Trustees | Crisis Management

In Larry Nassar’s wake, Michigan State faces hurdles in finding the right president

LANSING STATE JOURNAL   |  February 21, 2018 by RJ Wolcott

EAST LANSING – Michigan State University is embarking on its first nationwide search for a new leader in 25 years. 

And it’s facing one massive challenge, experts say: drawing in the best candidates amid the ongoing fallout over the abuses of former university doctor Larry Nassar.

“In general, incoming presidents don’t like walking into scandals that have not been resolved,” said Raymond D. Cotton, a partner in Nelson-Mullins law firm who specializes in higher education.

Cotton’s work in academia dates back to the 1980s. He’s helped dozens of schools find new leaders, from small liberal arts colleges to Baylor University, and has worked on behalf of presidents during contract negotiations.

“If I were MSU, I would do my best to resolve those things before going into marketplace looking for a replacement,” he added.

The search for a president is often a lengthy process involving listening sessions with stakeholders, the naming of a committee tasked with reviewing candidates and potentially hiring an executive search firm to aid in the process.

MSU hasn’t done one since 1993. Lou Anna Simon, who became president in 2005 and resigned in January, was picked without a nationwide search. Her predecessor, Peter McPherson, was a surprise pick in 1993 after three finalists dropped out of the running and the one remaining candidate, Simon, didn’t have majority support from the Board of Trustees. 

It’s unclear where the search for Simon’s successor stands, but it’s not far along. 

“The Board continues to work on this and has not yet engaged an executive search firm,” Kent Cassella, MSU’s associate vice president for communications, wrote in an email. 

Board Chair Brian Breslin did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but said at a Board of Trustees meeting last week that he was “committed to working with faculty, students and all the stakeholders to make sure that it’s done in a prudent and proper fashion.”

The University of Michigan took about seven months and spent $300,000 on its most recent presidential search in 2013.

Tiya Miles, a professor in the Department of American Culture, was on the presidential selection committee. She called the experience illuminating.

Committee members discussed the values of the university, what they’d want in a new president, and reviewed candidate dossiers compiled by the search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. 

First MSU Board of Trustees meeting with Engler at helm

When the Board of Regents selected Mark Schlissel, then-Provost at Brown University, Miles wholeheartedly backed their decision.

“I thought Mark was a terrific choice for so many reasons: His personality, character, sensitivity and listening ear were things that were discernable in the way he interacted with people.”

Not all searches go so quickly. After the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State spent more than two years searching for a permanent leader. Amid a sexual assault scandal involving student-athletes, Baylor University spent nearly a year looking for a replacement for ousted President Ken Starr.

Despite ongoing litigation and investigations related to Nassar’s abuse of young female athletes, MSU is well positioned to attract worthy candidates, Cotton said. He pointed to strong enrollment, an abundance of federal research dollars and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams as reasons why a candidate would be attracted to MSU.

In terms of compensation, Cotton said he wouldn’t be surprised to see MSU’s next president offered a seven-figure salary. Lou Anna Simon received $860,000 in total compensation during the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. She was ranked outside the top ten presidents of public institutions, behind leaders of the Indiana University system, Penn State and Ohio State.

MSU’s next leader “has to be someone who can bring everyone to the table in an open environment, and that’s not easy,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “There are many people right now throughout the state and campus that have a really damaged sense of the university, and it’s going to take the kind of person who can communicate very well, who isn’t afraid to delve into and discover the mistakes that were made in the past, and to assume that mantle of accountability.”

Poliakoff said interim President John Engler has done well so far in working toward a more transparent culture on campus, which MSU’s next leader will need to follow through on. That next leader doesn’t need to come from academia either, Poliakoff said.

Natalie Rogers disagrees with that. An organizer with Reclaim MSU, a group of faculty, students and staff calling for greater transparency and accountability, Rogers said she is looking for MSU to bring someone on board who has leadership experience in higher education. She also wants the board to include faculty and students as voting members of the presidential search committee. 

Natalie Rogers of the group #ReclaimMSU makes demands near the end of the first MSU Board of Trustees meeting since the faculty no-confidence vote Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.

It’s not just about the board listening, Rogers said. She wants to see trustees “taking what we say and implementing it.”

The involvement of faculty was a much-discussed topic at this week’s Faculty Senate meeting. 

James Madison College associate professors Anna Pegler-Gordon and Andaluna Borcila proposed significant changes to the university’s bylaws to create a new University Board, which would include trustees as well as two faculty members, a graduate student and an undergraduate student.

That body would vote on any presidential candidate prior to the trustees, who have the constitutional authority to name a leader.

Those changes are needed to ensure the faculty has a true voice in the naming of MSU’s next president, Pegler-Gordon said. 

“Even if you have faculty involvement and input, if there’s no recourse to prevent them from making a terrible decision, I think it’s likely they will make a terrible decision,” she said. 

Cotton said the competitive nature of presidential searches, and the openness public institutions face, makes the involvement of additional stakeholders challenging.

“No board in their right minds wants the public to get involved in the actual selection of the president or in the negotiation of his or her compensation package,” he said. 

Asked whether he intends to remain at MSU through the naming of a permanent president, Engler said on Friday, “I think that’s what an interim is, actually, the time between when the president left previously and the new one arrives.”


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More