Regents Take Action on Security Investigation

Also: Debate on GSRA unionization at UM continues

University of Michigan board of regents meeting (Feb. 16, 2012): In the wake of a mishandled incident involving child pornography allegedly viewed on a UM health system computer, regents voted last week to start an external investigation into the matter.

Student groups at UM regents meeting

Members of student groups at the Feb. 16 UM regents meeting stood in support of a speaker during public commentary who was advocating for tuition equality for students who are undocumented immigrants. (Photos by the writer.)

Martin Taylor, who introduced the resolution at the start of the meeting, described the situation as “one that is unacceptable to the regents and that we, the regents, feel we must do everything within our power to ensure that it is not repeated.” There had been a six-month lag between the time the incident was initially reported in May of 2011, and action taken by university officials to investigate. A former medical resident, Stephen Jenson, was arrested in mid-December. [.pdf of Taylor's statement]

The university administration had issued its own report on an internal audit earlier this month, with recommendations to improve security and communications. [.pdf of UM report] But regents felt more needed to be done, and have asked UM president Mary Sue Coleman to work with board chair Denise Ilitch to make recommendations for outside consultants who could be hired to carry out an additional investigation.

During public commentary at the meeting, Coleman was sharply criticized for her handling of the situation. One speaker accused her of a repeated pattern of attacking whistleblowers. The remarks prompted some regents to come to Coleman’s defense, calling the accusations unfair.

The ongoing debate about whether to allow graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) to unionize also emerged during the Feb. 16 meeting, when three students spoke about the topic during public commentary. The same issue was the focus of an unusual special meeting that regents held the following week, on Feb. 21. At that meeting – which included heated debate among regents over whether the meeting had been called in conformity with the state’s Open Meetings Act – the board voted 6-2 to oppose Michigan senate bill 197. The bill would prohibit GSRAs from collective bargaining. It was subsequently passed by the Republican-controlled state senate on a 26-12 party-line vote.

Regents acted on a range of other issues during their Feb. 16 meeting. There was no mention of the Feb. 8 special meeting that had been called to approve the use of Michigan Stadium for the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic, scheduled for Jan. 1, 2013. However, one item on the Feb. 16 agenda did relate to UM athletics: a vote to rename the basketball player development center at Crisler in honor of William Davidson, who died in 2009. His family, via the William Davidson Foundation, recently donated $7.5 million to the University of Michigan athletics department.

Another renaming was also approved – for the Computer Science and Engineering Building, in honor of Bob and Betty Beyster. Bob Beyster, who received multiple degrees from UM and founded Science Applications International Corp., recently gave a $15 million gift to the College of Engineering.

In other business, regents voted to revise the board’s bylaws, including a change that eliminated a previous requirement that executives retire after their 70th birthday. Coleman will be 70 when her current contract expires in 2014, but regent Martin Taylor said the change wasn’t being made to accommodate her – it’s to comply with the law, he said. Regents also authorized the appointment of six Thurnau professorships, and took votes that moved forward several previously approved projects, including major renovations at East Quad and the residences in the Lawyers’ Club.

Two presentations were given during the meeting – by Martin Philbert, dean of the School of Public Health, and Doug Engel, chair and professor of cell and developmental biology. Engel’s presentation highlighted recent news that the U.S. National Institutes of Health has authorized an embryonic stem cell line developed by UM researchers to be eligible for federally funded research.

The meeting concluded with public commentary on a variety of issues, including (1) better access to a childcare subsidy available to parents who are UM students; (2) equity for students who are charged out-of-state tuition because they are undocumented immigrants; and (3) criticism of the university’s relationship with China.

Security Investigation: Child Pornography Incident

At the start of the Feb. 16 meeting, president Mary Sue Coleman began her introductory remarks by giving an update on the investigation regarding a former UM medical resident who is charged with possession of child pornography. The former medical resident, Stephen Jenson, is accused of viewing child pornography on a UM health system computer, via a thumb drive that was discovered on the computer by another medical resident. The incident was reported in May of 2011 but was not acted on by university officials until November. Jenson was arrested in mid-December, and the case is now being handled by federal investigators.

