Trustees Take Heat

Michigan State board members face calls for their resignation in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, but it's hard to force out boards. Some say that's for good reason.

January 29, 2018
 

The exploding time bomb of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal continues to rip through Michigan State University’s upper levels, with the university’s athletic director stepping down Friday, the same day longtime president Lou Anna Simon’s resignation became official.

Scrutiny keeps mounting on remaining officials, as the Board of Trustees faces extreme pressure over its handling of the situation and reporters dig anew into sexual assault and violence claims involving the university’s best-known athletic programs. A dean at the university even took the unusual step of issuing his own statement ripping leaders’ response to the situation.

Trustees spoke of the future Friday in an emotional meeting at which they also accepted Simon’s resignation and apologized to Nassar’s victims. Several choked up as they gave individual statements pledging to change a culture at Michigan State that allowed Nassar to abuse girls and young women unchecked for years.

Two of the university’s eight trustees are up for re-election in statewide races this year. Both have said they will not run. Legislative leaders are examining options for impeaching trustees, they said last week, and a Republican strategist has sued Governor Rick Snyder in an attempt to force trustees from office. Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican who is seeking election as attorney general, has called on the entire board to resign. So has a Democratic candidate for governor, Shri Thanedar.

Still, it’s not clear how easily politicians could force trustees out if they do not choose to resign. The Snyder administration does not think it has the power to remove them while the Legislature is in session and has the option of impeaching them, according to The Detroit News.

A recent example at the University of Louisville proves that determined politicians in the right political situation have more of a chance of forcing out trustees than many higher education leaders would like. But Louisville’s case also proves that such actions come with real consequences and can prove to be headaches long after old boards are disbanded.

In individual speeches Friday, Michigan State trustees offered a mix of apologies, repentance and vows to move forward. Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson, who had to issue an apology last week after making comments on a radio show saying more was going on at Michigan State than “this Nassar thing,” apologized for his own inaction and the board’s inaction in the past but also vowed to remain in place.

“The one commitment I have is to make certain that I stay here and redouble our work and redouble how I’m going to perform to make Michigan State University a better institution,” he said. “We’re going to do much better, and we’re going to make Michigan State a poster child of how we deal with sexual abuse going forward.”

Others seemed to acknowledge the possibility they will not be in office indefinitely.

Dan Kelly, whose term began last year and lasts until the first day of 2025, said he was committed to never forgetting the testimony of Nassar’s victims “for however long” he lasts on the board.

Kelly, a lawyer, also said he had come on the board when civil litigation was already under way in the Nassar case. He had felt comfortable working to resolve it through the legal process, but the last two weeks changed his outlook.

“What I learned in the last two weeks was this is not about the litigation,” Kelly said. “That’s only part of it. What this is about is the culture of MSU, and I’m embarrassed to say I learned that from, in some cases, young teenage women who testified in front of a court, who showed the courage to not hide behind the litigation but to testify and in some cases state their names with regard to this abuse.”

Before trustees gave their individual statements, Chairman Brian Breslin read a statement on behalf of the entire board, apologizing to the victims and saying change is overdue at Michigan State. Breslin is one of the two trustees who could have run for election this year but is not. The other is Mitch Lyons.

“We must also acknowledge that there have been failures at MSU not only in our process and operations, but in our culture,” Breslin said on behalf of the entire board. “We are united in our determination to take all necessary steps to begin a new day and change the environment.”

Outside the meeting, pressure continued to build. Newspapers’ opinion sections were not kind to the board.

The Detroit News ran an editorial calling for all eight trustees to resign and give Snyder the ability to appoint an interim board until elections can be held. The current board “closed ranks around Simon and the administration and was no more interested in determining who at the school might have enabled Nassar’s 20 years of assaultive behavior,” the editorial read. Therefore, it argued, current board members should not be the ones to pick Simon’s successor.

A columnist held back even less fury, taking aim at both the current board and the rare at-large statewide ballot system Michigan uses to elect trustees for flagship universities.

