Calls Mounting For Michigan State Board Of Trustees Chair’s Resignation, But Why Stop There?
Michigan State had a rough weekend.
Its football team was humiliated by arch-rival Michigan, 49-0, on national television Saturday. But that was only the second-worst embarrassment for MSU that evening, after the Spartan Stadium video board showed an image of Adolph Hitler during a pregame trivia presentation. The university has since issued several public apologies, suspended an employee, and announced it will investigate the incident.
Not to be outdone, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, out of an apparent pathological inability to stay out of controversy for any significant amount of time, then descended into chaos.
The board, which has a long history of problematic in-fighting and burdensome meddling, made its internal feuding public on Sunday when Trustee Brianna Scott released an open letter calling for Chair Rema Vassar to resign or to be removed.
Scott, a Democrat who's served on the board since 2018, issued a laundry list of grievances with Vassar, even citing specific bylaws and policies she alleges Vassar violated. Among the things Scott accused Vassar, a fellow Democrat, of are: bullying others, including MSU interim president Teresa Woodruff; meddling in the follow-up to the February mass shooting on campus; using MSU donors' private jets to travel; going rogue and trying to unilaterally resolve issues pertaining to the controversial firing of a college dean and the unrelated release of documents from the Larry Nassar.
Here's more from The State News, Michigan State's student newspaper:
In the letter, Scott asks Vassar to resign from the board.
If she doesn’t, Scott calls on the other trustees to
- Vote to remove Vassar as chair.
- Refer the matter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who could remove Vassar from the board altogether through an impeachment process outlined in the Michigan constitution.
Scott, who voted for Vassar in the January chair election, notes that by speaking out she is herself violating the board’s code of conduct, which designates the chair as the board’s sole spokesperson.
“As a Trustee and as an attorney, I must weigh the harm of sharing these internal issues against the standards of transparency we are tasked with upholding,” she wrote. “If I must choose one, then I choose the latter.”
Scott also says Vassar has threatened her against speaking out.
“I have been threatened by Dr. Vassar that speaking out against her decisions would result in her turning the Black community against me — and I myself am a Black woman,” Scott writes. “I have also been warned that speaking out will cause unwanted attention to the Board of Trustees and will harm the university and interfere with our current Presidential Search. But of the many values I've developed as a Black person, as a woman, and as a Spartan, chief among them is standing up for what's right.”
Scott also obliquely accuses Vassar of being involved in the public leaking of information regarding rape survivor and victim advocate Brenda Tracy's sexual harassment allegations against former MSU football coach Mel Tucker.
Since Scott's letter was released Sunday evening, Trustee Dianne Byrum, who's been on the board since 2008 and formerly served as chair, and MSU faculty senate chair Jack Lipton have also called for Vassar's resignation. Trustee Dennis Denno publicly announced his support for Vassar.
The episode is yet another squabble within MSU's boardroom to go public. The board's time-honored tradition of division and bickering have earned it a reputation for ineffectuality. For decades, critics have accused trustees of prioritizing their own political careers ahead of their duty to do what's in the best interest of MSU and its students. And now is particularly awful timing for the board to go into its act — MSU is searching for its next president, as well as its next football coach.
Seven Democrats and one Republican comprise the eight-member board. But its legacy of ineptitude has rendered that supermajority meaningless. That's why Scott's letter doesn't go far enough.
Yes, Vassar has to go. But why stop there? This entire board needs to be broomed out. From there, the state of Michigan ought to change the method by which trustees are selected. State law mandates that the governing boards for MSU (as well as the University of Michigan and Wayne State University) be decided by popular election. As we've seen for at least a generation, that model is outdated.
The governing board of an institution of higher learning should be determined by the stakeholders most impacted by that board's decisions. In a just and, frankly, common sense-driven world, those students and faculty would elect their university's leaders. Instead, here in Michigan we make board seats at MSU subject to our decadent, corrosive two-party system. It's no surprise that politicking regularly gums up the Board of Trustees' works.
At the very least, the boards for the three big public universities should be decided the same way as the other public schools' in this state — through appointment by the governor. If that's good enough for 12 of Michigan's public universities, it's good enough for MSU, U-M, and Wayne State, too.
Regardless, change is obviously needed. Unfortunately, it's not likely. And in the improbable event that we do get change, it will have taken a considerable amount of time.
For now, all we can do is hope the damage wrought by the MSU Board of Trustees can be minimized. Just please, for the love of God, don't screw up another football coaching hire.