Campus Leaders Clash With Michigan State Trustees

A Title IX compliance review casts new light on the effort to push out Michigan State’s president. But another battle—over allegations of an overstepping board—is also underway.

October 7, 2022
Autumn leaves at Michigan State University.
Dual controversies over Title IX issues are playing out at Michigan State.
(Michigan State University/Facebook)

For nearly a month, the fate of Michigan State president Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. has remained uncertain amid an effort by some members of the Board of Trustees to force him out.

Dueling narratives have emerged, with the board claiming that Dr. Stanley has made missteps on Title IX procedures, while the president contends the mistakes belong to the trustees who failed to adequately certify Title IX compliance reports as required by state law.

Failure to uphold the Title IX compliance process can prompt state funding cuts—the result of a law passed to strengthen reporting procedures after former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of female gymnasts for years.

Now a Title IX review that the board released last week offers some long-awaited insights. The report comes as Michigan State faculty take a sharper tone with trustees, warning them not to interfere with academic governance or investigate a fired dean, and threatening a vote of no confidence if the board continues its efforts to oust Dr. Stanley.

The Title IX Review

Though some individual trustees have spoken with the media, the board has not released a unified statement on efforts to push Dr. Stanley out. It’s unclear where all board members stand, though prior interviews show a clear division on whether Dr. Stanley should go. (No trustee responded to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed, but prior statements indicate division on the elected board, with the chair criticizing the effort while others calling for Dr. Stanley to step down.)

The Title IX review released last week is the most the board as a whole has said on the issues that have raised questions about Dr. Stanley’s leadership.

In a statement, trustees noted concerns about whether Title IX compliance reports had been properly handled in 2021, which prompted a review by Michigan State’s chief audit, risk and compliance officer. Additionally, the board wrote that two outside law firms have been retained “to investigate the 2021 Title IX certification process, provide guidance to the Board in reviewing Title IX reports, identify shortfalls in the process, and make recommendations to improve the process.” Those efforts are ongoing, the board statement said.

Trustees added that MSU recently certified Title IX compliance reports for fiscal year 2022, and that Dr. Stanley re-certified compliance reports for fiscal year 2021, the year that Dr. Stanley and the board blame each other for misrepresenting. One board member previously accused Dr. Stanley of filing “a false and misleading Title IX compliance certificate for 2021.”

But the review identified a number of breakdowns in the Title IX compliance certification process. For one, the report found that “a comprehensive process workflow policy to ensure consistency over time was not in place.” Additionally, communications about the certification process were “inconsistent, incomplete, and unclear,” auditor Marilyn K. Tarrant noted in the report.

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The review also found that one trustee, who was not named, provided verbal confirmation in the certification process, thus circumventing established procedures. Additionally, the review found missing case numbers on some certification forms sent to board members.

Tarrant offered 12 recommendations that focused on the need for clearly documented processes, additional training for trustees and possibly the creation of a portal to help board members more easily access and review documents in need of certification.

A Michigan state spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

Allegations of Trustees Overstepping

Though Title IX certification has emerged as the reason trustees are trying to force Dr. Stanley out, another scandal—also related to Title IX—has caused another rift at Michigan State. Trustees have initiated an investigation into the resignation of Sanjay Gupta, former dean of Michigan State’s Broad School of Business, who was asked to step down in August.

Provost Teresa Woodruff requested that Gupta resign due to alleged failures to report incidents of sexual misconduct. Since then, details have surfaced in local news reports that allege Gupta witnessed an intoxicated business school employee inappropriately touch a student at a university event in April but did not report it. That ultimately led to Woodruff’s call for his resignation, prompting criticism from his supporters and questions from trustees.

The Board of Trustees announced in August that it retained outside counsel to review Gupta’s ouster, sparking cries of outrage from faculty who believe the board is overstepping by interfering with academic management. Now the board has reportedly directed the law firm retained to depose faculty members and MSU administrators regarding Gupta’s dismissal.

The ongoing investigation drew a sharp rebuke this week from the Steering Committee—a group of faculty members and others who advise the provost—as well as Woodruff and Dr. Stanley, all of whom sent letters to the board alleging academic interference.

“We ask that you engage with professional development and board training. We ask that you do the work that is in your purview. We ask that you concede that academic and administrative management of Michigan State University resides in the Offices of the President and the Provost,” read the letter, which calls for trustees to end the investigation and “do the job it is charged to do.”

Woodruff and Dr. Stanley struck a similar tone, questioning the appropriateness of the Gupta investigation.

“While I still don’t believe this external review is needed, as I feel the university made the right decision, the administration is cooperating with the law firm by providing documents and materials requested on this matter,” Dr. Stanley wrote in his letter to the board. “But it is also my duty to ensure that employees are protected from undue pressure and that the Title IX and [Office of Institutional Equity] investigations still underway are not influenced. Please be advised that MSU employees will not be compelled to participate in [the outside law firm’s] review, and for those who do voluntarily participate, the university will offer legal counsel to those employees.”

In her letter, Woodruff also asked the board to cease its investigation into Gupta’s dismissal. She suggested that the board has been fully briefed on the Gupta ordeal and “declined direct engagement” with her on the matter, asking her “to leave a Zoom meeting wherein any questions [trustees] had could be addressed in a legitimate and timely manner.”

Ultimately, Woodruff accused the board of harming MSU’s reputation.

“These aggressive and unparalleled actions are causing harm to individuals and creating a chilling effect over work that is difficult. Staff are led to question whether the work they are doing is worth it; whether their work on behalf of the university is supported by Board members as university leaders; what other cases/individuals will be given ‘special treatment’ by the Board of Trustees; who is next to get a letter from the Board of Trustees’ legal counsel. The protections of an orderly workplace must be restored. These actions by the Board of Trustees are doing harm to the campus, harm to the reputation of MSU and harm to the process you seek to improve,” Woodruff wrote.

For its part, the board isn’t saying much. Its next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 28.

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