UM Regents Focus on Detroit

Students protest Snyder as commencement speaker

University of Michigan board of regents meeting (March 17, 2011): At a meeting held in downtown Detroit’s Westin Book Cadillac hotel and designed to showcase UM’s partnerships with that city, Thursday’s meeting also included some harsh words from students protesting the selection of Gov. Rick Snyder as spring commencement speaker.

Richard Durance

Richard Durance presented regents with a petition signed by more than 4,000 students protesting the selection of Gov. Rick Snyder as spring commencement speaker. (Photos by the writer.)

Richard Durance, an undergraduate who authored a petition against Snyder’s selection that was signed by more than 4,000 students, delivered it to regents on Thursday, saying that Snyder’s proposed cuts to K-12 and higher education make him an inappropriate choice. Zach Goldsmith, describing himself as the “angry senior” who organized protests earlier this week at the Diag, criticized regents for holding their meeting in Detroit, making it difficult for students to attend and voice their concerns.

After the public commentary, several regents defended the decision, which was made by UM president Mary Sue Coleman and did not require a vote of the board. Regent Larry Deitch said that although he’s a Democrat and personally doesn’t agree with some items in the Republican governor’s proposed budget, he endorsed the decision. And if students decide to protest at the April 30 event, he added, “that’s in the finest Michigan tradition, and we welcome it.”

Regents also heard presentations about three programs focused on Detroit: (1) the Semester in Detroit, a student-initiated program that has participants live, study and work in the city; (2) the Healthy Environments Partnership, a community-based participatory research effort that focuses on understanding and promoting cardiovascular health in Detroit neighborhoods; and (3) Revitalization and Business: Focus Detroit, a new program that’s connecting organizations in Detroit with students at the UM Ross School of Business.

Thursday’s meeting also included a unanimous vote to name The Lawyers Club dormitory in honor of Charles T. Munger, who gave the university $20 million toward renovations of the building, and a vote to approve a $39 million renovation of The Lawyers Club and the John P. Cook buildings – part of a larger expansion and renovation effort at UM’s law school.

And during public commentary – in addition to the calls for protest against Snyder – one of the speakers promoted this year’s TEDxUofM, to be held Friday, April 8 at the Michigan Theater from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The theme – “Encouraging Crazy Ideas” – was inspired by an August 2010 Forbes column written by UM president Mary Sue Coleman.

President’s Opening Remarks

Mary Sue Coleman began the meeting by saying they were happy to be there for the first regents meeting in Detroit – the birthplace of the university, and home of many partnerships. She and other university officials had been in the city since the previous day, meeting with civic leaders, alumni, the media and others, and they were pleased to have so many engaged partners in metro Detroit. Together, they’re committed to making a strong future for Michigan, she said.

Mary Sue Coleman

UM president Mary Sue Coleman, left, talks with regent Libby Maynard prior to the start of the March 17, 2011 board of regents meeting, held at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel in downtown Detroit.

Coleman then turned her comments to the crisis in Japan, which is recovering in the aftermath of a major earthquake and tsunami that hit the country earlier this month. She encouraged the campus community to help in whatever way they could. Seventeen UM students are studying there, she said, and all are safe. But based on state department guidelines, the university is encouraging them to consider returning to campus, she said. There are also about 100 Japanese students studying at UM, Coleman noted – the university community’s thoughts are with them and their families.

Coleman noted that regents would be taking action later in the meeting to approve the honorary degrees to be awarded at spring commencement. One of those degrees will go to Gov. Rick Snyder, she said, who already has earned three degrees from UM. She said she was pleased that he accepted her invitation to be the commencement speaker, in UM’s tradition of inviting newly elected governors to speak at that event. Former governors William Milliken, James Blanchard, John Engler and Jennifer Granholm have all spoken at previous commencements, she noted. Snyder will continue that tradition, she said.

