I’ve been paying more than a little attention to the debate about just what to do with the Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees. There’s a strong chorus demanding that the whole lot of them be broomed for being asleep while the malevolent Larry Nassar molested hundreds of young women Spartans. Only those with a lump of coal for a soul are not repulsed. The natural reaction is a demand that Nassar rot in the deepest hottest region of hell and that the heads of all those in charge should roll.
But I also can’t ignore a feeling that there but for the grace of God go I.
Michigan has fifteen state universities. The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University are considered “flagship” universities because of their much larger campuses and student bodies. The very prestigious and fiercely non partisan Citizen’s Research Council of Michigan observes;
Michigan’s 15 universities are independent schools. Each university board, irrespective of elections or appointment, is given general supervision of the institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution’s funds. Each board elects a president of the university as often as is necessary under its supervision. The three flagship schools are given autonomy in their governance and operations.
Each Michigan university is governed by an independent board, but the means by which members come to serve on the boards of the flagship schools is different from how members come to serve on the boards of the other 12 universities. The Michigan Constitution provides that UM, MSU, and WSU are to be governed by independently elected, eight member boards. The Constitution later provides that the 12 other state universities are governed by their own eight-member boards that are appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Michigan senate. This makes the UM, MSU, and WSU boards accountable to the voters. The boards of the other state universities are accountable to the governor.
The political bug bit me hard in the Detroit elections of 1969. I got involved in the political campaigns of Richard Austin for Mayor and Carl Levin for City Council. Austin lost and then went on to become the longest serving Secretary of State in Michigan and the first African American elected to state wide office. Levin won and went on to become s Michigan’s longest serving member of the U. S. Senate).
In 1972 I was a sophomore at Wayne State University’s Montieth College; a 70’s hippie who owned one suit. I came up with the audacious idea of running to be a member of its Board of Governors. My high school classmate and political fellow traveler, Ed Bruley encouraged me. Ed has come to be a campaign impresario in Macomb County electing a very liberal David Bonior to Congress in a very conservative district eight times. The story of this campaign will be told at some future time. We were frighteningly unsophisticated as this brochure shows. But with perseverance I became one of the eight members of Wayne State’s governing board.
Michigan’s Constitution charges university governing boards with the general supervision of their institutions and the responsibility of appointing the President. Some believe that trustees should appoint someone they trust and believe in to be President and then let them run the university and stay out of his or her way. There is a very strong tradition in the academy of academic freedom. While the Board of Governors officially grants tenure and promotion to university faculty that is a mere formality. The tradition requires deference be given to the peer review protocols of any academic evaluation. If the board ever rejected a recommendation from the President and Provost for tenure or promotion or if they ever granted tenure or promotion to someone who didn’t have the appropriate recommendation there would be a riot.
Board members are volunteers. They serve without pay. They do not have their own staff. They are completely dependent on the President and his/her administration in providing the information that is the basis for decision making. The MSU Trustees likely only knew what President Lou Anna Simon and members of her administration chose to tell them. The operative question is that of Senator Russell Baker during the Watergate hearings. “What did the President know and when did (s)he know it”. I would add. When should she have know it.
Members of the “flagship” universities are only accountable to the voters. That’s a good thing. Imagine a time in which political forces begin to impose outside influences to academic judgments. Oh, how about a mandate that every political science major be required to read Ayn Rand. Preposterous? Not in this political environment.
About the pig.
Early in my tenure as a Wayne State Governor I faced a proposal to abolish my own beloved Alma Mater, Montieth College. It received a temporary reprieve. But clever students engaged in some (with hindsight) fun political theater. When a vote was taken raising tuition a protester came forward and placed a pig’s head on our table. “Today’s pig is tomorrow’s bacon” they chanted. The photograph taken by Milard Berry captured the moment and appeared on the front page of the Detroit Free Press the next day.
Detroit’s alternative weekly The Fifth Estate also ran a similar picture. I was referred to as Swineheuser. I was not happy at the time. But it brings a smile today. To my right is Max Pincus. He was a colleague but he was also a mentor. From time to time people would say unkind things about me because of my youth or inexperience. Max always had my back.
Millard Berry took this picture and holds its Copy Right. He has graciously given me permission to post it. Please check out his work here. He is both a photo journalist as well as an artistic photographer. We have been musing about the fact that we are not as young as we once were. Dear millennial friends, don’t take yourselves or others sooooo seriously. Things will look differently. You have my promise.