On Feb. 10, the university issued a report of its internal investigation, which included recommendations for changes to ensure better security and communication. A statement was also issued by Coleman, who called the six-month delay in responding to the allegations “a serious failure on the part of our institution – there is simply no other way to describe it.” [.pdf of UM report] [.pdf of Coleman's statement] The university’s office of the vice president for communications has set up a website with documents related to the incident.

At the Feb. 16 regents’ meeting, Coleman said the UM leadership and regents have discussed the internal audit in detail. It was a frank, difficult and necessary assessment of the institution, she said, and of the safety and security of the health system as well as the entire campus.

Martin Taylor

Regent Martin Taylor.

Regent Martin Taylor then read a resolution – one that he introduced from the floor – calling for an external investigation of the situation. The resolution described the incident as “one that is unacceptable to the regents and that we, the regents, feel we must do everything within our power to ensure that it is not repeated.” [.pdf of Taylor's statement]

The resolution called for the board chair, Denise Ilitch, to work with Coleman and others to make recommendations to the board for outside consultants who could be hired to carry out an investigation. The aim would be to (1) determine individual accountability and whether further action must be taken: and (2) examine the current organizational structure for campus law enforcement and investigations, and to provide options with regard to that structure. The resolution also stated that “911 must be fixed ASAP. When people call, it should be clear who they are talking to, and under what authority.” The resolution did not specify a timeframe for these actions to occur.

Outcome: Without discussion, regents unanimously approved the resolution calling for an external investigation.

After the vote, Coleman said she shared these concerns and appreciated the board’s deep commitment. She said she’d work with Ilitch to launch quickly the actions called for by the board. The incident and the underlying issues it revealed are unacceptable, she said. Coleman vowed to take any additional steps needed in the coming weeks.

Security Investigation: Public Commentary

During public commentary at the end of the meeting, two people addressed the board on this issue, harshly criticizing the university in general and Coleman specifically for failing to deal with the situation in a timely way.

Douglas Smith, who has regularly spoken at previous meetings on issues related to campus security, told regents that this situation is another example of Coleman’s administration reacting to a scandal by attacking the whistleblower. The phrase “Punish the whistleblower” is as much a Michigan slogan as “Go Blue,” he said. Smith cited several examples, including one in which he said a university attorney threatened him with arrest because he brought forward information about grant fraud.

Smith noted that he had appeared before the board at its Nov. 17, 2011 meeting, reporting a cover up of the arrest of UM athlete Brendan Gibbons for allegedly raping an 18-year-old freshman. Smith said he wanted Coleman to have a picture of the freshman to put by her bedside so that she could apologize to her every night. Smith wished he had a photo of the girl on Jenson’s thumb drive so that Coleman could apologize to her, too. Smith also raised questions about the “mysterious” resignation of former UM police chief Greg O’Dell, who returned abruptly to his previous job at Eastern Michigan University last year and committed suicide soon after that. Coleman refused to be interviewed by detectives investigating O’Dell’s death, Smith claimed, and the state police should be asked to investigate “this obstruction of justice.”

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Smith said. “Don’t bury your head in the sand. No whistleblower will be safe until Mary Sue Coleman is gone.”

Regent Andrea Fischer Newman immediately responded to Smith’s remarks, calling them “unfair and uncalled for.”

The next speaker was Victoria Powell, a pediatrician, who also addressed this issue and called the case abhorrent. The issue of defending the children hasn’t been mentioned, she said. If the university had reported this incident to the police, there would have been an immediate investigation that would have looked into the safety of the children whose pornographic pictures were found, as well as the safety of children in the new pediatric hospital that UM recently opened. [UM's new C.S. Mott Children's Hospital opened in late 2011.] Powell said she’d never refer a patient to UM and she’ll tell her colleagues in the medical profession how this case was handled. UM has made children the victims, she said, while protecting a man who’s been charged by the FBI with having pictures and videos of sexually abused children. “This is absolutely shameful,” Powell concluded.

