically, calls for current Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to sweep the board out of office had disappeared.
But that feeling didn’t last long. Right after they got done appointing Engler, a student jumped up on top of that large table and demanded the board resign.
As the board meets for the first time Friday since MSU doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison for molesting female students, its actions remain under tight scrutiny. Earlier this week, the faculty Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the board to step down. On Thursday, lawmakers held a committee meeting in Lansing exploring legislation to change how board members at MSU — along with the the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — are selected. Members are presently elected at all three universities, but appointed by the governor at the state’s other 12 higher-education institutions
While the legislation’s fate remains uncertain — it is unlikely to get a vote in the House of Representatives because of Democratic opposition — calls for reform are being heard in the wake of the Nassar scandal.
“I think there’s going to be more scrutiny now by voters,” Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, told the Free Press. “I’d be shocked if they aren’t paying more attention.”
The calls for the board members’ jobs are similar — many critics believe the board did a lousy job in providing oversight of the institution, especially in the Nassar case and in other sexual assault cases. The majority of board members stood behind former MSU PresidentLou Anna Simon despite escalating calls for her to step down.
The scandal has focused attention on what is normally a group of elected officials who fly under the radar — especially on Election Day.
No matter their political allegiance, the process for getting on MSU’s, U-M’s or Wayne State’s board ends in the same place — at the bottom of a really long ballot. Two eight-year slots are up each year on each of the three boards.
“I normally vote for anyone whose name I recognize, or if I don’t recognize anyone, I just vote for the Democrats, because I’m a Democrat,” said MSU graduate Michelle Williams, 46, of Grand Rapids. “I think I’ll pay more attention now, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve got much to choose from.
That’s because board members are selected at party conventions and often tend to be party insiders.
“I haven’t been to a Democratic convention, but I have been to Republican ones,” state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, said during a Thursday legislative hearing. “The candidates who win (nomination) are normally the ones can jump the highest on the conservative measuring stick.”
He said that means some candidates spend their time talking immigration and other issues not applicable to running a university.
“Is that the best way to qualify (as a university board member)? I can say no.”
Who’s on the board now
Unlike Wayne State and U-M, where Democrats are solidly in control, MSU’s eight-member board is equally split between both major political parties.
The four Republicans are:
- Chairman Brian Breslin. Breslin’s term began in 2011, and he is up for re-election this year, though he has said he won’t run again. Breslin, who graduated from MSU in 1977 and was on the basketball team then, worked for Meijer Inc. from 1977 to 2006, when he retired. He recently worked in Gov. Rick Snyder’s office as the appointments manager, but took a leave of absence to spend more time on MSU issues.
- Melanie Foster was elected to the board in 2004 and again in 2014. Engler, when he was governor, appointed Foster to serve an expired term on the board from 1991 to 1992. Her current term expires in 2023. Foster, also an MSU graduate, spent her career as an executive in commercial landscape businesses.
- Mitch Lyons, a former football player at MSU and in the NFL, was elected in 2011. He is up for re-election this year, but, like Breslin, has said he won’t run. After his playing career was over, Lyons started a financial services firm in Grand Rapids. He was the first to call for Simon to step down.
- Dan Kelly is the newest member of the board. His term started in 2017 and will expire in 2025. He is a lawyer at the Troy-based law firm of Giarmarco, Mullins, and Horton, PC.
The four Democrats include the longest-serving board member. They are:
- Vice chairman Joel Ferguson, a Lansing-based developer, was first elected in 1986. The 1965 MSU graduate’s term expires in 2021.
- Brian Mossalam, a financial adviser from Dearborn, started his first term in 2013. A former MSU football player, his term is up in 2021.
- George Perles, the former MSU head football coach and athletic director, started his first term in 2007. The MSU graduate’s term is up in 2023.
- Dianne Byrum’s time on the board started in 2008. She is a partner at Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications and a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate. Her term ends in 2025. Byrum also called for Simon to step down.
