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A photo illustration of a target with the word "regents" imposed over it.

Governing boards have been rocked by culture war clashes and controversy in recent weeks.

Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed

Brazen scandals, personal squabbles and partisan politics have prompted shake-ups and recent threats to remove members of governing boards in four states: Arizona, Hawaii, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In some cases, such as at Michigan State University, board members have been accused of dramatic misbehavior—including accepting donor kickbacks and retaliating against faculty. In others, such as at the Universities of Wisconsin system, they are caught up in political headwinds, under pressure from conservative lawmakers over support for diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

While the removal of governing board members is rare, it often reflects broader financial, administrative or political tensions that can sow distrust and impede the mission of public institutions of higher education—especially when the regents or trustees themselves invite the controversy.

A DEI Showdown in Wisconsin

On Tuesday, Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate booted two members of the UW Board of Regents, voting along party lines to deny reappointment to Dana Wachs and John Miller.

The move followed last week’s committee vote by the GOP-led Senate Committee on Universities and Revenue to push out the two regents for rejecting a deal last year to axe DEI programs in exchange for employee pay raises, which the party was withholding as a bargaining chip to force cuts to UW diversity initiatives.

Though regents eventually approved the deal, Wachs and Miller voted against it twice.

In December, after the second vote, Senate president Chris Kapenga, a Republican, accused the regents of prioritizing “ideology” over the needs of the system and warned of consequences.

“It’s good to know before their upcoming Senate confirmation votes that several Regents chose their sacred ideology over getting our students ready for their careers,” Kapenga posted on X.

After the senate rejected their reappointment, Democratic governor Tony Evers issued a statement Tuesday blasting Republicans for “escalating their unprecedented efforts to threaten, intimidate, and fire anyone who disagrees with them and turn a basic function of democracy into a political circus.” Evers added that Republicans have fired 21 of his appointees across various state boards, for “no reason whatsoever,” since he entered office in 2019.

“These volunteers have done nothing to earn the political wrath of these Republicans—nothing,” Evers said on social media. “It’s obvious this is about Wisconsin Republicans exacting their political punishment and retribution on Wisconsinites who’ve volunteered to give their time, expertise, and experience to serve our neighbors and our state. And that is a damn shame.”

Evers immediately appointed two new members to the UW Board of Regents.

A Heated Clash in Hawaii

A different kind of politics is at play in deep blue Hawaii, where some critics believe a lawmaker’s history matters more than party affiliation.

As chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Donna Mercado Kim wields significant influence. And the Democratic state senator has a long and contentious history with the University of Hawaii system, whose leaders she has regularly battled for more than a decade.

The latest skirmish between the state senator and UH resulted in the ouster of Alapaki Nahale-a, chair of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, who was denied another term on a 13 to 12 Senate confirmation vote March 5. Kim led the effort to reject Nahale-a’s reappointment, accusing the board chair of failing to hold university leaders accountable.

Now Nahale-a’s term on the Board of Regents will end in June.

Kim’s critics believe she is seeking undue influence over the ongoing search for a new president at UH; the faculty union has accused her of abusing her power in denying Nahale-a another term.

“So here we are again. A move by Senator Donna Mercado Kim to reshape the Board of Regents into her name, image, and likeness so that finally the Senate can get what they have long desired—control over the UH,” union officials said in a March 5 statement about the fracas.

Kim has insisted she measured Nahale-a against his record, casting him as unaccountable and failing to advocate for students. She added that she has no interest in driving the presidential search.

“I don’t want control. I don’t want to pick a president and then be responsible if that president succeeds or [doesn’t] succeed,” Kim told a local radio station following Nahale-a's ouster. Kim noted that she has received complaints from constituents about the Board of Regents.

Critics who submitted testimony against Nahale-a charged him with being an ineffectual leader who failed to include students in the presidential search and did little to prevent residence halls from falling into disrepair under his watch. Others signaled support, praising Nahale-a’s leadership, experience and commitment to education. But for Kim, the complaints carried the day.

“What do we do? Ignore them?” she asked.

Dysfunction at Michigan State

Michigan State University’s elected Board of Trustees has long been marked by dysfunction.