After all of the public commentary was concluded (see below for additional remarks on other topics), board chair Denise Ilitch defended Coleman, saying the personal attacks against Coleman were very unfair. Coleman works tirelessly on behalf of young people, Ilitch said. Coleman and the regents are extremely disturbed and unhappy, Ilitch said. The disdain and anger that people feel should be directed toward Jenson, she concluded, not Coleman.

GSRA Debate

The issue of unionizing graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) emerged during the Feb. 16 meeting, when three students spoke on the topic during public commentary to oppose the board’s majority view that GSRAs should be recognized as employees.

By way of background, regents passed a resolution on May 19, 2011 supporting the right of GSRAs to determine whether to organize. The resolution passed over the objection of UM president Mary Sue Coleman and with dissenting votes from the board’s two Republican regents, Andy Richner and Andrea Fischer Newman. At the board’s Jan. 19, 2012 meeting, three faculty members and one student spoke during public commentary, voicing objections to the effort to unionize GSRAs.

Then on Feb. 21, regents held a special meeting where they debated and passed a resolution – on a 6-2 vote – that opposed senate bill 971. The bill would make explicit that graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) are not entitled to collective bargaining rights under Michigan’s Act 336 of 1947. A committee hearing was held later that same morning, followed by a committee vote to send it to the entire senate. On Feb. 22, the senate voted 26-12 to approve the bill, which will next be taken up by the house of representatives.

GSRA Debate: Public Commentary

At the board’s Feb. 16 meeting, Melinda Day told regents that they had overstepped their authority by forcing faculty to remain neutral on the issue – that’s like trying to overturn the First Amendment. Higher education is about debate and the free flow of information. The GSRA issue is complex, she said, and now is the time to have free and open debate about it, from all parties, including faculty.

Mary Sue Coleman, Larry Deitch

UM president Mary Sue Coleman, and regent Larry Deitch.

The relationship between a GSRA and faculty is more like a mentor/mentee than an employer/employee, Day said. The faculty is part of the equation – they have rights, and are true guardians of the university. As for the regents, she said, ”you are merely the overseers, and temporary as well.” If the regents choose to silence the faculty, students will speak even louder, she said. Day noted that prospective students will soon be visiting campus. Don’t make current students tell them that at Michigan, professors no longer have the right to be mentors, she told the regents.

Anna Belak, a PhD candidate and GSRA, presented regents with a letter signed by over 800 graduate students and faculty expressing strong disagreement with the board’s decision to recognize GSRAs as employees. The letter outlines rationale for considering GSRAs as students, not employees, and concludes by stating that the signers look forward to a ruling by the administrative law judge who’ll be making a recommendation in March to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission – a ruling “that relegates your ill-advised action in favor of GSRA unionization to history.”

The final speaker during public commentary was Michael Slootsky, a member of Students Against GSRA Unionization. He argued that the activities of a GSRA – even things like grant writing and repairing lab equipment – are educational in nature. To view educational activities only as those that relate directly to your thesis is like studying for a test, then complaining that not everything was tested. The university has an obligation to ensure that every GSRA is fully a student, he said.

Regent Larry Deitch asked Slootsky if he was a student in LSA – the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Slootsky, a graduate student in physics, said that he was. Deitch then read from an LSA policy guide for hiring GSRAs, which stated that ”Whenever there is an expectation of a certain effort level or outcome in exchange for pay, an employment relationship exists – especially for, but not limited to, work supported by a grant.” Deitch said these are facts that the board was presented, and they should be part of the record.

Regent Andrea Fischer Newman objected, saying that any official policy would have to be approved by the board. She said she didn’t want to have this debate now. Deitch replied that he was just matching free speech with free speech.

Slootsky said he wasn’t familiar with the document that Deitch had read, but that he didn’t feel he was performing his GSRA for pay – the work was for academic purposes, he said. Deitch replied that if that’s the case, when there’s an election to unionize GSRAs, Slootsky should just vote no.

