Higher education funding highlights divisions among GOP candidates for governor at debate

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HOWELL – A Republican candidate for governor of Michigan said during a debate Thursday he would end state funding for public universities, and several other candidates said they would significantly cut funding for higher education.

The higher education issue provided a rare point of division among the eight candidates who participated in the debate sponsored by the Livingston County Republican Party.

Farmington Hills Pastor Ralph Rebandt said he would end state funding to public universities.

“We need to fund our students; not the universities,” Rebandt said. “They have huge endowments,” and in some cases research programs with ties to China, he said.

The Republican Party has historically been seen as the party of big business and CEO groups such as Business Leaders for Michigan have long pushed for improved university funding as a way of attracting top talent to Michigan and diversifying the state’s economy to feature more higher-paying jobs.

But universities have also become an object of scorn for many conservatives. Some of the candidates Thursday spoke out against universities’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the fact that their campuses include large numbers of foreign students and the fact that many universities have large private endowments while charging high tuition.

More than 700 Republicans packed a Howell banquet hall for the Livingston County Republican Party debate, which lasted about two hours.

There was more agreement than disagreement among the eight candidates who participated. Almost without exception, they railed against vaccine mandates which have generally not existed in Michigan outside of requirements for certain employees in the health care sector and students and employees at many universities. They also called for the criminal investigation of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for Michigan nursing home deaths arising from the pandemic.

Notably absent from the debate was former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who was once seen as the clear Republican front-runner. Though polls still show Craig leading the crowded field, his campaign has been buffeted by staff turnover, other signs of disarray, and challenges to the validity of his nominating petition signatures.

Michigan Information & Research Service, one of the organizers, reported that Craig's campaign earlier confirmed he would participate in the debate and reserved a table for supporters. But Craig spokesman Ted Goodman denied Thursday that Craig made such a commitment and said he had a prior commitment to speak at the annual meeting of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Detroit.

Laura Reyes Kopack, the association's government affairs director, said the annual meeting was Thursday and Craig was scheduled to speak at 5:45 p.m. — two hours ahead of the scheduled start of the Livingston County Republican Party debate.

Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg also declined to participate in Thursday's debate.

Participating Thursday were: Michigan State Police Capt. Mike Brown, of Stevensville; Norton Shores businesswoman Tudor Dixon; Oakland County "quality guru" and businessman Perry Johnson; Ottawa County real estate agent Ryan Kelley; Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey; Rebandt; Bloomfield Hills businessman Kevin Rinke; and Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano.

Some of the candidates — Soldano, Rinke, and Kelley — did not go as far as Rebandt but said they would make big cuts to university funding.

“Significant cuts should be made and some public universities should be private ones, based on their endowments,” Rinke said.

But Dixon, Brown, and Markey all said universities should be supported, because of the importance of education.

“They are some of our greatest assets,” said Dixon, who cited Wayne State University’s national reputation and innovations emerging from research at MSU.

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Johnson took a middle stance on the higher education issue, saying "education is critical," but "I agree with much of what has been said" by the other candidates. University "costs too much," and "we do need to look at the costs," Johnson said.

In a line that drew applause, Johnson added that Michigan public universities should cater to state residents, "not students from foreign countries."

Higher education was a rare point of sharp division in the debate.

Though they differ on many details, the Republican candidates are generally critical of Whitmer for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying she placed too many restrictions on businesses and schools for too long. They also oppose abortion rights.

Dixon and Johnson also face challenges to the validity of signatures on their nominating petitions, which, like the Craig challenges, are expected to be adjudicated by the Board of State Canvassers late this month.

The Detroit Regional Chamber is planning a June 2 Republican gubernatorial debate at its Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. The business group announced Thursday that participation in the debate will be limited to five candidates — Craig, Johnson, Kelley, Rinke and Soldano.

The winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary faces Whitmer in the Nov. 8 general election.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GOP candidates for governor disagree on funding for higher education