Earlier this week, Coleman said, they announced that Charles Munger is donating $20 million to the university’s law school – one of the largest gifts they’ve received. He studied at UM as an undergraduate, and always remembered his days on campus, she said. They appreciated his gift of support for renovations at the Lawyers Club, a residence hall for law students.

Regarding another student residence hall, Coleman invited the public to an open house at North Quad, UM’s newest dorm, which opened this fall at the corner of State and Huron streets. It will be held from 3-6 p.m. on Thursday, March 31, and she encouraged everyone to stop by.

Coleman congratuated regent Denise Ilitch for being honored with the Trillium Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the Michigan Women’s Foundation. The 2011 award will be given to Ilitch and her mother, Marian Ilitch – it’s the first time the award has been given jointly to a mother and daughter, Coleman said.

Finally, Coleman noted that March is a time for NCAA tournaments, and she reported that several UM teams are competing – including men’s basketball and wrestling, women’s swimming and diving, and men’s hockey. She sent all student athletes well-wishes for success. [On Friday afternoon, the Michigan men's basketball team won their first game of the NCAA tournament, beating the University of Tennessee Volunteers 75-45.]

Protesting, Defending Gov. Snyder

Since the university announced earlier this month that Gov. Rick Snyder had been invited as the main speaker for UM’s April 30 commencement, students have debated the decision. About 30 students protested earlier this week at the Diag and in the president’s office, according to a Michigan Daily report. The Michigan Student Assembly also voted on a resolution to oppose the choice of Snyder – the Daily reported that the resolution was defeated by a 14-9 vote.

Gov. Snynder: Public Commentary

Five students had originally signed up to address regents on this topic during public commentary at Thursday’s meeting. However, only three of them showed up to speak.

Zach Goldsmith

Zach Goldsmith

Zach Goldsmith identified himself as the “angry senior” who had organized Wednesday’s Diag protest. He said he wanted to voice in the strongest possible terms his opposition to the decision to invite Snyder. The fact that regents had chosen to hold this month’s meeting in Detroit – “conveniently” located an hour away from the Ann Arbor campus – indicated the premium they place on student participation, he said. Goldsmith said he wasn’t going to rehash the injustice and idiocy of Snyder’s proposed budget, the harm it will cause to public education, or the threat to democracy resulting from changes to emergency financial management legislation.

Goldsmith said he was a James B. Angell Scholar, and had worked hard to reach the day of his graduation – but his parents had worked even harder, he said. They worked in Ypsilanti as civil servants for 35 years, and now their retirement is called into question because of Snyder’s budget. They helped the residents of Ypsilanti and lived modestly so that they could send their two children to school. After all of that, he said, now the university wants to bring in a union buster, a Scott Walker-wannabe, to speak at commencement. What could Snyder possibly say? Snyder “doesn’t represent me, he doesn’t represent my class and I hope to hell he doesn’t represent my university.” Over 4,000 students who signed a petition of protest agree with him, Goldsmith said – students want the regents to rescind the invitation.

Andrea Ronquist said she’ll be graduating in April, and is concerned about the invitation to Snyder. It seems hypocritical to choose someone like him, she said, given his actions. She had attended a rally in Lansing on Wednesday to protest the proposed budget, and many other students were there. Students care about political issues, she said. Some students have threatened to walk out or turn their backs on Snyder if he gives the commencement speech, just as he’s turning his back on the people of Michigan, she said. Ronquist noted that during Obama’s speech last year, the president voiced his political views, and it’s likely that Snyder will do the same – though she hoped he would focus instead on the future of Michigan. If it’s a UM tradition to invite the state’s governors to be commencement speakers, then she’d respect that. But the university should also respect students’ views, and ask one of the other honorary degree recipients to give a speech as well.

