Michigan State University has seen an administrative upheaval over the last several weeks as the fallout from former MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse continues, with its president, athletic director and other officials stepping aside amid public outcry and a series of outside investigations.
But the backbone of university leadership – members of the school’s publicly elected Board of Trustees – have remained, despite calls from the MSU community, victims of Larry Nassar and others throughout the country for new representation.
None of MSU’s board members have indicated plans to resign, although Board Chair Brian Breslin and Trustee Mitch Lyons have said they aren’t going to run for reelection when their terms expire at the end of the year.
Sitting board members have attempted to quell the public’s concerns in recent weeks, and have said they hope to have a chance to correct past mistakes and move MSU forward.
Trustee Brian Mosallam recently held a town hall to hear the community’s concerns, and other trustees have openly acknowledged problems with how they initially handled the Nassar case.
At a Friday, Feb. 16 Board of Trustees meeting, Breslin said he’s “committed to working with the faculty moving forward” and will finish the work he’s started towards making MSU a better place.
“I do believe that what trust you don’t have in us, what confidence you don’t have in us, can be restored to this board and future boards,” he said.
So far, though, the board’s outreach on the issue hasn’t had much impact on the public’s trust and confidence in their work.
After MSU’s Senate Faculty held a symbolic vote of no confidence in the Board of Trustees’ leadership this week, faculty member Rob LaDuca said he’s hopeful the vote will prompt board members to step aside.
“We really need to have eight board members leave … out of love for the university and put eight academic leaders in place to move us going forward,” he said.
Students, professor urge Michigan State trustees to ‘step down’
Students, speaking during Friday’s board of trustees meeting, were critical of the university’s response to sexual assault on campus
Michigan State faculty hope ‘no confidence vote’ gets board to ‘start listening’
The vote came in response to the board’s decision to appoint former Gov. John Engler as interim president
A ‘unique’ system
Unless board members determine it’s time to hand in resignation letters en masse, ousting MSU’s current set of trustees would be a tough task.
Members of MSU’s board are publicly elected to eight-year terms by a statewide vote. Trustees or regents for MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University are selected for the general election ballot at Republican or Democratic state conventions, after which point it’s up to the voters to decide who runs the state’s three largest universities.
For all other public colleges and universities in the state, the school’s board is selected by gubernatorial appointment.
It’s a system that experts say is unlike any other in the country. Although some states allow for university board elections by Congressional district, to have a university board elected entirely by statewide public vote is unique to Michigan, said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Should any or all trustees decide to hand in their resignations, Michigan’s governor would appoint someone to take their place for the remainder of their term, after which point the appointee would have to run for reelection to keep the seat.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has been asked by some to launch an inquiry into removing members of the MSU Board of Trustees, but he recently told reporters that’s a situation he hopes to avoid. He’d like to “give the board an opportunity to work through things,” he said, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Snyder spokesperson Anna Heaton said the governor wants the board “to be truly listening to survivors and taking their concerns into account when making decisions.”
As statewide elected officials, board members are subject to a citizen-initiated recall, Secretary of State spokesperson Fred Woodhams said.
To successfully get a petition on the ballot, a prospective recall campaign must collect enough signatures to equal at least 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election in the jurisdiction of the official in question over a 60-day period.
The Nassar case has prompted some state lawmakers to push for a change in how board members are selected.
A proposal from Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake, would
Governor, not voters, would choose university trustees under proposal
As controversy around Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees continues to build amid the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, one state representative is calling for a Constitutional amendment that would change the way board members are selected.
to allow the governor to appoint board members of institutions currently selected by statewide vote. It would replace current members on Jan. 1, 2019 and appoint them to staggered terms so some would turn over every two years.
A separate proposal, House Joint Resolution EE, from House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Aaron Miller, would still elect the boards of Wayne State, MSU and U-M but in four-year terms instead of the current eight. They would be limited to two four-year terms, and still go through the party nomination process.
During a Thursday hearing on the proposals, Miller said he’s “pessimistic” about the chances of either plan actually happening: “This probably won’t have wings as far as taking off in the legislature,” he said.
House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, told reporters this week he’d rather focus on policy changes that will help support sexual assault victims at universities and prevent future Nassar-like situations from happening.
Outrage over Nassar response
Displeasure with the board and then-MSU President Lou Anna Simon started even before the Nassar sentencing hearings began, with women abused by Nassar coming forward to tell board members how displeased they were with the university’s response – or lack thereof – to the widespread sexual abuse scandal that was brought to light in September 2016.
At a Board of Trustees meeting held Dec. 15, 2017, Nassar victims and their families told board members that their apologies, and attempts to do right by victims, were too little, too late. The board’s decision not only to stick by Simon, but to propose an increase to her salary at the same meeting enraged many of the women who came forward.
“I appreciate the personal apologies, but they’re still standing at a university and an institution that let this happen and continues to let this happen by keeping those same people in power, maintaining lies and covering up the truth,” Morgan McCaul, one of the victims who spoke at the meeting, said at the time.