While the board has navigated numerous controversies over the years—including the explosive Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal—it also has gotten caught up in them at times; trustees have generated negative press for either ignoring their duties or acting beyond their authority. Kevin Guskiewicz, the newly appointed president of MSU, even asked board members to sign a pledge vowing not to interfere in the daily operations of the university and to allow him to do his job.

A recent investigation by an outside law firm into alleged trustee misbehavior indicated that Guskiewicz’s concerns are probably valid. The investigation found that former Board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno had led efforts to “embarrass and unsettle” interim President Teresa Woodruff and retaliate against Faculty Senate Chair Jack Lipton, a critic of the board.

The investigation also found that Vassar had accepted improper benefits from a donor, including private flights and tickets to basketball games. And during her time as board chair, she allegedly overstepped her authority by meeting privately with a former MSU business school dean who was suing the university over his forced resignation, according to the investigation, which determined that Vassar was trying to help settle the lawsuit.

While Vassar and Denno have taken issue with the investigation, largely shrugging off the charges, fellow board members voted to censure and strip them of committee assignments earlier this month. Vassar also voluntarily stepped down from her position as board chair.

Whether the elected board members, both Democrats, remain in office is not up to them. Earlier this month the board announced it had referred the trustees to the governor’s office for removal.

Now Vassar and Denno are stuck in limbo as they await the governor’s decision.

A press secretary for Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer indicated to Inside Higher Ed that she had made no decision yet on whether to remove them from the board.

“As we have done in similar instances, we will take the time to carefully review this request upon official receipt of the formal communication from the board,” Whitmer’s press secretary, Stacey LaRouche, said by email.

Personal Conflict in Arizona

A financial crisis at the University of Arizona, which is facing a $177 million budget deficit, has led to a shake-up of the Arizona Board of Regents and prompted the resignation of its chair, Fred DuVal.

Arizona’s Democratic governor Katie Hobbs has shown mounting frustration with the state’s regents since the shortfall was discovered in November. Hobbs has accused the board of lacking a coherent strategy to fix UA’s financial issues and of becoming sidetracked by petty personal squabbles with faculty, including an incident in which DuVal threatened legal action against UA’s Faculty Senate chair for asking questions about his possible conflict of interest.

When Faculty Senate chair Leila Hudson suggested DuVal was involved with a company that she believed did business with UA, he went on the attack during a February board meeting, accusing Hudson of going too far with her questions and inflicting a “terrible blow to shared governance.” Fellow Regent Lyndel Manson joined in, lobbing criticism at Faculty Senate leaders, who she claimed had instilled a culture of fear at UA.

Hobbs fired back immediately.

“Instead of taking any accountability and guiding with a steady hand, ABOR is circling the wagons and announcing they are litigating personal grudges during board meetings,” the governor said in a news release, demanding a meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents.

Her office later told local media that Hobbs was exploring options to remove regents.

While both DuVal and Mason remain on the board following their comments about UA’s Faculty Senate, DuVal stepped down as chair prior to the March 6 meeting with Hobbs.

“It’s imperative that we move away from the heat of rhetoric and politics and refocus on addressing the genuine challenges facing our institution,” he said last month. “By resigning as board chair, I aim to do my part to create space for collaborative efforts toward real solutions.”

Following the leadership change, the governor appears to have paused plans to remove regents. A spokesperson for Hobbs did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed, but the governor recently indicated she is no longer exploring the possibility of removing regents.

“I’m not looking to do that at this moment. Right now we’re moving forward with the board as it is,” Hobbs said last week, according to The Arizona Daily Star.

Removals Remain Rare

Though regents have been on the hot seat in recent weeks, most remain in place. And the chances of a board member losing their seat, whether elected or appointed, remain somewhat slim. Of the cases above, only three have lost their seats so far despite the associated controversies.

“The actual removal of the trustee is a relatively rare occurrence,” said Mary Papazian, executive vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Given differences in state statutes and board bylaws, the mechanism for removing a regent or trustee at a public institution can vary significantly. Some may be pushed out by the governor; others by the state legislature.

Regardless of the reason or process, Papazian emphasized the need for clear guidelines. That means establishing legal frameworks and governance structures that articulate why and how board members will be removed, should it come to that.

But even when processes flow smoothly, removing a board member can be jarring.

“Any time you have a situation like that, it does create disruption for the board. It may be the right thing, it may be done for the right reasons, It may be done for other reasons, but it's always disruptive,” Papazian said.

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