Lawmaker pushes for appointed university boards

The Michigan State University board of trustees sits in a meeting on Jan. 26, 2018 in East Lansing, Mich.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As calls for Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees to resign continue, one state representative wants voters to make the call by changing the way trustees are selected.

Rep. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake, has proposed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the current boards at Michigan State, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, as well as the state school board. Currently, members are elected during general elections.

Instead, Lower wants the next governor to appoint members at the beginning of 2019, which is the same system every other public university in Michigan uses.

“It’s not a high-profile election where there’s a lot of vetting and thought that goes into it,” Lower told 24 Hour News 8 during a phone interview Wednesday. “When you take a look at the fact that the other 12 (public) universities are appointed and all other states do it by appointment, it doesn’t make sense to do it the way we’re doing now, in my opinion.”

He said House Joint Resolution DD will go before the House Committee on Elections and Ethics Feb. 15. If two-thirds of the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate approve it, voters will make the final call in the November election.

“If (voters) really want these people to still be elected in the hyperpartisan manner that it is now, they could choose so in the ballot,” Lower explained, “But if they want us to switch it over to this new system, they would get to pick that as well.”

He said reception has been positive so far in Lansing.

“I think what makes it attractive is the fact that if we put it on the ballot, ultimately the voters would get to decide whether or not they think the current system is working,” he added.

If the measure is approved, the first set of appointments would be for two two-year terms, two four-year terms, two six-year terms and two eight-year terms so that only two trustees would be chosen at a time in subsequent cycles.

Lower said he was working on the legislation even before the fallout over how Michigan State handled sexual assault complaints against and investigations of former sports doctor Larry Nassar, but it will definitely help make the discussion of his bill less political.

Given the public outcry from MSU community members, 24 Hour News 8 did some research on political donations made by current trustees since being elected.

Searches on FollowTheMoney.org found:

Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson is the longest serving trustee on the board, having been first elected in 1986. Ferguson has sent more than $95,200 to candidates and committees over the years.

Trustee Dianne Byrum spent more than a decade working for the state legislature, including as the Michigan House Democratic Leader. Since her campaign and election to the board in 2008, she’s spent more than $51,900.

Trustee Melanie Foster was elected in 2004 and has spent more than $43,000.

Former MSU football coach Trustee George Perles joined the board in 2007 and has spent more than $29,500.

Trustee Brian Mosallam was elected in 2013. He has spent more than $23,500 in political donations.

Chairman Brian Breslin joined the board in 2011 and has spent more than $7,400.

Trustee Dan Kelly was elected in 2017. He’s spent more than $5,200 since then.

Trustee Mitch Lyons has spent a little more than $1,200 since his election to the board in 2011.

For perspective, 24 Hour News 8 also researched the longest serving members of the boards at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University:

Andrea Fischer Newman has been on U of M’s Board of Regents since 1994. In that time, she has given more than $71,600 in political donations.

Diane Dunakiss has served on Wayne’s Board of Governors since 1994. A search for her on FollowTheMoney.org found no results.

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed Rep. Jim Lower as a Democrat, when he is a Republican. We regret this error, which has since been corrected.***