Richard Durance began by noting that he had authored the petition that had accumulated more than 4,000 student signatures, protesting Snyder’s selection as commencement speaker. Durance delivered the petition to the board, and said he hoped they would reconsider the decision. The choice is inappropriate, given Snyder’s proposed budget cuts to K-12 schools and to public colleges and universities, as well as other controversial moves. Other speakers would be more appropriate – for example, someone like CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who publicly defended student body president Chris Armstrong when Armstrong came under attack by former assistant attorney general Andrew Shrivell last year.

More generally, Durance urged regents to consider adopting a policy that would preclude sitting elected officials from speaking at commencement. “While the university should promote political discussion and the exchange of differing viewpoints, we feel that graduation is not the appropriate forum,” Durance said. They are making this case not only for the Class of 2011, he said, but on behalf of future students as well.

Gov. Snyder: Regents Respond

Larry Deitch responded to the students’ commentary by saying he was born a Democrat and will die a Democrat. Last year they were thrilled that president Barack Obama, a Democrat, spoke at the spring commencement, he said, but it’s likely that about half of the people in Michigan Stadium hadn’t voted for him. Snyder was elected by the majority of people in Michigan, Deitch said, and the university has a tradition of inviting governors to speak at commencement. Snyder is as passionate an alum as anyone he knows, Deitch said. And while he personally doesn’t agree with some items in the Republican governor’s proposed budget, this is the democratic process and the marketplace of ideas. And if students decide to protest at the event, he added, “that’s in the finest Michigan tradition, and we welcome it.”

Andy Richner said he wanted to associate himself with Deitch’s comments – though not, he joked, with the comment about being a Democrat. [Richner is Republican.] You don’t have to agree with Snyder, but it’s important to hear what he has to say.

Andrea Fischer Newman, a Republican, also agreed with Deitch and Richner, and thanked the students for coming to express their concerns. She said she appreciated that the students let the regents know how they feel.

Finally, Libby Maynard, a Democrat, said it had been fun to have her email jammed with so many messages from students, but that it was important for the university to honor the role of governor and to hear what Snyder had to say. “I don’t have to agree with him on everything, but he is the governor of the state of Michigan.” She noted that the university’s annual Academic Freedom Fund Lecture honors three faculty members who were fired during the McCarthy era for holding views that the university administration disagreed with. [Those professors were Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson and Clement L. Markert. Markert was later reinstated.] Maynard said they don’t want anything like that to happen again – the university stands for academic freedom.

Later in the meeting, the regents unanimously approved honorary degrees to be awarded to six people at the April 30 commencement, including Snyder. Other honorary degree recipients include: Vernon Ehlers, a former congressman and physicist; William Clay Ford Jr., Ford Motor Co. executive chairman; film director and producer Spike Lee; journalist and author Eugene Robinson; and Stephen Ross, CEO and managing partner of The Related Companies. Ross has been a major donor to UM – the Ross School of Business was named in his honor, following a $100 million contribution to the university.

Highlighting Detroit

Several speakers addressed the regents regarding UM programs and partnerships in Detroit. President Mary Sue Coleman noted that these represented only a sampling, saying that more information about UM’s work in Detroit is online.

Highlighting Detroit: Semester in Detroit

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Coleman introduced Detroit city councilmember Saunteel Jenkins, who read a resolution of support and appreciation for UM’s Semester in Detroit program. Jenkins noted that all nine members of the Detroit city council had signed the resolution – and reaching agreement on anything “is not always an easy thing to do,” she joked. Jenkins introduced two UM students who were participating in the program by working with city council staff. She also introduced her chief of staff, who was a graduate of UM. About half of the students who go through the Semester in Detroit end up living and working in the city, she said, and she thanked the university for preparing students for life after graduation.

Charles Bright – director of UM’s Residential College, which coordinates the Semester in Detroit – told regents that this was a student-initiated program that started in 2008. Without students, it wouldn’t have happened, he said. During the semester, they live on the campus of Wayne State University, take courses taught by faculty at UM’s Detroit Center on Woodward Avenue, and work as interns for nonprofits, community groups or arts organizations.

