Historical Background

From shortly after its inception in 1817 as the "Catholepistemiad, or University, of Michigania," down to the present day, the affairs of the University of Michigan have been managed by a governing board. While the nature of this governing board underwent four transformations of varying degrees during the first forty-seven years of the university's existence, the form that the board assumed after 1864 has remained fixed through the present day.

Initially designated a Board of Trustees, the first group of men to whom the care of the university was entrusted numbered twenty. These trustees and their successors were appointed by the territorial governor, himself ex officio head of the board.

Early visions of the Catholepistemiad were broad and far-ranging, and included the establishment of secondary schools that were to prepare students for enrollment in the state university. The first Board of Trustees oversaw the establishment of such a school in Detroit.

Regents, 1867

The Board of Regents, 1867. Left to right. Back row:
Regents Cyrus Stockwell, Thomas Gilbert, John Sill,
James Sweezey. Middle row: Regent James Johnson,
President Erastus Otis Haven, Regent George Willard.
Front row: Regents Thomas Joslin and Edward Walker.
(Some identifications are not substantiated.)

The year 1837 marked important changes in Michigan: the advent of statehood and the establishment of the university in Ann Arbor. The method of governance of the university did not change, but differences in the name of the board and the number of persons serving on it mark the second stage in the development of the board's modern form. The Organic Act of March 18, 1837, called for the university to be governed by what was termed a Board of Regents composed of twelve members. There was no real change, however, in the method of selection of the governing board. Regents were nominated by the governor and appointed by and with the consent of the Senate. The law further stipulated that the governor, lieutenant governor, justices of the Supreme Court, and chancellor of the state were to serve as ex officio regents. The chancellor of the university, later called president, was also to serve ex officio on the board, and act as chair. Since this office in the university remained unfilled until 1852, the chairmanship of the board was held by the governor between 1837 and 1852. Early Proceedings of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, the official minutes of the board's meetings (hereafter referred to as Regents Proceedings), reveal that these first ex officio regents, unlike their later counterparts, did have the power to speak and to vote.

Appointments to the first Board of Regents were made by Governor Stevens T. Mason in the spring of 1837. At the first meeting of the board in Ann Arbor on June 5, 1837, lots were drawn to determine whether each appointee would serve a one-, two-, three-, or four-year term. Thereafter, the length of terms for appointments was understood to be four years, although the Organic Act of 1837 and the Regents Proceedings are silent on the issue. A significant number of the earliest members of the board did not serve full terms, and few served more than one term. The high rate of turnover was rendered even higher by the social mobility that was characteristic of a frontier state. During the first fifteen years of the university's existence in Ann Arbor, forty-nine men served as regents; of these, fifteen resigned before their terms expired, one moved to Wisconsin without formal resignation, and one became state chancellor and so served instead as ex officio regent. Only ten of these forty-nine served a term longer than four years. Twenty-one others served ex officio during that time period, swelling to seventy the number of regents who served the university, however briefly, between 1837 and 1852.

Given a situation which bred inexperience in the board, whose members governed from a distance without the help of a university chancellor, it is surprising that the affairs of the new university ran as smoothly as they did. The physical plant of the early campus, consisting of four houses for professors and a structure which housed both classrooms and student rooms (later named Mason Hall), was completed by 1840. In 1841, the first class, consisting of six young men, matriculated and was served by two professors and a librarian. Enrollment increased rapidly to 159 for the academic year 1850/51; and by 1852, 101 students had been graduated from the University of Michigan. There were six faculty members, but still no chancellor, thus much of the mundane business of the operation of the university was left to an ever-changing board. In January 1852, for example, the board was obliged to consider a petition "of students in reference of supply of wood," and several meetings early in that year involved discussion of the firing and hiring of a custodian for the college buildings. The board was not without its share of serious subjects with which to deal, chiefly financial in nature. Its ability to deal with them was hampered by provisions in the Organic Act itself, which did not clearly differentiate the respective rights and duties of the regents and the state legislature. When a second constitutional convention convened in Michigan in 1850, reorganization of the governing structure of the university was an important issue.

The Constitution of 1850 provided for several changes in the makeup of the Board of Regents, marking the third stage in the board's evolution. Most significant was a change in the nature of the position of regent from that of a political appointee to an elected official. The new constitution provided that a regent be elected in each judicial circuit at the time of the election of circuit judge in April, to serve a six-year term beginning in January of the following year. The constitution also stipulated that the first item of business to be taken care of by the new board in 1852 was the selection of a president for the university. The issue of ex officio regents was also addressed; only the president of the university was to serve in this capacity, with the power to speak but not to vote. Minor flaws and the potential for major problems in the new system became apparent during the 1857 election. First, the number of judicial circuits increased from eight to ten, and by the terms of the constitution, the number of regents took a corresponding jump. This fluctuation in numbers was coupled with a more serious problem. In the election of 1857 the board experienced a complete turnover in members; the resulting situation provided a case study in why such a lack of continuity was dangerous to the university. There was the old problem of inexperience; far worse was the attitude of the new board to the university's president, Henry Tappan. Whereas the members of the board of 1852 had worked harmoniously with Tappan, the members of the board of 1858 clashed with him from the start. In a move that can be characterized as spiteful, the board eventually fired Tappan, a man who many feel was Michigan's greatest president, in June 1863, on the eve of the changeover to a new board.

It was clear that the system of election outlined in the Constitution of 1850 needed some fine-tuning. A law passed in 1863 marked the fourth and largely final stage of the board's development and provided for the election of eight regents-at-large, to begin service in 1864, two regents for two years, two for four years, two for six years, and two for eight years. Thereafter, at each biennial spring election voters would elect two regents, each for a term of eight years. This system is still in effect today, with one minor change instituted by the Constitutional Convention of 1963--that of fall rather than spring elections. The same convention eliminated the Superintendent of Public Instruction as an ex officio regent (this ex officio position had been added to the board by the Constitutional Convention of 1909), leaving the president of the university as the only ex officio member of the board.

Michigan University Regents
75th Anniversary Celebration, June 27, 1912

Standing L-R: Frank B. Leland, John H. Grant,
Secretary Shirley W. Smith, Harry O. Bulkey,
William L. Clements, Lucius L. Hubbard,
Benjamin Hanchett, Junius E. Beal,
Seated L-R: Luther L. Wright, Pres. Emeritus
James B. Angell, Pres. Harry B. Hutchins,
Walter M. Sawyer.

While no system of governance is without problems, the system of elected regents has served the university and the state well for nearly 140 years, and there has never been serious discussion about changing it

The Board of Regents at Michigan has a unique status among public university governing boards. Its existence, and certain of its powers, have been mandated by the state constitution since 1850. It theoretically operates with complete independence from the legislative, judicial, and executive arms of state government. In reality, the board's relations with each of these governmental branches, especially the legislative branch, are complex, and certainly affect the way in which the board, and ultimately the university, operates. Dating from early in the university's history, when the issues in question were the regents' powers in financial matters and the existence of a Homeopathic Medical School in Ann Arbor, through the recent 1988 opinion on the regents' right to decide the issue of divestment of financial holdings, court rulings have, for the most part, supported the board's position that its members alone have the power to determine the course of university events.

Regents, 1956

The Board of Regents, 1956 or 1957. Left to right: Regents Otto E. Eckert, Eugene B. Power, Alfred B. Connable, Roscoe O. Bonisteel, Vera Burridge Baits, President Harlan Hatcher, Regents Leland I. Doan, Charles S. Kennedy, Paul L. Adams.