It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up and challenge those you disagree with, especially when they are better informed than you.
So often corruption is allowed to continue because any would-be dissidents shy away from asking questions, for fear that they will look stupid.
The Washtenaw Community College board of trustees does not have a reputation of asking those tough questions. When the board takes action, it is always unanimous.
Board Treasurer Pam Horiszny and former trustee Patrick McLean have both stood out on the board for asking good questions. Not a lot of questions, just some.
When the administration makes proposals to the board, the responses are generally a vacant-sounding “good job.” Sometimes discussion will happen – either about what a good job the administration is doing, or about semantics. Rarely do we see earnest, challenging discussion about important issues facing the college.
It is understandable that the trustees want to avoid controversy. As a board, the trustees must act as one body and appear stable to the community. But simply nodding along and rubber-stamping anything that hits their desk does not project an image of stability. It projects weakness and complacency.
Since three new trustees joined the board in January, meetings have certainly livened up. While several of the board members are likely fighting to restrain groans every time Trustee Dave DeVarti asks tough questions, the community is cheering him on.
At the March board meeting, DeVarti pushed the trustees and administration to do everything in their collective power to achieve a 0 percent increase in fall tuition for in-district students. He suggested hiking online tuition by 6 percent.
Chief Financial Officer Bill Johnson responded thoughtfully to DeVarti, with reasons why it makes more sense to modestly raise in-district tuition than to drastically increase online tuition.
But the response from Trustee Stephen Gill took the attention away from the numbers and the facts, and brought it to a much more pervasive issue.
The trustees should not challenge the administration’s proposals, Gill said, unless they find some glaring policy violation. The administrators are the experts and know far more than the trustees about the college’s finances.
“It’s my responsibility as a trustee to accept your recommendation,” Gill said. “I don’t want to be picking at this and looking at it in different ways.”
The problem is, that is exactly the trustees’ job. They are there to enact oversight. That means asking challenging questions. That means looking at a situation in as many ways as possible to do what’s best for students, employees and taxpayers.
While the board has evaded pleas for help from employees by stating that they are only a “policy-making board,” they cannot escape responsibility for a tuition increase. There is no doubt that this decision falls under their purview. And with an issue that so directly affects students – to the point that it could block some from getting a college education – it seems the board would want to spend as much time as possible considering every scenario.
Even when the experts profess to know everything, and to have tried every possible solution, any responsible person still asks questions, still presents alternative solutions.
Those who count on WCC, those who pay the college’s bills and spend every day on its campus deserve representatives who will not just accept what they are told, but who are brave enough to push for the best solution.