The synergy between classwork and the living/work experience is key, Bright said. It’s also important that there be mutual payoff for both students and the groups they work with, he said – volunteerism for a “feel good” effect has little more impact on the community than doing scutwork at an office. All of this takes planning, monitoring and honest reflection about what works and what doesn’t, Bright said.

Bright then introduced two students who’ve participated in the program, who shared their experiences. Larissa Carr, a junior who’s majoring in political science, told regents that even though she’s a native of Detroit, this program has allowed her to build a deeper connection to the city. She’s been working with the Urban League of Southeastern Michigan, doing outreach with local high schools to help students prepare for applying to college. Patrick Morris, who graduated from UM last year, interned with the Detroit Public Schools, teaching creative writing to elementary school students. He now works at Racquet Up Detroit, a nonprofit after-school youth development program. The Semester in Detroit allowed him to feel part of the community, and led him to explore his own family’s history in more depth.

Bright concluded the presentation by noting that this isn’t easy work, and that to be sustainable, it requires the support and resources of the university. He invited everyone to the program’s April 20 “closing celebration” at the Detroit Center.

Highlighting Detroit: Healthy Environments Partnership

Amy Schultz, a UM associate professor of public health, and Angela Ruiz of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. talked about the Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP), a partnership between the UM School of Public Health and several community partners in Detroit. It’s also an affiliated project of the Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC).

The partnership launched in 2000 – it’s a community-based participatory research effort that focuses on understanding and promoting cardiovascular health in Detroit neighborhoods. Over the past 11 years, the partnership has developed five programs, including a walking program called CATCH-PATH (Community Approaches to Cardiovascular Health: Pathways to Heart Health). CATCH-PATH helps community organizations form walking groups and promote active living. So far, 350 residents have participated in the walking program.

Schultz and Ruiz also described another HEP program: Social and Physical Environments and Cardiovascular Health Disparities. The project is researching the link between air quality and cardiovascular health, raising awareness of the health impact of exposure to airborne particulates – from sources like incinerators, vehicle traffic and industrial sites – and urging policymakers in Detroit to consider this information when they make decisions about land-use issues, for example.

HEP has received about $12 million in funding for its efforts over the past decade, and has employed over 35 Detroit area residents.

Highlighting Detroit: Revitalization and Business

For the final presentation, two MBA students at UM’s Ross School of Business described a student-led program called Revitalization and Business: Focus Detroit. David McCarty, a second-year MBA student, was one of the organizers of the program. He told regents that the effort began about a year ago as a way to institutionalize the connections between Detroit and UM business students. Their mission is to change the conversation about Detroit, which historically has been negative. They wanted instead to focus on Detroit’s assets and opportunities for business students.

The program has two components: (1) a two-day conference that took place in January, and (2) Detroit Impact, which pairs student teams with Detroit organizations to work on specific projects.

McCarty said that by every measure, the conference was a huge success. It met in downtown Detroit on the first day, with workshops and tours of the city. Events on the second day were held in Ann Arbor, and included a keynote speech by DTE Energy CEO Tony Early and Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. Over 700 students were involved and feedback was positive, McCarty said. He overheard some students say they now wanted to explore starting a business in Detroit, rather than take a traditional job, like one in investment banking. They have ambitions to grow the program, he said, engaging more students and faculty, eventually including year-round programming, and improving connections with Detroit employers.

Neesha Modi, a first-year student in the joint MBA and School of Natural Resources & Environment program, described her experience on a Detroit Impact team. They acted as consultants for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, developing a plan to market the region as a supply-chain hub. She said the experience was life-changing, and she looked forward to growing these opportunities.

Law School Projects, Naming

Regents voted unanimously to name The Lawyers Club dormitory in honor of Charles T. Munger, who gave the university $20 million toward renovations of the building, which houses about 260 students. The north Lawyers’ Club residences will be renamed The Charles T. Munger Residences in the Lawyers’ Club. The work is part of a larger renovation and expansion project of the law school, which includes a new academic building on the corner of State and Monroe streets.