GSRA Debate: Special Regents Meeting & Vote

The following week, a special regents meeting was called for the morning of Feb. 21. [See Chronicle coverage: "UM Regents Debate Opposition"] The 30-minute meeting included a fractious debate over whether the meeting itself was legal – regent Andrea Fischer Newman questioned whether it conformed with the Michigan Open Meetings Act, because it apparently had not been publicly noticed 18 hours in advance, as the OMA requires.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman said the meeting – which she and all the regents conducted via conference call – had been called to consider emergency action, as allowed by regental bylaw 1.01. The bylaw states: ”Emergency action may be taken by the board between meetings if and when any matter arises which, in the opinion of the president, or any three members of the board, requires official action by the board prior to the next meeting. An affirmative vote by telephone, email, or facsimile from five members is required for action.” Newman questioned whether there was actually any emergency in this case.

The business of the meeting focused on a resolution proposed by regent Larry Deitch to oppose senate bill 971. The bill, which was introduced on Feb. 15 by state Senate majority leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), states: “An individual serving as a graduate student research assistant or in an equivalent position and any individual whose position does not have sufficient indicia of an employment relationship is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights under this act.” A senate hearing on the bill was scheduled for 11 a.m. in Lansing, a few hours after the regents special meeting that same day.

The resolution proposed by regent Larry Deitch stated opposition to the bill, and directed Cynthia Wilbanks, UM vice president for government relations, to take “all available action” and to articulate UM’s opposition to legislators and, if necessary, the governor’s office. That action could include testimony, the development of position papers, or the hiring of lobbyists. The resolution also stated that Wilbanks should report to the chair of the board or a designee on progress related to the legislation.

At the Feb. 21 meeting of the senate government operations committee, Wilbanks was one of the nine people who testified about the bill. Wilbanks told the committee that the bill would ”interfere in the internal decision-making of the university,” according to a report in the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS).

According to minutes of the committee meeting, four others testified in opposition to the bill. They included Samantha Montgomery, president of UM’s Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), and GEO member Jeremy Moore.

Three people testified in support of the bill: Regent Andrew Richner, UM professor Fawwaz Ulaby, and UM graduate student Melinda Day, who had spoken during public commentary at the Feb. 16 regents’ meeting.

Michael Benson, president of UM’s graduate student body, also testified but took a neutral position.

The committee – in a 3-2 party line vote – recommended the bill for passage by the full senate. The following day, on Feb. 22, it was passed by the state senate on a 26-12 party-line vote. [.pdf of senate bill 197] It will next be taken up by the Republican-controlled house of representatives.

Player Center Named for Davidson

Regents addressed a raft of other items during their Feb. 16 meeting. Following a donation of $7.5 million from the William Davidson Foundation to the University of Michigan athletics department, the board was asked to approve renaming the basketball player development center at Crisler in honor of William Davidson, who died in 2009. The resolution was added during the meeting as a supplemental agenda item.

Denise Ilitch

Denise Ilitch, chair of the board of regents, praised the family of Bill Davidson for their contribution to the university. She said she spoke as a member of a fellow sports family – her family owns the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers.

Davidson, a UM graduate and businessman who owned the Detroit Pistons and other teams, had been a major donor to the university over the past several decades. The William Davidson Institute at UM’s Ross School of Business was founded in 1992 through a gift from Davidson’s business, Guardian Industries.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman described Davidson as a beloved man who had been very generous to the university. She said she regretted that he wasn’t here to see how well the UM basketball team is doing this season. [The team, coached by John Beilein, subsequently beat Ohio State 56-51 on Saturday – they remain undefeated this season at Crisler, and have a 20-7 overall record.]

Jerry May, UM’s vice president of development, said it was tremendous that the Davidson family has stepped forward to do this in memory of a sports icon and one of the smartest UM alums May said he’s ever met. He also thanked the athletic department for its vision, in particular citing athletic director David Brandon.

Board chair Denise Ilitch, whose family owns the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, said she spoke as a member of a fellow sports family in thanking Davison’s family for their contribution. She said Davidson left a tremendous legacy, and that he’s sorely missed.

