Opening up on closed meetings

By Kaylee Kean

Members of the OU community are taking a stand regarding a new piece of state legislation that may require university boards to keep all sessions open to the public.

Last month the Board of Trustees passed a resolution supporting the board’s right to keep only formal sessions open to the public, and the right to keep informal sessions closed off from public view and participation.

This resolution was passed in response to Michigan’s House Joint Resolution (HJR) O, which seeks to further clarify how Michigan’s institutions of higher education hold meetings. Michigan’s constitution has currently phrased that “formal sessions” shall be open to the public, which is contradictory to the Michigan Open Meetings Act. HJR O would have this amended to the more general term “meetings” and align the state constitution with the Open Meetings Act.

This would mean university boards, including OU’s own Board of Trustees, would be forced to hold all meetings open to the public, whether formal or informal.

HJR O should be hitting the ballots later this year, but OU community members are already making their positions known.

Valuable tools

Mark Schlussel, chairman of the board, said this House Joint Resolution O would make it very difficult for the board to make effective decisions and fulfill its duty to the students.

Nothing can be officially approved outside of formal sessions, Schlussel said. Informal meetings are generally held by committees comprised of board members who meet to discuss their areas of responsibility and expertise. The discussions can be held more frankly and can cover more detail due to their informality, Schlussel said, and no decisions are made.

Those committees, such as the academic, athletic or ad hoc committees, consult one another and many campus members, then make their recommendations on important matters to the board as a whole. The board can formally approve or deny recommendations at the public formal sessions.

The board frequently interacts with professors and leadership on campus throughout this process, Schlussel said.

“The discussions that they carried out were with a number of constituencies that are important to the decision-making process,” Schlussel said of the tuition increase.

The board has a responsibility to the students and OU community to provide the best educational experience possible, he said, and informal sessions are valuable tools in fulfilling this duty.

“If we were handcuffed by this legislation, we would forfeit our ability to do so,” Schlussel said, saying discussions in all-public sessions would not be nearly as effective.

Student Congress’ stand

At its own meeting in July, the Oakland University Student Congress (OUSC) passed its own resolution in favor of HJR O and the opening of all board meetings to the public.

OUSC’s legislative affairs director had actually been researching the matter for some time, according to Sam Harris, OUSC legislator and sponsor of the OUSC resolution. It just so happened that the board’s resolution and OUSC’s resolution were passed around the same time.

“The biggest idea behind this (HRJ O) is that these public universities are primarily funded by the public, or the students that attend them and pay tuition,” Harris said. “It’s important for the students… it really increases the transparency of what the boards are doing by allowing the public to actually go and see how (the board) is running things.”

Harris said the intent is not to criticize the board — he and the other OUSC members simply want to share their support for HJR O and that ability to participate in or view discussions.

“I don’t think it stops them from having frank discussions,” Harris said. “I think it shows to their character if they can have those discussions in front of the people that they’re serving. At the end of the day, really, those frank discussions impact us.”

He said even if students can’t speak or vote, it would be so much better to at least see what is happening and have a better understanding of the decision making process.

Rocky relationship

Annie Meinberg, senior student, previous Student Body President and now student liaison to the board, said she wants students more involved in the discussions, but she’s not sure opening all meetings to the public is the best idea.

“You know that a lot goes on behind the scenes; sometimes I think it’s just not reasonable to have a public meeting for every informal meeting,” Meinberg said. “But you also want to be transparent. I do think the trustees do have the institution’s best interests in mind.”

Best interests or not, Meinberg said it’s hard for the trustees to truly think about the students here and how they work, when $1,000 a year may be a small amount to a board member.

“It may be small to the board but not to me,” Meinberg said. “I think it’s unfortunate that our board even has to consider a number that high, 8.48 percent, because our state legislature finds it difficult to fund our universities.

“We welcome input,” Schlussel said. “We’re always looking for people who can provide us with expertise and insight.”

As for student involvement, Schlussel said he is “all in favor of students being involved in their academic experiences,” and highly recommends students get involved in the political process of the state and of the country.

While there are liaisons in place to help, Harris said he thinks the relationship between trustees and students is still rocky at best, especially after the most recent tuition hike.

“It makes it look like they don’t want our input,” Harris said. “While that may not be the case, it’s what it comes across as.”

He said OUSC’s president and vice president will be taking the resolution to the board to show their support, and can only wait to see how the board responds.

As for students, Harris said it’s important to speak up.

“Be engaged. Don’t take a back seat. It’s your education and if you’re not going to speak up about the things that you want to see and the things you want changed, it’s not going to happen.”

More information on the Board of Trustees and its activities can be found at www.oakland.edu/bot.