Munger is vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a holding company led by investor Warren Buffett. Munger studied mathematics at UM in the 1940s and received an honorary doctorate of laws degree from the university in 2010. He previously provided $3 million for lighting upgrades at the law school’s Hutchins Hall and the William W. Cook Legal Research Library, including its reading room.

Regents also approved a $39 million renovation of The Lawyers Club and the John P. Cook buildings – part of a larger expansion and renovation effort at UM’s law school. The project will entail complete renovation of the John P. Cook building, which was constructed in 1939, along with renovations of the dormitory wing of The Lawyers’ Club, which was built in 1924 and houses nearly 260 students.

The project’s design will be handled by Hartman-Cox Architects and SmithGroup. Regents will be asked to approve a schematic design for the project at a later date.

Regent Andy Richner said he’d spent “a year or two” living in The Lawyers Club while earning his law degree at UM, and described the proposed changes as transformational. The law school is doing well, he said, thanks to generous contributions from people like Munger.

Evan Caminker

Evan Caminker, dean of the UM law school.

Evan Caminker, dean of the law school, attended Thursday’s meeting and was invited to speak about the project. He told regents that Munger recognizes that attending law school is a holistic experience – both an academic endeavor and a lifestyle on campus. Munger saw that The Lawyers Club was largely unchanged from the time it was built in the 1920s, and his donation will allow the residence hall to be completely revitalized, Caminker said. The work will bring it into compliance with modern building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and will increase energy efficiencies in the building.

Caminker thanked several UM executives for their help, including CFO Tim Slottow, vice president of development Jerry May and president Mary Sue Coleman, for helping cultivate the relationship with Munger.

Regent Libby Maynard asked Coleman whether Munger would be returning to the university to be honored for his donation. Coleman replied by noting that he had received an honorary degree at the 2010 winter commencement, and said she hoped he returned again – “I keep finding excuses for him to come back.” Coleman reported that he likes working with the university because they listen to him, and actually take his advice.

Action Items: Hospital Project, Financing

A $6 million expansion of the University Hospital medical procedure unit (MPU) was unanimously approved by regents at their March 17 meeting. The project will create additional prep/recovery bays, procedure rooms, and storage space, and expand the patient and family reception and waiting room. The work entails renovating 2,200 square feet of existing space, and expanding the current MPU location by roughly 4,000 square feet. The project will be designed by Niagara Murano, an architectural firm, with construction scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012.

Regents also authorized a new commercial paper program, allowing the university to sell up to $200 million to provide funding for certain capital projects. Commercial paper is a money-market security issued by banks or large institutions like UM to get money for short-term debt. The previous commercial paper program – Series H – expired in November 2009. Several projects might be funded by this financing, including the Alice Crocker Lloyd Hall renovation, Crisler Arena renovation, Institute for Social Research expansion, the expansion of the Law School academic building and Hutchins Hall Law School Commons, and the UM Hospitals and Health Centers C.S. Mott Children’s and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospitals, among other projects.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures

Regents authorized three items that required disclosure under the state’s Conflict of Interest statute. The law requires that regents vote on potential conflict-of-interest disclosures related to university staff, faculty or students. Often, the items involve technology licensing agreements or leases.