“Where, exactly, has the university’s board of trustees -- mostly a collection of old jocks, a few small-business people and an octogenarian football coach -- been on this long downward arc to ignominy?” wrote the columnist, Daniel Howes, referring in part to Trustee George Perles, who coached Michigan State football in the 1980s and served for a few years as athletic director in the early 1990s. “From this week on, the name ‘Michigan State’ will be synonymous with ‘Penn State,’ shorthand for officially sanctioned serial molestation.”

It is notoriously difficult to force large groups of trustees, with staggered terms, from their position overseeing state colleges and universities. That is in large part due to design -- boards of trustees are intended to insulate institutions of higher learning from ambitious politicians’ whims and swings in public opinion. That’s true even when governors appoint trustees, a more common mechanism than that used to name board members at Michigan State.

Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky scandal provides an example of the difficulty in ousting trustees. The scandal broke in November 2011, and Penn State’s board chair at the time was heavily criticized for not earlier sharing information about investigations into Sandusky with the full board. He did not resign as a trustee for months, until July 2012, although he had opted in January of that year not run to retain the chairmanship.

More recently, a series of scandals and governance difficulties at the University of Louisville led Kentucky governor Matt Bevin to oust the university’s longtime president, James Ramsey, while dismissing almost all of its Board of Trustees and replacing it with a new, smaller board in 2016. The move was challenged in court and drew the attention of accreditors, who placed the university on probation. The situation was ultimately only resolved after state lawmakers passed legislation revamping the board, which satisfied concerns raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

It is unclear what mechanism Michigan State would use to oust trustees, said Armand Alacbay, vice president for trustee and legislative affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who reviewed the university’s bylaws.

“How would you replace a board that’s elected?” he said. “This is a time when you need strong leadership at a university that’s grappling with very extreme and fast-moving circumstances. One of the questions is how do you address the short term here?”

The situation that unfolded at Michigan State proves that trustees need to be involved and responsive to sensitive issues, Alacbay added.

“It’s a reminder of the massive public responsibility that trustees have and the seriousness of what they do,” he said. “If anything, Michigan State reminds everyone of the importance of trustees in institutional oversight.”

Other experts agreed.

“The board needs to own its accountability,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “Being a member of a board is not easy. It requires real engagement. It requires awareness. It requires curiosity as a group, as an entity, as a fiduciary body.”

So replacing trustees would be a high-stakes, difficult proposition. Such action probably requires an intense and sustained political outcry.

But it’s possible the prerequisite conditions are percolating at Michigan State. Calls for investigations and a House vote for a resolution calling for Simon to step down were bipartisan, said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. The university and its handling of the Nassar scandal will likely be a factor in this year’s elections, she said.

“There is a tremendous amount of heat on the board and the highest officials at the university,” she said. “You probably saw the athletic director just stepped down. I don’t think he’s going to be the last to do so. I think there’s going to be quite a sea change at Michigan State.”

Michigan athletic director Mark Hollis on Friday announced he is retiring. The news came after the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced an investigation into Michigan State’s handling of the Nassar case.

Also last week, new investigations continued to scrutinize Michigan State’s handling of sexual assault cases involving athletes. An ESPN report found “a pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression of such allegations by officials ranging from campus police to the Spartan athletic department.” It reviewed cases involving Michigan State’s well-known men’s basketball and football programs.

Hollis held the athletic director position since 2008, making him the second longtime leader to step down last week after Simon, who had been president since 2005.

Michigan State trustees officially accepted Simon’s resignation, effective immediately, at their Friday meeting. They named Bill Beekman, vice president and secretary of the board, acting president and said they would start a search for an interim president. The university also plans a national search for a full-time president.

Trustees did not comment on whether Simon’s resignation alters a contract that has been scrutinized for her postpresidential pay and benefits.

Meanwhile, others within Michigan State’s administrative structure called for continued changes in personnel and practice. Sherman W. Garnett, dean of Michigan State’s James Madison College, on Thursday released a statement blasting university leaders.

“What I saw in our university’s response to the survivor statements in court from senior MSU spokespeople and leaders frankly made me ashamed,” it said. “We are so much better than this, so much more dedicated to fundamental human and humane values, than these words conveyed.”

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