MSU needs less intrigue, more sunlight

Scary things happen in the dark. Just look to Michigan State University, where a civil war that was raging among the eight board of trustee members in secret has spilled out into the open, much to the detriment of the school’s already battered reputation.

The fight, which played out in a public meeting after private discussions of the board and its various factions, seeks the resignation of Chair Rema Vassar, a professor of education at Wayne State University who was elected as an MSU trustee in 2020 and elected chair on Jan. 11.

Vassar is accused by some fellow trustees, as well as other critics, of violating the trustees code of ethics and conduct by meddling in a series of internal MSU affairs, being a bully, flying on a donor’s private plane and seeking the release of documents related to serial molester Dr. Larry Nassar, who is in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of MSU female athletes.

The campaign has all the hallmarks of a coordinated coup, though the true reasons for it are shrouded, in no small part because the events and fissures that have led up to it have been, up till now, secret.

The initial call for Vassar’s head came in a detailed letter from her fellow Democratic Trustee Brianna Scott.

Scott’s call was followed by a statement from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressing concern about the dysfunction of the board. With amazing rapidity, others soon joined the chorus asking Vassar to step down, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow and former Gov. James Blanchard, both Democrats and MSU alums, former longtime Democratic trustee Joel Ferguson, former Republican trustee Melanie Foster, the school’s Faculty Senate and others.

Board members Dianne Byrum, the influential former chairman, and Renee Knake Jefferson, a confidant of Whitmer, are aligned with Scott.

Recent public meetings of the board have been emotional and chaotic, packed with Nassar survivors, Black student groups who see racism at work (both Scott and Vassar are African American) and pro-Palestinian advocates.

Speculation is rampant and elaborate about the motivation for the power struggle, including attempts to influence the current search for a new MSU president and the political aspirations of some trustees. Who’s the villain and who’s the victim is difficult to ascertain.

What’s much clearer is the damage being done. The university’s image is already in tatters thanks to the Nassar scandal, last year’s campus shootings, the mishandled exit of business dean Sanjay Gupta and the sexual harassment allegations against football coach Mel Tucker.

Having board members at each other’s throats risks alienating donors and making it more difficult to recruit a top-notch president. It also could impact the attraction and retention of the highly sought research talent essential to a university’s ranking.

MSU needs help in a hurry. Whitmer has made one admirable appointment to the board in business executive Sandra Pierce. Whitmer could test her powers to remove the remaining board members for failure to do their jobs and replace them with an appointed fiduciary board to resolve the various issues.

In addition, the board should release the 6,000 Nassar documents requested by Attorney General Dana Nessel. It has hidden long enough behind attorney-client privilege, a privilege it can freely waive in a single instance.

The Legislature should get behind the two proposals offered by Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, to replace the three elected university boards in Michigan with trustees appointed by the governor and, essentially, to compel those boards to operate under the state’s Open Meetings Act.

That might serve to remind trustees of a key part of their code that seems perpetually forgotten: “We will support open communication, transparency, and the free expression of ideas.”

Sunlight, before issues become intractable, is the only thing that will chase away the demons haunting Michigan State.


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