HJR O needed as Oakland U board’s actions prove

Oakland University’s appointed Board of Trustees at its brief July 7, 2015 meeting approved an 8.48 percent tuition increase, more than twice the state cap of 3.2 percent. Discussion was virtually nonexistent among the trustees because all the debate, justification and talking had been done secretly by trustees in what has become common practice by Michigan’s public university boards.

The actions of Oakland’s board are exactly the reason HJR O is so needed. Ironically, Oakland’s Board at the same meeting and with, again, virtually no discussion passed a resolution to oppose HJR O.

HJR O would plug what has become a loophole in the Constitutional provision that at least “formal sessions” of Michigan taxpayer and tuition supported public university boards be held in public. Prior to 1961,there was only grudging acceptance and “sufferance” of the presence of the public and news media at board meetings of U-M, MSU and Wayne State. The compromise back at the Con-con was language that “formal sessions” be open.

That worked until 1999. The Universities then seized upon the sloppy language in the majority of the high court’s opinions in the Federated Publications, Inc. vs. Board of Trustees of MSU decision to conduct most of their serious discussions, debates and meetings including retreats, lunch and dinner meetings and so-called informal sessions in secret outside of the public eye. A dissenting judge warned that this could happen, and it did. We noted this in testimony in the Oversight and Ethics Committee.

Boards then and now are principally populated by private individuals unused to the scrutiny that elected and public officials understand and accept is part of the job. Is it easier to operated in private? Sure, but these are public, taxpayer, tuition-paying student (and parent) funded higher education businesses not private enterprises. HJR O is needed and represents an important step forward that would protect and restore accountability and transparency to Michigan’s public higher education institutions.

Michigan is one of just three states nationally where public universities hide almost all of their discussions and debates from public view. Of all venues, universities should be a place where, at all levels, full, lively and even heated discussions and debates occur, where compromises are hammered out –all eye witnessed by the public it serves.

In June, the state Court of Claims ruled against the Detroit Free Press in its challenge to the way the University of Michigan Board of Regents hides much of its deliberations from public view under the purported shield of a 1999 state Supreme Court decision. Using data analysis, the Free Press concluded that virtually all substantive discussions and decisions by the U-M Board were occurring in secret sessions before being approved in their formal sessions. Michigan’s 14 other public universities do the same. The Free Press is appealing that ruling.

This problem of lack of accountability and transparency involving the actions of elected and appointed university board members responsible for overseeing what is arguably the most important asset for future success in this state can now only be resolved by a change in the Michigan Constitution. The people of the State of Michigan should resolve this important issue. HJR O would give them the opportunity to do so.

We strongly urge House Speaker Kevin Cotter to support HJR O, schedule public hearings and encourage bipartisan support for this resolution in the House. Let Michigan’s citizens decide if they want their public universities’ elected and appointed boards accountable and transparent to the public as they are in 47 other states.

The Michigan Coalition for Open Government is a statewide, tax exempt, Michigan nonprofit corporation founded to promote and protect transparency and accountability in governments at the local, state and federal levels including Michigan’s 15 public universities. We are affiliated with the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

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