Monday, April 16, 2012

Reaction Paper 2*

*This essay was written for my PubPol 754 class (hence the lousy title). It has been slightly modified for posting on the blog (or at the Michigan Daily**, “the Blog”) The ideas – save for one grammatical correction – remain my own, but the message has become even more salient in light of the Regents’ decision earlier this week to file an amicus curie brief supporting the overturn of a recently passed Michigan law banning grad student unionization. Universities file court briefs occasionally, but near as I (or anyone I spoke with) can tell, the governing body of any university taking a such strong stance on a strictly partisan procedural issue is unprecedented.

**Ignoring AP style since 1890. Also, meta alert: footnote within a footnote!

The most recent chapter in the saga of unionization at Michigan began last May when UM regents, against the advice of top university officials, voted to give Graduate Student Research Assistants (GSRAs) the option to join the umbrella union for teaching assistants and other student employees. While this was a rare schism between the administration and BoR, it is a startling one. Not only did the board grossly overstep its authority, but vote tallies and quotes show that GSRA unionization was a strictly political question for the regents, with both sides toeing party lines and giving no indication that they had seriously considered how unionization would affect the university. As a partisan body (right now there are 6 Democrats and 2 Republicans), it makes sense for members act and vote in accordance with party dogma. The million dollar question is whether or not that makes sense for the university, its faculty, and its students.

The million dollar answer is no.

The regents are meant to act as trustees of the university*, not as political agents seeking to manipulate UM as part of a broader party platform. If this activism by the UM BoR is indeed indicative of the BoR taking a greater role in educational policy of the university, the nature of the board must be changed to ensure that UM policy is set by educators and not politicians. In particular, it is time to make regency a non-partisan office and end elections of its members.

* At its founding, the UM BoR was actually called the Board of Trustees.

Among similar schools*, UM is the only university with regents who are explicitly Democrat, Republican, etc – the BoR is non-partisan (like judges) for all the others. The University of Minnesota in particular offers an interesting comparison as to how this difference can affect the way the regents operate. Like Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Gophers in Minneapolis have been fighting over whether graduate students should form a union. While the UM BoR have strictly adhered to party doctrine and acted accordingly, the regents at Minnesota has remained silent on the issue, deferring instead to university administration. For those who believe that universities should be controlled by educators and not politicians, Minnesota not only stands in stark contrast to the situation in Ann Arbor, but also serves a model.

* I picked this group as the university systems that feature a large, elite, research-oriented flagship university. It includes UNC-Chapel Hill, UC-Berkeley, UT-Austin, UM-Twin Cities, UW-Madison, UI-Champaign, and (shudder) Ohio State.

Furthermore, UM is the only school among the group that chooses their regents through general elections (two regents elected every two years). While that may seem more democratic than elections by the state legislature or appointment by the governor, it can also introduce problems, even in non-partisan contests. Overwhelming PAC participation has sullied non-partisan Wisconsin State Supreme Court elections to the point where the court actually weakened its conflict of interest laws to avoid the dilemmas that kept popping up as judges had to accept more money from more people in order to ascend (or stay on) the bench. That same potential for lobbying groups to unduly influence elections exist in Michigan (imagine the consequences if PETA or anti-stem cell groups managed to pack the board).

Another interesting byproduct of direct elections is that they have given us a rather homogenous BoR. Of the eight regents, only one hails from outside of the Ann Arbor-Detroit metro area and none are from east of US-23. Since gubernatorial appointments could lead to patronage scheme or just generally work out poorly (see Illinois, circa 2009), election by legislature would represent the best option for UM. Not only would it likely ensure that a much larger swath of the state is represented, but it would also insulate the regents from the pressures of lobbyists, fundraising, and PACS, freeing them to act as genuine trustees.

By barring regents from political affiliation and shifting to election by legislature, we can create a BoR that is better designed to work with university officials to ensure that UM’s primary goals remain the education and betterment of its students, not any political cause.


  1. Elections by legislature would also be politicized (as much as the appointment of Supreme Court justices is politicized). Given that politicization seems almost inevitable, either more attention needs to be given to the election of board members (or voting could be limited to members of the university) or the governing powers of the board need to be limited.

  2. I was not aware of this decision, and agree that it seems that the BoR is overstepping its bounds as an oversight body for the state's universities by displaying such activism. However, these are public officials with enormous power in the state. It seems that union support in this state is very strong, and there has been a long tradition of politicians supporting unions. So it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that the BoR would impose those same values on the University without weighing the detrimental impact it has on student-driven research.
    The problem is that GEO thinks that we are employees of the university, which is not so. Nearly all of us are funded through the federal government and not the university: whether it be a fellowship, training grant, or GSRA appointment. Thus, our interests may not coincide with GEO who protest their working conditions directly to the university which employs them. If I want to get more money or work fewer hours, I'll do it by writing a grant to the NIH and not by abandoning my job.


Keep it civil.