The items concern:

  • A 12-month lease agreement and relationship agreement with Wolverine Energy Solutions and Technology Inc. Wolverine Energy will lease space at UM’s North Campus Research Complex, as part of the university’s business accelerator program, called the Venture Accelerator. The item falls under the conflict-of-interest statute because four UM employees – Theodore Goodson, Stephanie Goodson, Meng Guo, and Oleg Varnavski – are also co-owners of the company. The lease will begin in early 2011 – rates are $200 per month for each office (maximum of 2) and $2,150 per month for each half bay of laboratory space (maximum of 2). Earlier in the meeting, Stephen Forrest – UM’s vice president for research – noted that Wolverine Energy will become the sixth tenant in the accelerator program, which opened in January. It indicates that UM has the capacity and ability to make a measurable economic development impact, Forrest said.
  • A research agreement between UM and JV BioLabs. UM pathology professor James Varani is a partial owner of the business, which is commercializing methods to profile drugs and natural products for skin repair. The company plans to provide $176,709 in funding for research by UM professor Narasimharao Bhagavathula.
  • An agreement between UM and Advanced Battery Control, which is seeking an exclusive option to license certain university technologies related to large-scale batteries. Two owners of the business – Kang Shin and Hahnsang Kim – are university researchers. Shin is also a UM professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

All items passed unanimously, with no discussion.

Public Commentary

In addition to the three students who spoke about the selection of Gov. Snyder for spring commencement speaker, two other people addressed the regents during public commentary. Three people who had originally signed up did not attend the meeting.

Alex O’Dell had previously spoken to regents at their January 2010 meeting, as an organizer of the first TEDxUofM event. On Thursday, he said he represented a team of 65 students who are putting on this year’s TEDxUofM, to be held Friday, April 8 at the Michigan Theater from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The theme – “Encouraging Crazy Ideas” – was inspired by an August 2010 Forbes column written by UM president Mary Sue Coleman, O’Dell said. Each of the 20 speakers will have 18 minutes to give “the talk of their lives” about their own ideas, he said. [The full list of speakers is included on the TEDxUofM website.] Registration for the event opened on Monday, and on the first day 800 people signed up to attend – after 48 hours, that number reached 1,400.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and the 18-minute lectures at its conferences – known as TED Talks – are focused on what organizers call “ideas worth spreading.” TEDx events are independently organized, with guidance from the original TED.

After his comments, UM president Mary Sue Coleman said, “I think it’s going to be successful!” Regent Martin Taylor noted that when the regents start to wonder about things, someone like O’Dell comes along and encourages them with his enthusiasm.

Elijah Robinson

Elijah Robinson

Elijah Robinson said he didn’t have any prepared remarks, but that he’d been thinking about a lot of things and would just “let my spirit flow.” He said he’s been studying the university – its mission, people and ideas – and that much of what he discovered is similar to his own goals. However, he said his focus isn’t on fame, money or success – he’s focused on the Bible, specifically the New International Version (NIV). He said he’s an individual who can make the future better. Though he wasn’t asking to be admitted to the university, he said he was openly interested in the school. He’d spoken with someone in UM’s admissions office, and asked about the difference between getting a degree and gaining knowledge. He hoped to have the opportunity to speak to someone further about his ideas.

Present: Mary Sue Coleman (ex officio), Julia Darlow, Larry Deitch, Denise Ilitch, Olivia (Libby) Maynard, Andrea Fischer Newman, Andrew Richner, Martin Taylor, Kathy White (via speaker phone).

Next board meeting: Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 3 p.m. at the Fleming Administration building, 503 Thompson St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]


  1. By Mark Koroi
    March 21, 2011 at 7:46 pm | permalink

    The Michigan Student Assembly and the Board of Regents both voted overwhelmingly to support Governor Snyder’s address of graduates.

    Rick Snyder is one of the brightest alumni of U-M and we should be proud to have him as our governor.

  2. By Mary Morgan
    March 21, 2011 at 10:13 pm | permalink

    Re. “The Michigan Student Assembly and the Board of Regents both voted overwhelmingly to support Governor Snyder’s address of graduates.”

    To clarify, regents didn’t vote to approve Snyder’s commencement address. Their only vote was to approve granting him (and several others) an honorary degree, to be awarded at spring commencement. However, during the meeting they did give verbal support to that decision, which was made by UM president Mary Sue Coleman.