A growing chorus of survivors want consequences for MSU’s culture of enabling abuse
On Friday, the MSU Board of Trustees called for an external review of the university’s handling of the Nassar case, in an effort to be more transparent. They were also in a closed-door meeting Friday morning to discuss the issue.
Controversy reached a boiling point as Nassar’s sentencing hearings on first degree criminal sexual conduct gained international attention, first in Ingham County and then in Eaton County.
Many of the more than 200 women who submitted victim impact statements blamed the university for not listening to women who brought concerns about MSU’s abuse to coaches or other university employees as early as 1997, noting Nassar could have been stopped decades earlier.
Subsequent actions by the board – including public displays of support for Simon from all but two of the trustees up until her resignation, continuing to fight lawsuits filed by Nassar victims against the school and hiring former Michigan Gov. John Engler as the university’s interim president have continued to bolster the MSU community’s lack of confidence.
One vocal critic of MSU leadership has been Rachael Denhollander, the first Larry Nassar victim to come forward publicly. Of the board’s decision to hire Engler, Denhollander said she was “beyond disappointed.”
“At a time the university desperately needs, and survivors pleaded for, outside accountability and leadership, the Board chooses one of the most entrenched insiders,” Denhollander said in a recent social media post.
Trustee Joel Ferguson also made flippant comments about the case that incited public outcry, referring to the ongoing scandal in a radio interview as “that Nassar thing” and touting Simon’s abilities as a fundraiser, particularly when it came to her work funding renovations to the Breslin Center. He later apologized for those comments.
MSU Vice Chair Joel Ferguson apologizes for comment on Nassar case
Joel Ferguson, vice chairman of the Michigan State University, has apologized for comments he made Monday when talking about the Larry Nassar case during a radio interview.
Situation ‘not unprecedented’
Michigan State’s situation is not the first time trustees have come under fire for their actions. In 1997, the New York State Board of Regents removed 18 of Adelphi University’s 19 trustees for overpaying the university’s president And in 2016, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin and the Kentucky state Senate moved to overhaul the University of Louisville Board of Trustees after a series of scandals.
The former chairman of the Penn State University Board of Trustees, Steve Garban, resigned in 2012 over his handling of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.
“This is not unprecedented,” Poliakoff said. “But it’s not a move one should take reflexively.”
Members of governing boards should have broad and deep expertise in various areas, including finance, academics, student life and campus culture, he said, one reason he personally favors gubernatorial appointments of trustees.
Regardless of how they’re selected, though, Poliakoff said trustees of public universities need to constantly recognize their accountability to the people of the state. He said he took it as an encouraging sign that the board appointed Engler as an interim president, who has experience as a public servant.
“The task now is not just to recover, but to rebuild in such a way that there will be protections in place to minimize the possibility of atrocious, damaging events happening again,” he said.
Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said he understands that the initial reaction from MSU’s community is to put a new board in place. But he said a mass resignation would leave a void in university leadership that “can make a difficult situation even worse.”
“This is a chance for a board to step up and publicly demonstrate that the way the governing model works clearly was ineffective and the fault ultimately lies with them,” Legon said.
Legon says to be successful, trustees need to be transparent and collaborate with the interim president to develop and update policies ensuring that nothing like what happened with Nassar ever happens again. He said he’s not sure what will ultimately happen, but said the board should feel pressure to build a new model of governance and truly make things right.
“There was a failure that needs to be publicly recognized,” he said. “Reclaiming the public’s confidence on the back end of an egregious failure, wherever fault is ultimately found to lie, will be challenging.”
“It’s easy for a board or institutional leadership to do the easy stuff, but the real demonstration of being an accountable fiduciary body is to step up and deal with the tough stuff,” he continued.
Attempts to restore faith
Amidst continued calls for their resignation, trustees have attempted to reassure the public that they are listening and working to improve.
Ferguson told reporters in late January that he can’t solve a problem without admitting to a problem, noting “one of the problems I had to solve was me.” He said it was a mistake to not put the emphasis on survivors from the getgo, and said he’s been talking with student leaders in an attempt to make things right.
“When I hear what people are saying, I want to turn around and do better,” Ferguson said.
On Friday, Trustee Melanie Foster said the board had what she characterized as a “productive” meeting with student and faculty liaisons prior to the board meeting.
“It was almost like having, within your family, a tough situation to deal with and get things out on the table and discuss,” she said. She added that she left the meeting feeling “optimistic about how we can continue on a collaborative effort.”
Responding to the board’s decision to hire Engler, Trustee Dan Kelly said the university was in “crisis mode.” He said the board “felt it was in the best interest of the university to “get somebody with boots on the ground … that could handle the crisis that was here.”
“The search for a permanent president will take on a much different tone,” he said. “Obviously a lot more time to get input.”
But several students and faculty remain skeptical of the ability of the board and Engler to effectively lead MSU. One professor was asked to leave Friday’s meeting after he began shouting at Engler and the board to step down, and members of the student group Reclaim MSU said the administration’s attitude and inaction toward sexual violence is not conducive to substantial change.
“The current administration’s attitudes and inactions toward discrimination, harassment and sexual violence on our campus are unacceptable,” said Natalie Rogers, a sophomore studying comparative culture and politics and a member of Reclaim MSU.