New President, Same Fears

Michigan State names a new chief executive in wake of Larry Nassar scandal. But some on campus worry whether the new leader will address issues of sexual violence in big-time athletics.

May 29, 2019
 
Samuel Stanley Jr.

As it recovers from one of the most bruising sexual assault scandals in the history of academe, Michigan State University has picked Samuel Stanley Jr., a medical doctor and leader of the research-intensive Stony Brook University, as its new president.

Stanley has served at Stony Brook, one of the most prestigious institutions in the State University of New York system, since 2009. He is being brought on as Michigan State navigates the fallout from the case of Larry Nassar, a former university physician who sexually abused hundreds of female athletes. Nassar was found guilty and jailed for molesting not only college women but also gymnasts on the U.S. Olympic teams.

Michigan State's leaders portrayed Stanley's selection as a fresh start as they announced his appointment, which begins on Aug. 1 and was approved unanimously.

“Dr. Stanley is an empowering, compassionate and thoughtful leader, who will work tirelessly alongside our students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and broader Spartan community to meet the challenges we face together and build our future,” Dianne Byrum, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, said in a statement. The university noted that he is a representative on the United Nations' He for She campaign, which promotes gender equity.

But skepticism abounded in some quarters. Stanley, who will be paid $800,000 a year, was picked in a confidential search, in which the trustees refused to describe their process or allow the public to meet with finalists. This decision seemingly widened the divide between mistrustful students and professors and the institutional leaders who were accused of ignoring campus sexual assault and the underlying issues that allowed Nassar to operate for so long. Stanley’s predecessor, the former president Lou Anna Simon, faces felony criminal charges for lying to police about how much she knew about Nassar.

This meant that activists who sought reforms around sexual assault and transparency said they couldn’t judge Stanley yet, though he pledged at the trustees’ meeting to sit down with Nassar’s victims and their families.

“The job of the president is going be much harder now because [the trustees] left us where we were before: with a lack of trust,” said Andaluna Borcila, a member of advocacy group Reclaim MSU and an associate professor at James Madison College, the university's public affairs college.

Many observers on the Michigan State campus declined to offer opinions on Stanley's credentials. But his learning curve will likely be steep. At more than 50,300 students, Michigan State’s enrollment is nearly double that of Stony Brook’s roughly 26,250 students (with 17,500 or so undergraduates).

Perhaps more significantly, Michigan State is a member of the powerhouse Big Ten conference, one of the wealthiest college sports leagues, which has in recent years been defined by its controversies as much as its winning records and lucrative television contracts. In addition to Michigan State's travails, the University of Maryland at College Park’s president stepped down after a player died following practice and investigators discovered the institution’s football program was plagued with widespread coaching abuse. Ohio State University recently announced the results of an investigation, which found that a former (now dead) university doctor sexually assaulted nearly 200 young male athletes in the 1980s through the '90s. And last year, Urban Meyer, Ohio State's former head football coach, came under fire for failing to report his deputy’s alleged domestic abuse.

Stanley will go from running an athletics department with a roughly $32 million budget to one that exceeds $126 million in revenue, according to 2016-17 academic year data. And no such scandals have rocked the America East conference, in which Stony Brook participates, leaving the question whether to Stanley is equipped to handle the Big Ten athletics culture.

Some pundits are optimistic, like Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. McPherson praised Stanley’s “thoughtfulness” and said Stanley's time as the vice chancellor for research at Washington University in St. Louis will help him adjust to Midwestern culture.

McPherson said that Stanley will need to learn the complexities of Big Ten sports, but that “strong” coaches will be in place to help run the programs while Stanley can focus on other parts of the university’s operations.

Strong coaches aren't always a boon for presidents, though: coaches in major programs have been criticized for seemingly eclipsing presidents in terms of influence and thus escaping punishment when they err. A major critique of Ohio State’s response to Meyer was that he just received “a slap on the wrist” -- a brief suspension. (Meyer retired earlier this year.)

“The president does have to be engaged enough to know these coaches,” McPherson said. “But he’s clearly focused on safety and has emphasized the safety of students. He’s saying the right words.”

Walter Harrison, president emeritus of the University of Hartford and a former chairman of what is now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Board of Governors, called Stanley a “brilliant choice.” The board is the NCAA’s top governing body.

As Hartford's president, Harrison worked with Stanley when both were members of America East’s board. Stanley is also a former Board of Governors member.

Even though Stanley has never been in charge of an institution with big-time athletics, he has a “calm and reasoned approach” to addressing ethical dilemmas, Harrison said. The same sort of tensions at Michigan State -- financial pressures, lack of oversight -- exist everywhere in college athletics, though not to the same degree, he said.

Stanley has indicated an interest in boosting Stony Brook's athletic profile. During his tenure, football in 2013 moved into the Colonial Athletic Association, which was a more competitive conference, but still in the lower Division I Football Championship Subdivision. And he managed a $21 million renovation to the basketball arena and a new $10 million indoor practice facility.

Harrison acknowledged that Stanley was stepping into a “boiling cauldron,” but he said that Stanley's status as an outsider would likely benefit him -- and would help break down some of the problematic aspects of Michigan State's culture.

“Part of their issue is that they are so intensely interested in their own affairs,” Harrison said of Michigan State leaders.

Stanley is the first non-Michigan State alumnus to be hired as president since John A. DiBiaggio in 1985. Simon, who was making $50,000 less than Stanley when she resigned in January 2018, spent virtually her entire academic career at the university, starting as a graduate student and being promoted from provost to president in 2005.

Michigan State’s interim president, former state governor John Engler, also a Michigan State alum, was initially picked for his political ties and but quickly angered many on campus with his comments about sexual assault survivors and resigned early.

Stanley’s background -- and Stony Brook’s reputation -- will likely endear him to some campus academics. A Harvard University Medical School graduate, he specializes in infectious diseases and biomedical research. Stony Brook, meanwhile, helps manage Brookhaven National Laboratory, a national nuclear research lab, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy. Stanley is the chairman of its board, Brookhaven Science Associates.

This is a similar relationship to Michigan State’s relationship with the Department of Energy and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, located on the East Lansing campus.

“Dr. Stanley’s entire career, as both a researcher and leader, embodies a commitment to all aspects of academic excellence and demonstrates his assurance that students are at the center of his mission,” Melanie Foster, a trustee who helped chair the presidential search committee, said in a statement.

Some still need some convincing. Elizabeth Abdnour, a Michigan State alumna, said some aspects of Stanley’s career are being made public now that she questions. Abdnour was a senior investigator specializing in sexual assault cases for Michigan State from 2015 to 2018. She said she was eventually fired when she expressed an interest in talking to the Office for Civil Rights, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education that had come on campus during her time there to vet the institution’s handling of sexual violence cases.

Abdnour, a lawyer, broke off to start her own law firm. She said that Stanley needs to speak to the campus directly about past problems at Stony Brook. OCR has three open investigations at Stony Brook (these are quite common and do not necessarily mean the university has violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal sex discrimination law). Faculty members at Stony Brook have also complained about financial mismanagement, and in 2017, more than 50 high-ranking professors wrote to the SUNY chancellor about their concerns.

“This president needs to show a level of understanding and take a very detailed look at things that are continuing to go wrong at MSU,” Abdnour said. She said she represents clients -- students and staff at Michigan State -- whose Title IX cases have gone unnoticed. One investigation has been open for 450 days, she said.

“It seems to be getting worse.”

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