Michigan Democrats sweep State Board of Education, university races

Head shots of Pamela Pugh and Mitchell Robinson, who won seats on the State Board of Education.
Incumbent Pamela Pugh, left, and newcomer Mitchell Robinson were part of a Democratic sweep of statewide elections for education boards. (Courtesy of Pamela Pugh and Mitchell Robinson)

In a year in which education debate has been dominated by Republican culture war attacks — from LGBTQ inclusivity to the teaching of critical race theory — Democrats swept contested races on Tuesday in a slate of university and K-12 board races in Michigan. 

Democrats Pamela Pugh and Mitchell Robinson took two contested seats on the State Board of Education, which sets education standards for Michigan schools. Their victories maintained a Democratic majority on the board, and denied openings to Republican candidates who argued that schools were indoctrinating students on Communist, Marxist, and “perverted” ideologies.

Pugh, an incumbent, took just over 25% of the statewide vote, while Robinson captured just over 24%. 

Democrats also took the two contested seats on each of the governing boards for the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University, according to unofficial results from all 83 counties.

Republican activists and parents groups had framed the state’s education debate this election year on “parental rights,” seeking to rid the public schools of so-called “woke” ideology on race, history, and other subjects, while also saying they were frustrated by schools that they felt weren’t transparent about lesson plans and diversity initiatives. 

To be sure, a number of parental rights candidates secured positions on local school boards Tuesday. But on board openings put to statewide votes, they were shut out.    

The eight-member State Board of Education (SBE) serves staggered, eight-year terms. The board currently tilts 5-2 in favor of Democrats, with two Democratic seats being the ones up for election this year. (There is also a pending vacancy following the departure of another Democrat member in the summer. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to fill that opening, presumably with a Democrat.) 

Michigan also elects boards at its three largest universities by statewide vote. The MSU board is receiving extra scrutiny after years of criticism and infighting over the university’s failure to improve policies and protections dealing with sexual misconduct. 

Here is who won each of the races. 

State Board of Education

Pugh and Robinson won their races Tuesday over Republicans Tamara Carlone and Linda Lee Tarver. Robinson squeezed past Carlone for the second seat by less than a single percentage point. 

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Pugh, of Saginaw, is the current vice president of the board and previously worked in public health roles. She is the co-founder of Regeneration, LLC, a “catalyst for economic sustainability and healthy urban communities,” according to her biography on the Board of Education website. 

Robinson, of East Lansing, defined himself as a “career educator” with more than 40 years of experience. He is currently an associate professor of music education at Michigan State University.

Current SBE President Casandra Ulbrich, also a Democrat, chose not to run for reelection.

Republicans Carlone and Tarver had been vocally critical of the public education system, accusing schools of liberal “indoctrination” and keeping parents out of education decisions. 

The state superintendent, Michael Rice, who is hired by the board, had come under fire recently over teacher training videos. One video showed an instructor suggesting that there may be circumstances in which a teacher might not let parents know about how their children identify at school about their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

Rice defended the videos, saying that schools want to partner with parents but there may be some instances where revealing a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation to a parent without that student’s consent could put a student’s safety in jeopardy. 

Michigan State University Board of Trustees

Three of Michigan’s 15 public universities have governing boards that are elected by statewide vote. 

At Michigan State University, incumbent Renee Knake Jefferson won along with newcomer Dennis Denno. Jefferson won 24.9% of the vote while Denno received 24.4% of the vote. The two Democrats edged out Republicans Mike Balow (24.2%) and Travis Menge (23.2%). 

The board currently has five Democrats and three Republicans. That will shift to six Democrats and two Republicans once Denno replaces Trustee Melanie Foster at the beginning of 2023. 

Michigan State University interim president Teresa Woodruff started in her new  role last Friday. She replaced Samuel Stanley Jr., who resigned after citing his lack of confidence in the MSU board, which appeared to share the same sentiment about Stanley, with several members questioning whether he had complied with university safeguards relating to sexual misconduct.    

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University of Michigan Board of Regents

Democratic incumbents Michael Behm and Kathy White each earned another term. White received 25.2% of the vote while Behm received 24.6%. 

They beat Republicans Lena Epstein (23.9%) and Sevag Vartanian (22.3%).

Their reelection means that Democrats’ current 6-2 advantage on the board will not change.  

Santa Ono, the new university president, started in mid-October. He has already announced the creation of a new ethics and compliance office in response to U-M’s own faltering response to years of sexual assault and misconduct by faculty and staff. He told Bridge Michigan he is listening to faculty, students, state leaders, and general community members to see what the university’s future should look like. 

Wayne State University Board of Governors

Both Democrat incumbent Marilyn Kelly and newcomer Danielle Atkinson earned about 24.9% of the vote Tuesday, with Kelly earning slightly more votes. 

Atkinson will replace Democrat Dana Alicia Thompson, who decided not to run for reelection. Democrats will retain a 6-2 majority. 

Current Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson announced he will step down from his role next summer. The board is in the process of finding a new president. 

Isabel Lohman is a reporter for Bridge Michigan. You can reach her at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

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