The new basketball player development center at Crisler is a two-story, $23.2 million addition to the basketball arena that regents initially approved in September 2009. According to a press release from the university, the athletics department will honor Davidson at halftime of the final home men’s basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 25.

Outcome: Regents unanimously approved naming the basketball player development center in honor of Bill Davidson.

Building Renamed for Beysters

Another renaming item was on the Feb. 16 agenda – to name the Computer Science and Engineering Building in honor of Bob and Betty Beyster. The building is located at 2260 Hayward Street, on UM’s north campus.

Bob Beyster, who received multiple degrees from UM, is founder and retired chairman of Science Applications International Corp., a research and engineering company. He recently gave a $15 million gift to the College of Engineering, which will be used in part to create the J. Robert Beyster Computational Innovation Graduate Fellows program. The effort will fund research in several fields that link high-performance computing, networking, and storage to applications of importance to society, according to a staff memo.

In presenting the item for consideration, Tim Slottow – UM’s chief financial officer – described the gift as very generous. Jerry May, vice president of development, also praised the Beysters for their contribution.

Outcome: Regents voted unanimously to rename the north campus building the Bob and Betty Beyster Building.

Building Projects: East Quad, Lawyers’ Club, Cardio Center

Three resolutions on the Feb. 16 agenda related to moving ahead on building projects on the Ann Arbor campus – including two major housing renovations initially approved last year.

Regents were asked to authorize staff to issue bids and award construction contracts for the $116 million renovation of East Quad. The overall project had been approved at the board’s July 21, 2011 meeting. Subsequently, regents signed off on a schematic design at the Nov. 17, 2011 meeting.  The 300,000-square-foot residence hall – located at 701 E. University, between Hill and Willard – houses about 860 students and the Residential College. The renovation is expected to be finished by the summer of 2013.

Authorization for issuing bids and awarding construction contracts was also on the agenda for a renovation of The Charles T. Munger Residences in the Lawyers’ Club and the John P. Cook Building. A schematic design for that $39 million project had been approved at the regents Dec. 15, 2011 meeting, with the initial authorization given in March 2011. The building is part of the Law School campus at South State Street, between South University and Monroe streets. The project is also scheduled for completion in the summer of 2013.

Tim Slottow, UM’s chief financial officer, introduced the resolution by describing the project as very challenging, but one that the university is “ready to roll on.” Regent Andy Richner, who graduated from the UM law school, said he has fond memories of his time there and knows that the project will preserve the building’s character.

Also on the agenda was a resolution related to a smaller $2.1 million project to install an uninterruptible power supply at UM’s Cardiovascular Center, located in the medical campus at 1500 E. Medical Center Drive. Slottow jokingly referred to it as a “another sexy project.”

Outcome: In separate votes, regents approved the resolutions related to projects at East Quad, the Lawyers’s Club and John P. Cook Building, and the Cardiovascular Center.

Changes to Bylaws

Sally Churchill, vice president and secretary of the university, introduced a resolution with changes to regents’ bylaws as mostly a housekeeping item, updating the bylaws to conform with current practices or statutes.

One of the changes removed a provision requiring the president and executive officers to end their service no later than the end of the fiscal year in which their 70th birthday occurs. UM legal staff determined that the provision violated protections against age discrimination contained in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Mary Sue Coleman

UM president Mary Sue Coleman.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman will turn 69 in October of 2012. In November 2010, regents voted to extend her contract through July 31, 2014. If the retirement cap had remained in place, she would not have been eligible for additional contract extensions.

That change to the bylaws was one of seven proposed in the resolution. Other revisions included changing the title and expanding the responsibilities for the vice president of communications – now the vice president for global communications and strategic initiatives. That position is held by Lisa Rudgers. Another change clarified that the provost is involved in recommending the appointment and promotion of tenured professors to the regents. [.pdf of complete set of bylaw revisions]

Before the vote, regent Martin Taylor said there had been rumors about what motivated one of the bylaw revisions, but it’s not about any one individual whatsoever, he said. UM’s legal counsel has advised the board that the bylaw isn’t legal, he said: “It’s as simple as that.” Regent Andy Richner clarified that Taylor was referring to the retirement-age bylaw.

