Sevag Vartanian

Vartanian in Race For U-Mich Board of Regents

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On Election Day, November 8, among the many nationwide and local elections, is a race for  the University of Michigan Board of Regents. Sevag Vartanian is running as a Republican on a platform of fiscal responsibility. In a recent interview he said his goal is to bring responsible leadership back to the institution, which has recently been plagued with scandals and, according to Vartanian, financial irresponsibility.

U-M’s Importance to the Armenian Community

While accurate statistics are difficult to come by, according to recent US Census data, Michigan comes in fifth among US states for the size of its Armenian community, after California, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. The community is centered in the Metro Detroit area which is widely considered the 4th or 5th largest Armenian community in the US, regionally speaking (after the greater Los Angeles, Boston, and New York / New Jersey areas, and comparable to Fresno, CA).

At the same time, U-M is a world-class institution ranked 25th among American universities by the US News and World Report. Among public universities, it is ranked third, according to the same outlet, behind the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles . Michigan’s Law School is ranked 10th while its medical school is ranked 17th.

A combination of a large Armenian community in the area, big number of university students of Armenian descent, and the relative affluence of the local Armenian community, has made U-M a major center of Armenian Studies. The school has two endowed chairs in Armenian studies: the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History, currently held by Professor Hakem Al-Rustom, and the Marie Manoogian Chair in Armenian Language and Literature, currently held by Prof. Michael Pifer, himself a graduate of U-M who studied under his predecessor, Dr. Kevork Bardakjian. Other major figures in Armenian studies such as Dr. Jirair Libaridian and Dr. Ron Suny have been a part of U-M’s Armenian programs throughout its history and currently. Regular classes are given in the Western Armenian language and on various aspects of Armenian history and culture, Classical and Eastern Armenian language is also offered as are frequent lectures and academic conferences. The school also boasts a very large and active Armenian Students’ Cultural Association.

The satellite campus, U-M Dearborn, attracts many local Armenian-American students as well; it is the home of the Armenian Research Center (ARC), whose current director is Prof. Ara Sanjian. The ARC, which was founded by Dr. Dennis Papazian and funded by the Knights of Vartan, is more closely connected to the local community as well as having a special focus on Armenian Genocide history; Armenian history and language classes are also given at Dearborn. The Dearborn campus, as well as the Flint campus, are administered by the same Board of Regents that run the main Ann Arbor campus.

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Board of Regents

The Board of Regents acts as a board of trustees for the University, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. The constitution of the State of Michigan provides for the statewide election of U-M’s Board of Regents along with the Board of Trustees of Michigan State University and the Board of Governors of Wayne State University.

The eight members of the Board of Regents serve in an unpaid position for an eight-year term. Currently, there are six Democrats and two Republicans on the Board of Regents. Two of the Democrat incumbents are up for reelection; both are running again, along with two nominees from the Republican party, Vartanian being one of them, as well as third-party candidates.

The board has the power to approve the annual budget of the university, which in practice means they get to dictate much of the university’s policies and particularly spending. They also have the power to hire and fire the President of the University, who administers the institution on a day to day basis, and attends all Board of Regents meetings as presiding officer, without having a vote on the board.

Recently, the President of U-M, Mark Schlissel, was fired by the Regents, following revelations of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate female colleague, at the same time that investigations were pending into the case of Dr. Robert Anderson, an athletic doctor who allegedly molested over 1,000 student athletes in his 40-year career at the university. Anderson died in 2008, but the University announced a $490 million settlement with victims last month.

With former U-M President Mary Sue Coleman filling Schlissel’s role temporarily, a new president, Dr. Santa J. Ono, was chosen by the Regents on July 13 of this year and assumed office on October 13.

Fiscal Conservative

Vartanian, who was born and raised in Dearborn, has been an active member of the Armenian-American community all his life. His father, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was a native of Abadan, Iran, whom Vartanian describes as a hayaser, a supporter of the community and the culture who was fond of reciting Armenian poetry he learned as a child. Vartanian’s mother was from Cleveland, Ohio, and was the American-born daughter of Genocide survivors who fled Ottoman Turkey like so many others. Vartanian was raised at St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn and was a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) as a young man. He was an Eagle Scout and in keeping with that, focuses on issues of integrity and responsibility.

Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1991 with a degree in actuarial mathematics, he then worked at Ford Credit. (His “trivia fact” is that while he was unable to make the football team, he was a male cheerleader in his college days in Ann Arbor, and remains a staunch fan of the Michigan Wolverines.) He earned an MBA in finance and statistics from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2000, and then moved to Manhattan where he worked for such firms as Citibank and Bank of America.

In 2012, Vartanian decided to return to Michigan where he wanted to raise his family, and he now runs his own asset management firm. He and his wife, Knar, a native of New Jersey, are parents to three boys, one of whom is currently a student at U-M. Vartanian’s interest in running for the Board of Regents stems from his concern for the education of his children and the well-being of the people of the state of Michigan. He feels that the University is being mismanaged from a financial standpoint and that as a fiscal conservative who is highly experienced and trained in finance, he can contribute to fixing that problem.

“One, I’m an alumnus, and I had a great experience at the University of Michigan. It is the crown jewel of education, not just in Michigan but across the world, one of the top public research universities in the world,” Vartanian said. “As a taxpayer in the state of Michigan, we fund the school and we expect a return on our investment. The number of students that we accept from the State of Michigan residents has been dropping for a long time.”

Vartanian explained further: “The ‘return’ comes from students, upon graduation, taking jobs in Michigan, becoming inventors in Michigan, becoming business creators in Michigan, to help the economy. We all benefit from an educated workforce. If you keep more of your educated workforce in the state, the economy grows. You don’t want to export your best talent.”

Vartanian stated that only about 52 percent of the undergraduates in Ann Arbor are in-state residents. If the numbers are combined with the graduate students, less than half of all U-M students are from Michigan. While valuing U-M’s status as a world-class research university, meaning graduate students will be coming from all over, Vartanian would like to see the percentage of in-state undergrads more in the 60-70 percent range. Meanwhile, as he points out, “U-M has had 38 consecutive years of tuition increases and most of it was at double the rate of inflation. Now that we have the highest inflation in over 40 years, what’s the school going to do to balance its budget?”

Vartanian explained that the school attempts to solve this problem by raising out-of-state tuition, but this is not sustainable. For one thing, the free market will eventually cause out-of-state students to lose interest in such an expensive school, so they can’t be relied on to sustain the university. For another, the school now has an incentive to reject in-state students in favor of out-of-state students, which ultimately is bad for the state. “If residents are paying $17,000 a year in tuition and non-residents are paying $55,000 a year in tuition, the school prefers non-residents. These are the people who are not likely to stay in Michigan afterwards, but they fulfill the budgetary requirements,” said Vartanian. He has a problem with this type of thinking, based on looking for revenue rather than looking to cut spending. What should be done differently? “We need to allocate the resources better,” he says. “They [the administration] get addicted to this out-of-state tuition.”

Armenian undergraduate students paint “the Rock,” a U-M landmark, in the Armenian flag colors. Different student organizations paint “the Rock” with different colors or images throughout the year.

‘This Race Is Not About Politics’

Political divisiveness and the so-called “cancel culture” are also on Vartanian’s mind. “Back then it isn’t nearly as political as it is now. What I’m finding is that the ‘cancel culture’ is so strong in the university system now, where people are afraid to exercise their freedom of speech. I have faculty members coming up to me quietly saying, ‘I’ve got to be careful to be seen talking to you, because it’s really bad here.’ It’s really not how science should be conducted; we should be able to speak freely and debate in a respectful manner.” He also mentions that when students are writing their entrance essays, “they aren’t writing what they actually think; they’re writing what they think the school wants to hear,” noting that this environment “squelches academic freedom.”

Vartanian downplays the political divides and he speaks highly of friends that are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him, like Prof. Ron Suny, whose children he babysat for as a teenager, and with whom he recently had lunch. “For me this race isn’t about politics, it’s about good governance, and ensuring the university maintain its standards and stay a leader in research,” he said.

