President, Trustees in Standoff at Michigan State

Michigan State trustees are trying to push the president out for reasons that remain unclear. Meanwhile, the president and trustees are trading accusations on alleged Title IX missteps.

September 15, 2022
Michigan State's Beaumont Tower, surrounded by green trees.
The Michigan State campus has been shaken by competing narratives and a lack of transparency.
(Jeffness/Wikimedia Commons)

As the former workplace of convicted sexual predator Larry Nassar, Michigan State University was home to one of the most egregious Title IX cases in higher education in recent years, a sprawling scandal that toppled two presidents. Now Title IX issues are again roiling MSU, with accusations flying in all directions and a third presidency potentially on the line.

News first broke Sunday that some members of MSU’s elected Board of Trustees were seeking to force out the university’s president, Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr., and had engaged him in contract talks on early retirement. With little information flowing from trustees, conflicting reports have divided the MSU community. Now claims have emerged that MSU failed to properly comply with Title IX procedures, with board members blaming the president and Dr. Stanley claiming the missteps came from the board. The president and trustees are locked in a standoff that has bewildered the MSU community.

MSU officials have disputed the claim that the board demanded Dr. Stanley’s resignation by Tuesday, but trustees have confirmed that they asked him to retire early, before his contract expires in 2024. The board itself appears divided, with Chairwoman Dianne Byrum condemning the effort to remove Dr. Stanley and most trustees staying silent as the rift grows increasingly public. However, one board member has claimed that a majority of trustees want Dr. Stanley out of office.

Title IX Certification Issues

Nassar sexually abused hundreds of women and girls while employed at Michigan State and as a doctor for the U.S. national gymnastics team, resulting in his lifetime imprisonment and various consequences for the university, including steep financial penalties and a leadership shake-up.

Another consequence for MSU, imposed by state lawmakers, is that presidents are required to file Title IX compliance certificates. State law requires that Michigan State’s president and a board member review all Title IX reports. Now Trustee Pat O’Keefe is alleging “that the university may have filed a false and misleading Title IX compliance certificate for 2021 signed by the president” and submitted to the state, according to a statement he provided to The Detroit News. (O’Keefe did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.)

O’Keefe told the newspaper that the board first learned of the alleged impropriety in June.

But at a special meeting of the Faculty Senate held Tuesday night, which the president and at least two trustees attended virtually, Dr. Stanley pushed back on the notion of Title IX missteps.

President Samuel Stanley, a white man with sandy hair wearing a business suit.“I faithfully complied with the state of Michigan certification process the last two years and reviewed all of the Title IX reports that were required,” Dr. Stanley said in a prepared statement at the meeting. “Contrary to information previously provided to me in June of this year, I was notified that some of our board members may not have actually complied with their part of the state requirement in 2021. We asked for an internal audit and review of the situation which raised questions about our compliance and made it clear that we can improve the processes by which the reviews were taking place. External consultants are now helping us improve the process and keep us in compliance. We have been taking this issue very seriously.”

Dr. Stanley added that Michigan State requested “an internal audit and review on the situation, which showed that we had not been out of compliance but certainly could improve the processes by which the reviews were taking place.” He noted that MSU has also engaged an external consultant to probe Title IX issues.

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Contacted individually, trustees did not respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

The Gupta Fallout

Though Title IX certification has emerged as the new issue driving calls for Dr. Stanley to retire early, another incident has also loomed large in conversations about the board drama: the recent resignation of Sanjay Gupta, a popular dean at Michigan State’s Broad School of Business. Gupta, who led the business school from 2015 until last month, resigned amid concerns that he failed to report incidents of sexual misconduct that occurred under his leadership.

Officials made it clear at Tuesday’s meeting that Gupta was pushed out, with MSU provost Teresa Woodruff asking for his resignation.

“Dr. Gupta failed in his mandatory reporting responsibility,” Woodruff said in a statement at the meeting. “Additionally, he failed to act in a timely and reasonable manner to protect students and uphold our values. The culture that we seek is one in which the well-being and safety of everyone is managed in an immediate, cooperative and trauma informed way.”

Details emerged in a local news report Monday that allege Gupta witnessed an intoxicated business school employee inappropriately touch a student at a university event in April and did not report it. Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity allegedly learned of the incident in April but did not investigate until July 28.

The Board of Trustees has since retained outside counsel to review Woodruff’s decision to ask for Gupta’s resignation.

Tuesday’s Faculty Senate meeting was at times contentious, in part because Gupta’s supporters argued that the dean was unfairly forced out of his post with little transparency regarding the circumstances. Shawnee Vickery, a professor in MSU’s Broad School, said in the meeting that “a serious wrong was committed against our dean” and that there are “conflicting stories” about Gupta’s alleged transgressions, which he denied in a statement following his resignation.

“The board was asked by a group of senior professors in the Broad College to investigate, and we are very thankful to the board for taking that action. Because we in the Broad College feel that transparency is incredibly important and that is something we want to see happen as well,” Vickery said.

But several commenters felt the Board of Trustees overstepped its bounds in probing the ouster of the dean, noting that asking him to resign is well within the authority of Woodruff’s position.

“I think that what we’re seeing here is an issue relating to the board overstepping its responsibilities,” said Jack Lipton, a neuroscience professor. “This is an administrative management action. The board is really there for policy purposes, and it’s inappropriate for the board to be meddling that far into the organization.”

Lack of Transparency

One clear theme that emerged from Tuesday’s meeting is that faculty members are tired of being kept in the dark as controversy swirls around university leadership and the Board of Trustees. Many complained about the board’s lack of transparency.

Lipton pushed for a Faculty Senate resolution denouncing the board and calling for both a no-confidence vote and the resignation of board members—measures that ultimately were not adopted. Even so, a number of faculty members expressed an overall lack of faith in the board, with many disturbed by the trustees’ silence.

Ultimately, the Faculty Senate approved two resolutions. One called out the Board of Trustees for a lack of transparency and urged an investigation into the board by MSU’s Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance. The other asked board members to hire a professional governance firm within the next 60 days to lead them through professional development, a process that would also include the president. Both resolutions passed with strong support from voting members.

Two trustees also participated in the meeting, offering comments on the current situation. Trustee Renee Knake-Jefferson acknowledged the faculty’s frustrations about the lack of transparency and its concerns about alleged board intrusions into academic governance, stating, “It’s not our job to get involved in the day-to-day management of what’s happening in the university.”

The most illuminating comments came from Trustee Rema Vassar, who said that an outside investigation into Title IX issues began before Gupta was asked to resign, contradicting the notion that the board is trying to push the president out because of the Gupta matter. Vassar said that investigation is happening at the same time the board probes Gupta’s resignation.

Vassar also said at the meeting that the board is unified in its desire to push Dr. Stanley out, despite Chairwoman Byrum previously calling the move a rogue effort.

“If we’re thinking about holding people accountable to discussing retirement with President Stanley, that would be the whole board. The only person who fundamentally was opposed to that but still met with them would be Chair Byrum. The rest of the board thought this was the best idea,” Vassar said, noting that one member later changed their position on ousting Dr. Stanley.

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