A partisan selection process
Unlike the race for governor, where Democrats and Republicans have primaries for voters to decide who will represent each party, the candidates for university board seats are picked at party conventions.
For the Republicans, any party member interested in running for a seat has to fill out a form, gather signatures from four congressional district party chairs and pay a $500 filing fee. A policy committee then reviews each to make sure all the paperwork is filled out properly and then it’s on to the delegates at the annual convention, normally held in August.
There, the delegates vote on the approved ballot. There are no nominations from the floor during the convention. Whoever gets the majority of votes becomes the Republican nominee for that seat.
“It’s very much a grassroots-up process,” said state GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.
The Democrats’ process is similar. At the convention, a person can gather signatures and have their name put up for nomination. The delegates to the convention vote in a proportional vote based on their congressional district.
In both parties’ cases, those interested in running will often work the circuit of county party meetings, dinners and other gatherings to build support, even if there’s normally not many people running for each seat.
“I suspect this year that will change,” Dillon, the state Democrat chairman, said, adding he has had conversations with about 15 people interested in one or the other of the three university boards.
Michigan’s unique setup
Michigan stands alone in how it runs its higher education institutions. Unlike other states, its universities don’t have centralized oversight. Each university is its own independent unit.
That means there are 13 individual boards set up to govern — the U-M board covers campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint — but those boards are also set up differently from each other.
At Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Saginaw Valley, Grand Valley, Michigan Technological, Ferris State and Oakland universities, Michigan’s governor appoints the board members.
At MSU, U-M and Wayne State, the board is elected thanks to the Michigan Constitution.
A package of bills proposed in Lansing would change the Constitution to have U-M, Wayne State and MSU’s boards be appointed and not elected. But the bills are unlikely to pass, despite calls for reform.
The sponsors of the bills say having board members appointed has worked well.
Rep. Robert VerHeulen, R-Walker, said Thursday at a committee hearing that candidates are more thoroughly vetted by the governor’s staff before appointments are made.
“Governors of both parties have avoided partisan politics” with their selections, he said. “And this doesn’t remove people from the process, it gives them the chance to say which choice they would prefer.”
But Democrats on the House Elections and Ethics committee said that aside from the situation at MSU, the boards at U-M and WSU are working well and the universities are thriving.
“I do not understand moving this from voters having direct ability to affect that election to a gubernatorial process,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor. “Some of the gubernatorial appointments we’ve gotten — look at the debacle in Flint — I don’t see how this increases accountability.”
Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, added, “I’m disgusted by the MSU Board of Trustees and I’d like to see them all go. But I’m not sure this is a solution to the problem.”
The difficulty for getting enough support for the proposal is that it would mean a change in the state’s constitution, which requires a lofty two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate and then it would have to appear on the November statewide ballot.
“There is healthy opposition from the Democratic side, so this probably won’t have wings as far as taking off in the Legislature,” Miller said. “From here, I’m pessimistic.”
However it ends for the boards of Wayne State, MSU or U-M, the Constitution spells out what the boards can do — and that is problematic too.
“Each board shall have general supervision of its institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution’s funds,” the Constitution says. “Each board shall, as often as necessary, elect a president of the institution under its supervision. He shall be the principal executive officer of the institution, be ex-officio a member of the board without the right to vote and preside at meetings of the board.”
That setup can lead to issues, said James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
“It would appear that the presidents at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University have a constitutional obligation to preside at meetings of the board,” said Finkelstein, who studies university presidents. “Their roles are further strengthened since responsibilities of the chairpersons of these boards are not defined either in the state’s constitution or in the case of Michigan State, in the bylaws of the governing board.”
Simon spent her entire career at MSU before resigning under heavy pressure. Board members received lots of criticism for not sacking her sooner.
“In essence, this structure — actually the lack thereof — creates an extremely powerful president and a very weak board. This is compounded when you have, as in this case, a very long-serving and well-regarded president. Apparently, there is essentially no way for the board to get any information other than what the president decided to provide.”