Four candidates running for two seats on the U-M Board of Regents in the Nov. 8 general election made their case at an Oct. 3 forum hosted by the Faculty Senate.
Participating were incumbent Democrats Michael J. Behm and Katherine E. White, Republican Sevag Vartanian and Green Party candidate Sherry Wells. The event took place in the Alexander G. Ruthven Building’s University Hall and was livestreamed on YouTube.
Faculty Senate Chair Silvia Pedraza introduced each candidate and allowed each a five-minute statement.
Behm, who was elected in 2014, described advancements made by the board during his term. He referenced strides regarding labor, carbon neutrality and investment in the Flint and Dearborn campuses. Behm said he hopes to continue to work to establish trust between the campus and administration, and create an environment of safety on campus.
“In the last eight years of the university, we’ve had a combination of challenges and advancements,” he said. “There are huge issues and I feel as though the board has tackled them well, and there’s a lot more to deal with.”
White, who was first elected in 1998 and is seeking her fourth eight-year term, emphasized her qualifications and experience. As the only member of the board with a background in academia, the military, and science and engineering, White said she would bring a unique perspective.
“Everyone who teaches, there’s something about that profession that really opens your heart, and it gives me great passion to go to work every day,” White said, citing her position as a tenured law professor at Wayne State University.
Wells said she thinks the board should be imbued with new ideas and opinions.
“The advantage of being new to the University of Michigan in so many ways is that I use my attorney skills: listening, learning, researching, and legislating and administering,” she said. “I definitely would be bringing … more of a common person to the table, and I invite you to give me that opportunity.”
Vartanian said his experience in the banking sector would be helpful when dealing with the university’s large endowment. He said he has ideas about better ways to put the money to use to help the university.
“As a regent, every question that gets raised I will look through the lens: Is this good for the students? Is this good for the faculty and staff? And is it good for the reputation of the University of Michigan?” he said.
Pedraza then moderated a question-and-answer session consisting of questions submitted in advance by faculty members.
Gary Hammer, Millie Schembechler Professor of Adrenal Cancer and professor of internal medicine, molecular and integrative physiology, and cell developmental biology in the Medical School, asked the candidates about women’s reproductive rights and if they plan to support freedom of choice on campus.
Behm, White and Wells all expressed their support of reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose.
Vartanian pointed to a proposed constitutional amendment, also on the Nov. 8 ballot, that seeks to codify abortions rights in Michigan. “My views on reproductive rights are irrelevant,” he said. “If our fellow Michiganders decide that we do want to have abortion in the state, then yes, I will make sure that we all can comply with the law.”
Aileen Das, associate professor of classical studies, Middle East studies, Judaic studies and history in LSA, asked how the candidates would respond to COVID-19 concerns on campus regarding the lack of masking, particularly in classrooms.
While Vartanian said individuals need to decide for themselves whether to wear masks, Wayne State still requires masks in classrooms and labs, and Wells said she finds it “ironic” and “hard to understand” why U-M has a looser stance.
Behm and White referenced the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines and the university’s adherence to protocol and scientific studies about the vaccine. Behm said the advantages of online learning continue to help students.
“There’s that old saying, ‘Out of crisis comes opportunity.’ I think we’ve learned quite a few things through the pandemic about how to deliver teaching,” he said.
Asked how they would expand access for Flint and Dearborn campuses, Behm and White noted the importance of wraparound services. Based on his interactions with students across the campuses, Behm said the greatest need is child care and solid transportation to and from school.
Vartanian spoke about helping students find summer internships and employment opportunities, and Wells explained her idea for students from the Flint and Dearborn campuses to spend a semester at the Ann Arbor campus.
Tom Braun, professor of biostatistics in the School of Public Health, asked how the candidates planned to increase diversity on campus.
Behm advocated for programs that identify high-achieving students at a young age, Wells supported dropping standardized test requirements, and Vartanian detailed a summer program to bring students of color into the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
White added, “A lot of times the University of Michigan and other universities, their admissions office relies very heavily on high school counselors’ recommendations. … A lot of counselors have a lot of biases. … We have to work hard to make sure we’re getting counselors … that do see all potential for students across the board.”
Finally, the candidates were asked about their support for unionized workers considering many U-M workers are represented by a labor union.
While Behm, Wells and White voiced their support for unions, Vartanian said that each issue would need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
Regents are elected for eight years and serve staggered terms, with two seats up for election every two years.
Other candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot, but who did not participate in the forum, are Republican Lena Epstein, Libertarian Eric Larson, Kathleen Oakford of the Natural Law Party, and Joe Sanger of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.