Outcome: Regents unanimously approved revisions to the bylaws.

Thurnau Professors

Provost Phil Hanlon highlighted the resolution awarding the Arthur F. Thurnau professorships to six UM faculty members. The professorships honor outstanding contributions to undergraduate education, and it’s the highest honor that the university can bestow for teaching excellence, he said. Hanlon noted that he has served on the selection committee for several years, and it’s a hard decision to choose from so many qualified candidates.

This year the professorships were all given to male faculty. They are: Joe Bull, associate professor of biomedical engineering; Michael Haithcock, professor of music; Sadashi Inuzuka, professor of art; Brad Orr, professor of physics and chair of the physics department; Brian Porter-Szucs, professor of history; and Steve Skerlos, associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The award includes $20,000 to support teaching activities. The faculty will be honored this year at a March 18 ceremony at Hill Auditorium, Hanlon said.

Outcome: As part of the board’s consent agenda, regents approved the awarding of six Thurnau professorships.

Conflict of Interest Items

Regents were asked to authorize five 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.

The items often involve technology licensing agreements or leases. This month, the items related to the following businesses: Structured Microsystems LLC, H3D Inc., ImBio LLC, OncoMed Pharmaceuticals Inc., and OcuSciences Inc.

Outcome: Without comment, regents approved the five conflict-of-interest items in one vote.

Presentations: Public Health, Stem Cell Research

Toward the start of the Feb. 16 meeting, regents heard two health-related presentations – from Martin Philbert, dean of the School of Public Health; and Doug Engel, chair and professor of cell and developmental biology.

Doug Engel, Martin Philbert

From left: Doug Engel, professor of cell and developmental biology, and Martin Philbert, dean of the School of Public Health.

Philbert gave an overview of the School of Public Health, calling it one of the not-so-well-known jewels of the university. The field of public health looks at health issues from a population perspective, at the local, state, national and international levels, he said. The school’s vision is to be the premier academic institution in public health, integrating research, teaching, service and practice to find effective solutions to public health problems.

Philbert noted that the school recently moved up from 5th to 4th place in a U.S. News & World Report ranking. It’s one of two public schools in the top 6 – the other is the University of North Carolina, which recently received a large endowment, he said.

There are 975 students enrolled in UM School of Public Health graduate degree programs. The school also offers a variety of dual-degree programs with other units, including the Ross School of Business, the School of Medicine, and the School of Social Work, among others. Their work is heavily interdisciplinary, Philbert said, and there are funded research endeavors with every school and college except for the School of Music. However, he added, the UM School of Public Health is the only one he knows of with its own pipe organ.

In other examples of interdisciplinary work, Philbert highlighted the 33 centers and initiatives that are associated with the school. He also noted that the school has also offered executive education programs for more than 40 years.

Philbert reviewed a variety of other aspects related to the school, including student achievements and faculty research, funding and publications. He concluded by inviting regents to visit.

In response to a question from regent Larry Deitch about Philbert’s own academic background, Philbert replied that he was “neither fish nor fowl,” reflecting the field’s convergence of disciplines. He was born and bred in England – though he noted that he’s losing his accent – and studied neurochemistry and experimental neurpathology. His more recent work focused on using nanomaterials for the targeting and treatment of brain tumors. At this point, he joked, he’s a bench jockey.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman noted that the database management conducted by some UM public health researchers is exciting work, allowing researchers to sort through huge databases to answer questions about diseases. The work couldn’t have been imagined even 10 years ago, she said.

Presentations: Stem Cell Research

In introducing Doug Engel, chair and professor of cell and developmental biology, Coleman noted that he joined UM about the same time she did – 10 years ago. She highlighted the recent news that the U.S. National Institutes of Health has authorized an embryonic stem cell line developed by UM researchers as eligible for federally funded research. The line – known as UM4-6 and cultivated by Gary Smith, co-director of the UM Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies – is now listed as the 147th stem cell line in the NIH registry. Coleman said the work is possible because Michigan voters, in a 2008 statewide referendum, approved the use of embryonic stem cells in research.

