Near the end of the November 4 ballot, far below the hotly contested races for governor and the U.S. Senate, is another contest: with, arguably, even greater impact on Ann Arbor–two Democrats and two Republicans are competing for eight-year terms on the U-M Board of Regents. At stake is the Democrats’ longtime control of that body.
Though three of the four candidates come from Ann Arbor, their platforms are startlingly different. Democrat Kathy White, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserve who teaches law at Wayne State and West Point, is the board’s current chair; she says she would continue working to build bridges between education, science, industry, and government. Cardiologist Rob Steele, a Republican, calls for more transparent governance and for making the country’s founding documents required reading for U-M students. And his fellow Republican, Ron Weiser, founder of McKinley Properties, talks of running the university like a business, privatizing the bus and food services, and making sure the university “honors” the right-to-work law he helped push through the state legislature two years ago.
All U-M grads, the local candidates’ give interviews as different as their platforms. White takes her time over coffee in a cafe. Steele snatches time for a phone call between appointments. And Weiser hosts a reporter and photographer in his Kerrytown office filled with memorabilia from his stint as ambassador to Slovakia.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans on the board six to two, but Democrat Julia Darlow is stepping down, and White’s term is up. If White and fellow Democrat Michael Behm, a Grand Blanc attorney, both win, the balance of power will be unchanged. If Steele and Weiser both win, it’ll split four to four.
Asked the potential impact of a change in the board’s partisan makeup, former U-M president Jim Duderstadt replies, “Hopefully very little. Generally the regents try to keep politics off the table. But there are times you’ll get regents who decide to take a political stance on something.”
If elected, Rob Steele will surely try to change the institution. In his first run for public office, against congressman John Dingell in 2010, he got Sarah Palin’s endorsement and 31 percent of the vote. He finished third in his first run for regent two years later, with 20 percent.
As proof of the need for transparency, Steele points to the Detroit Free Press, which is suing the regents for alleged violations of the state Open Meetings Act. “I’m not aware they’ve ever had public office hours or been available in any way to the public,” he says. “At the regents’ meetings, there’s no public interaction.”
The Republican says he’d also fundamentally alter the town-gown relationship. “There’s basically no communication between the city and the university on the regent level, and when the university buys a property, it comes off the tax rolls like when they bought Pfizer.” In a later email, he elaborates: “The University should take actions that benefit the city in exchange for removing the revenue from the city, either by direct $ rebate, or other expense sharing.”
Steele says he would also push the university to require students to read the country’s founding document such as the Federalist Papers. “They need to see the words on the page, to be literally exposed to the brilliance on the page.”
After making his fortune in real estate, Ron Weiser moved into politics, serving as George W. Bush’s Michigan finance chair in 1999-2000. Bush made him ambassador to Slovakia from 2001 to 2004. Weiser was John McCain’s national co-chair in 2007-2008 and the Republican Party’s Michigan chairman in 2009.
After those national and international roles, why run for regent? “This is a university I really care about,” he replies, “a place I can make a difference that will affect the lives of all the current students and the future students and their families and the people in the state and the country. I consider it a big job.”
Weiser’s convinced that he can improve the university’s finances. “Bureaucracies don’t work like businesses,” he says. “There’s no incentive to save money. The university’s budget is closing in on $7 billion [annually], and I maintain there’s no bureaucracy where you can’t save 5 percent. That’s $350 million.”
While he won’t specify what he’d cut, Weiser does suggest possibilities: “The university is a housing provider, a food provider, and a real estate provider, and all should be examined.” Where might that examination lead? “Privatization is one way to handle it. What if they could provide the same quality bus service for $30 million less a year?”
He also wants the university to honor the right-to-work law he championed. In 2011, the board’s Democratic majority surprised then president Mary Sue Coleman by voting that graduate teaching assistants are employees, not students–and so were eligible for unionization. Though the Republican-controlled state legislature quickly overrode that vote, Weiser says he would try to reverse it.
While Steele and Weiser’s platforms are extensive, Kathy White’s consists of a single item on her website: “The University of Michigan must continue to build a bridge between education, science, industry, and government. As a member of the Board of Regents my focus is on facilitating productive partnerships fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.”
“The whole idea is the transformation of the state from manufacturing based to an ideas-based economy,” she explains in person. “That’s why we decided to buy the Pfizer property: to have new spaces for basic research and entrepreneurial activities.”
While White says she hasn’t thought about her Republican opponents, she will critique points of their platforms. Asked about Steele’s proposal to require students to read the country’s founding documents, she replies, “The university is outstanding because we have a world class faculty, and the university entrusts the faculty with academic freedom in teaching and research … it’s not the board’s job to tell people what to teach and read.”
Asked if the university should be run like a business, White answers, “Parts of the university are already run like a business, and the university has already cut costs enormously. But … the university has no profit motive because it has no shareholders. Our goal is to change society by improving the quality of the future for the people of Michigan and the world.”
If White and Behm win, the regents will likely continue on their current course. If both Republicans win, Weiser points out, it probably won’t be just the U-M that’s affected. So few voters follow the elections to state education boards that the outcomes reliably mirror the contests at the top of the ballot.
“If that [Republican victory] happens here, it happens at Wayne State, at Michigan State, and at the State Board of Ed,” Weiser says. “It could change the balance of the boards, which hasn’t happened for decades.”
Duderstadt has two fears if that happens: losing the board’s current chair–“Kathy White does a superb job; she’s one of the best leaders we’ve had in a long time” –and gridlock.
“We’ve seen one party or the other have a majority on the board,” Duderstadt recalls. “Back in the sixties it was Republicans, and it’s been pretty much Democrats since then. But I went through two years with a true four-four board, and it was very difficult.
“With a four-four board, leadership of the university has to strive to find one extra vote for things that are important. You’ve got to build consensus, but it’s hard when both parties have the same number of trustees.
“The hope is that they’d set politics aside and do what’s best for the University. But when they run, their platform reflects their party, and that’s a big concern.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the November 2014 Ann Arbor Observer. A quote from Ron Weiser, a characterization of his proposed role regarding the state right-to-work law, and Kathy White’s military status, have been corrected.