To questions about abortion, which is currently a hot topic in Michigan, Vartanian said that his personal opinions are irrelevant, and that he will endeavor to follow the law. As the son of an OB-GYN, Vartanian said he understands that abortion is not a cut-and-dry issue. “Of course there should be exceptions, especially for the health of the mother,” he stated.

Instead of hot-button culture war issues, Vartanian wants to focus on fiscal conservatism. He has spoken a lot about U-M’s $17-billion endowment fund, stating that it is not a “slush fund” that can be used for whatever the administration wants. He cites wasteful spending, like the $15-million renovation of the President’s House, the official residence of the U-M President, which is also used for formal affairs.

“From a finance background I can look at the balance sheets, income statements, and know the right questions to ask. I was shocked, a couple weeks ago I was looking at the balance sheet and the change from 2020-2021 in one liability struck me as very odd. The liability for post-employment expenses went up by close to a billion dollars.”

According to Vartanian, there was an approximately $950-million increase in just one year, attributed to “post-employment expenses,” presumably pensions and retirement plans for faculty and staff, but no real explanation was offered for such a dramatic increase.

He also mentioned that in relation to the large endowment fund, “one of the things that bothers me from a fiduciary perspective, they are layering in political objectives to the management of the assets as opposed to just getting a maximum return on the assets.” The University takes a pro-environmental and social justice approach to investing, said Vartanian, which is not responsible money management. He gives the example that although we all know cigarettes are bad for us, a responsible investor will invest in a cigarette company if it is the financially sound decision.

On the other hand, Vartanian is in support of using university resources for some initiatives that would please his colleagues on the left, such as promoting STEM careers and education to young people of color. He ties this into his vision of making U-M an institution that truly serves the citizens and in particular the children of the State of Michigan.

Vartanian is also concerned with the growing student loan crisis. He points out that in his opinion, the government should not be bailing out anyone, not even the Big Banks that he once worked for. He feels that student loan forgiveness is not doing right by the taxpayers, people who have paid off student loans already, or workers who went to trade school and don’t benefit from the forgiveness program. On the other hand, his solution is that federal law must be changed so that student loans can be forgiven in bankruptcy proceedings, which is currently possible with other types of loans, but not student loans.

But beyond all the economic conservatism, he more importantly points to the fact that one of the reasons for the crisis is that humanities majors have a hard time finding jobs. Therefore, he would push for more inclusion of finance, business, accounting, and/or tech requirements for humanities/liberal arts majors, and more guidance for them to find careers that are renumerative. “You don’t have to be an engineer to run an engineering firm,” he stated. Students who study German or anthropology, for instance, should be steered toward careers in business-related fields where the type of valuable critical thinking and writing skills they learned in undergrad can be useful.

Responsible Leadership and Integrity

Another highly important concern of Vartanian’s is the mishandling of the sex abuse case at the university.

“What happened to those student-athletes is horrible, absolutely horrible that a physician would molest them like that,” says Vartanian. “A lot of these athletes were there on scholarship, and presumably they put up with it for fear of losing their scholarship. And this happened for a long period of time, and it’s not because they didn’t have the proper policies in place, it’s because they didn’t follow those policies, they swept it under the rug. I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. Throw the light of day on it all, and wherever it ends up, it ends up. You have to get rid of the people that contributed to that instead of rewarding them.” Vartanian feels Schlissel’s being given a tenured position is unacceptable.

Finally, Vartanian stresses his Armenian connection and his ability to protect the Armenian presence at the university. “We are blessed that UM has an endowed Armenian chair. But there will come a time when the Turks try to silence us. And how wonderful would it be to have an Armenian sitting on the board of one the greatest universities in the world, that refused to be silenced, that will stand up for us, that will take the barbs, that will take the slings and the arrows, because he knows the history,” he stated.

While Vartanian feels he has a good chance to win his election, and Michigan is considered a moderate “swing” state, nevertheless the University is seen as a very liberal institution and Ann Arbor one of the most liberal towns in Michigan and indeed the country. If elected, he will have to work with people far to the left of him on many issues, but he does not seem concerned by this.

“Every decision I make will be based on ‘is this good for our students?’” Vartanian stated, stressing that as the father of a U-M student, “It’s a little bit different, I think, when you hear about things at the kitchen table as opposed to in the boardroom.”

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