Engel began by reviewing the timeline of UM’s stem cell initiative, starting with a program he and Sue O’Shea initiated in 2003. Their goal was to establish a center of excellence in stem cell biology, and they were able to achieve it with a variety of support and funding, including an NIH award and support from Coleman’s office for the retention of Sean Morrison. [Morrison, a leader in stem cell research, was a vocal advocate for Michigan's 2008 voter referendum. In 2011 he took a post at the University of Texas.]

Engel gave a brief tutorial on three different types of stem cells – human adult stem cells, human embryonic stems cells, and human induced-pluripotent stem cells – and highlighted some of the work being done by UM researchers.

The 2008 Michigan voter referendum was crucial, he noted, because without it, the work being done now at UM would be a felony. The fact that it wasn’t possible to do this kind of work prior to the referendum “distinguished Michigan from all other states,” he said.

Referring to the embryonic stem cell line that’s now listed in the NIH registry, Engel said it allows the line to be used by researchers worldwide. In 2008, UM researchers struggled to identify what type of stem cell work they could do that would be truly unique, compared to research being done elsewhere. Under the leadership of Gary Smith and Sue O’Shea, Engel said, they’ve been able to generate human embryonic stem cell lines from patients that bear specific genetic diseases, including Hemophilia B and Huntington’s disease, among others.

Engel highlighted work by other UM researchers, including Yukiko Yamashita, one of three recent MacArthur Fellows who spoke to regents at their December 2011 board meeting. He concluded by saying ”you can obviously see why I’m so proud to be part of this enterprise.”

Coleman asked how many other institutions are producing stem cell lines. Only about four or five have been successful in doing it, Engel said, although more than a dozen other schools are in production. Coleman noted that the work is difficult, and requires a high degree of technical expertise.

Regent Larry Deitch asked how close researchers are to being able to treat patients using stem cell-based therapies. Engel said he was recently asked in a radio interview if those treatments would be available in the next five years, and it’s safe to say no. It’s fair to be reasonably skeptical until researchers better understand how those cell-based treatments integrate into a patient who’s not healthy. That’s a major difficulty.

In response to another question, Engel said that even though the timeline is long, the thing that motivates researchers on a day-to-day basis is the excitement of discovery – finding something new that no one else on earth has ever seen before.

“We’re happy about your persistence,” Coleman said.

Public Commentary

Ten people had signed up for public commentary at the end of the Feb. 16 meeting. One of them – Linda Martenson – did not appear for her speaking turn. In addition to the public commentary reported above, here is a summary of the speakers’ remarks.

Public Commentary: Student Transcript

Gulala Abraham spoke on behalf of her daughter, Sara Abraham, asking that the university remove a W (withdrawal) from her daughter’s transcript. She described the circumstances that led to the situation. Her daughter did not intend to take the class, and was in Iraq when she discovered that she was still listed on the class roster. An email was sent to the university, Abraham said, but internet service was sporadic and it’s not clear that the email was received. The W on the transcript is unfair, and is affecting her daughter as she applied for medical school. Abraham asked regents to help address the situation.

Regent Andrea Fischer Newman indicated that regents had received email correspondence about this issue, and said she thought they had asked it to be resolved before the board meeting. Regent Andy Richner said he believed the university was in litigation over the matter.

Public Commentary: China

As he has on several occasions at past meetings, William Kauffman, a retired UM engineering professor who is a candidate for the board of regents in the 2012 election, harshly criticized the university’s relationship with China. For nearly three decades, he said, illegal activities – including plagiarism, intellectual property theft and police brutality – have been rampant at the university. UM’s relationship with China is “substantially damaging the economic and military security of the U.S.,” he said, and thousands of Chinese on campus displace American students, “taking home their own little nugget of American assets.”

