People don’t attend university board meetings expecting a Six Flags thrill ride. But in Michigan, journalists began noticing that the meetings weren’t just dull. They seemed… staged. Scripted, even.
It turns out that there’s an unwritten but powerfully honored tradition for the governing boards of Michigan universities to hold secret “pre-meeting meetings” at which all the real decisions get made. What the public gets to see is every bit as suspenseful and spontaneous as professional wrestling, only without the flying dropkicks.
Nothing of substance gets discussed. Every vote is unanimous.
The Detroit newspapers finally had enough, and took Michigan’s famously secretive university system to court. But last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that state universities have essentially limitless discretion to decide which meetings qualify as “formal” meetings that constitutionally must be open to the public.
The court’s April 26 opinion relies entirely on a prior Michigan Supreme Court ruling in the context of university presidential searches.
In that case, Federated Publications, Inc. v. Board and Trustees of Michigan State University, the court held that Michigan’s (mercifully) unique constitutional structure gives the university system near-total autonomy from the legislature, so that the Open Meetings Act is more of a suggestion than a requirement.
The new case, Detroit Free Press v. University of Michigan Regents, extends the court’s 1999 ruling to all meetings of university regents, not just those involving presidential searches:
The Constitution permits defendant to hold informal meetings in private; defendant is only required to hold its formal meetings in public. We are simply not empowered to evaluate whether that is good policy or, for that matter, take any action on the basis of whether we might believe it to be.
Attorneys for the Detroit newspapers are petitioning Michigan’s Supreme Court to review the decision. It should – but regardless of the outcome of the case, Michigan needs to reexamine the privileged constitutional status afforded to universities, which has made them (even by university standards, which is saying something) assertively hostile to public accountability. Legislators have made several failed tries to reform the constitutional infirmity that allows Michigan universities to run amok, most recently in 2015, but lobbyists for the universities have, unsurprisingly, managed to bottle up each attempt.