New U-M regent Mark Bernstein's focus stays on affordability as he prepares to take seat on board
By plastering his name on billboards across the state and dispatching a school bus with a fresh coat of paint to various sporting events and festivals, Mark Bernstein made it very clear that he wanted to be a University of Michigan regent.
Bernstein, one of AnnArbor.com’s “Ones to Watch in 2013,” got his wish when voters elected him to an eight-year term on the board in November. With campaigning over, his attention has turned to learning as much as he can about the university as he prepares to take office on Jan. 1.
Courtesy Mark Bernstein
“ Anyone who comes in saying, ‘under my leadership we’re going to do this, this and that' is not being very honest. They have no idea how complex and large in terms of scope and scale this university is.”
As he wraps his head around the myriad of issues that will face him as a regent, the one that stands out is the same one he made his calling card on the campaign trail.
“The most pressing urgent issue is still affordability,” he said.
“We have to make sure that the University of Michigan is open and accessible to all students regardless of their economic circumstance.”
In the run-up to the election, Bernstein floated a number of ideas for making U-M more affordable, including using the university’s AAA credit rating to directly lend money to students at far lower rates than available elsewhere.
Now that he’s been elected, Bernstein isn’t backing down from those ideas, but he does acknowledge that the process of bringing them to fruition will not be quick or easy.
“It’s a long-term view. It’s like turning a super tanker,” he said.
“ That comes down to a few things. The internal budget process and a vote on tuition are two of the big ones, but it’s about asking very thoughtful questions about the priorities of the university. I’m very interested in listening to the very capable people who are running the university and asking them for their guidance on how to address these priorities.”
Bernstein plans to approach his new position in a distinctly different manner than he has employed as president of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm.
“There’s an important line between governance and management,” he said of his father's firm.
“The board of regents need to govern. I do not believe that we’re there to manage. It’s the board’s role to establish direction in collaboration with the university’s leadership and then to stay out of the weeds while it’s implemented.”
On a governance level, Bernstein believes that the state’s lack of financial support is one of the biggest threats facing not just the University of Michigan, but all public institutions of higher education.
“It goes to the larger question of what kind of state do we want to be,” he said.
“The states with the highest per capita income, like Maryland, have the highest educational payout rate. Those states are investing in education and the educational infrastructure. They’re attracting the type of employers that want that educated workforce.”
One area where Bernstein sees the university as primed to take a leadership role in 2013 is in the increased use of digital technology in teaching. The opportunities made available by utilizing the technology are both fiscal and philosophical.
“It has the possibility of generating revenue and cutting costs,” Bernstein said.
“But it’s also a powerful way to spread the knowledge the university has far beyond the physical confines of the campus," he said.
It’s only the first year of an eight-year term, but eyes will be on Bernstein and fellow new regent Shauna Ryder Diggs when major questions arise at board meetings this year about tuition, unions and college affordability.
“Now is the time to look at this and evaluate what the possibilities are within the framework of the values I’ve articulated,” he said.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to serve one of the great public institutions of the world, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement.”
Ben Freed covers business for AnnArbor.com. You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2