“As an individual trained concerning national security considerations during the Cold War,” Kauffman said, “it is my opinion that the damage done to our nation via the loss of industrial and military technology to Communist Chinese visitors studying at the UM exceeds all that done by all traitors since Benedict Arnold.”

Public Commentary: Childcare Subsidy

Introducing herself as chair of the parents’ caucus for the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), Melissa Sanders told regents that issues of parents have emerged prominently during the last few negotiation cycles between the union and the UM administration.

Son of a GEO member

The son of a GEO member attended the regents meeting and helped hold a sign for his mother during public commentary.

[Childcare subsidies are available for eligible students in the following amounts: $2,250 for one child; $3,300 for two children; and $4,350 for three or more children. The subsidy will increase annually based on the annual average tuition increase at UM childcare centers. (.pdf of application for UM childcare subsidy)]

Sanders said the GEO membership is concerned that some students are excluded from access to this subsidy. She gave several examples, including a work/study requirement for spouses to work at least 20 hours per week, and constraints for some international students regarding the amount of time they can work. Sanders expressed frustration that a joint GEO/UM steering committee has made little progress so far in addressing these issues, citing meetings that have been postponed or canceled. She asked regents to urge members of the committee on the administration’s side to actively engage and work toward solutions that both parties can accept.

As Sanders was speaking, another GEO member stood behind her with a small child, holding a sign that stated “Work With Us.” After Sanders’ remarks, regent Denise Ilitch told the boy: “Good job, honey!”

Public Commentary: Tuition Affordability

Daniel Alejandro Morales began by saying that he and his group – the Coalition for Tuition Equality – fully supported the GEO’s efforts. But he was there to talk about how many of the state’s brightest students are prevented from attending UM because they’re required to pay out-of-state tuition, but can’t afford it. He was asking regents to adopt a more inclusive policy regarding undocumented students from Michigan.

Morales recounted his own story, arriving in America when he was one year old. His parents are first-generation immigrants from Mexico, but he has never been back to that country. He went through public schools here, and achieved success as a student leader. The proudest day of his life was receiving a letter of acceptance from UM, he said, but that moment was quickly overshadowed by realizing that his immigration status would jeopardize everything. “Some people would say I was ‘illegal,’” Morales said, “but the only crime I ever committed was that of existing in a xenophobic society.”

He was able to defer his admission while working to secure a green card. When he told the agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that his admission to UM was riding on getting the green card, the agent smiled, Morales said – he was a Michigan graduate. Morales got the green card and enrolled at UM in 2011. He joined the Migrant and Immigration Rights Advocacy group, and co-founded the Coalition for Tuition Equality. He asked regents to remedy the injustice of residency classification for undocumented students in the state, saying it was a moral and ethical obligation that will also benefit the university.

At the end of his commentary, Morales asked for other students who were attending the meeting in support of the coalition to stand. More than two dozen stood, many of them holding signs from the organizations they represented, including the Muslim Students’ Association, the American Civil Liberties Union undergraduate chapter, the Latino Students Organization, and the South Asian Awareness Network.

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

Absent: Olivia (Libby) Maynard.

Next board meeting: Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 3 p.m. at the Fleming administration building on UM’s central campus. [confirm date]

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  1. By Douglas Smith
    February 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm | permalink

    After the Regents meeting, reported on another case in 2008 where the University Hospital failed to report a suspicious death to police. When the case was finally reported to campus police months later, any evidence of foul play was long gone. The campus police even asked the County Prosecutor for charges of Obstruction of justice against the Captain of Security at University Hospital but because they could not prove an underlying crime (homicide) they felt they could not charge the Security Officer with Obstruction but the sent a warning to UM that all suspected crimes need to be reported to the police.

    UM obviously did not heed that warning in the child pornography case. This is a massive failure of the University administration. The external investigation needs to include such previous cases of failure to report suspected crimes to police.

  2. By John Dory
    February 25, 2012 at 3:30 pm | permalink

    William Kauffman should be considered for the Board of Regents, but what support does he have? Is he seeking the nomination of a major political party?