Tearful apologies for board actions and defiant condemnations of faculty no-confidence votes were both on display at a Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting Friday that highlighted the divisions among members who pressured MSU’s president to step down or be fired amid ongoing Title IX concerns.
Though the standoff between Michigan State trustees and President Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. played out for weeks before he announced his 90-day notice of resignation on Oct. 13, Friday marked the first meeting for the board since the effort to push Dr. Stanley out was reported by local news media. The roughly two-and-a-half-hour meeting offered long-awaited comments from an elected board that has offered little information to a campus community calling for transparency.
Dr. Stanley sat at the same table with trustees as several thanked him and expressed regret over his departure. But Dr. Stanley, despite the misgivings of various board members, was not the target of their ire, as trustees mostly lashed out at one another over the public spectacle that has captured national headlines and driven multiple votes of no confidence from various groups.
Criticisms of the Board
As the board called on Dr. Stanley to resign or potentially be fired, it released no unified statement, leaving community members in the dark and calling for transparency. But two competing issues soon emerged as the backdrop.
The first issue relates to concerns from trustees that Michigan State failed to properly certify Title IX reports as required by state law. Dr. Stanley and trustees have traded accusations on missteps, with both blaming the other for possibly jeopardizing Title IX certification compliance.
Amid those concerns, MSU’s Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance completed a review of the Title IX certification process, which highlighted some inconsistencies in procedures. Meanwhile, the board assigned an outside law firm the responsibility of looking into its Title IX certification concerns, a review that has been completed and that trustees have agreed to make public once the report has been finalized, though no specific date for its release was provided.
The second issue centers on the resignation of former business school dean Sanjay Gupta, who was asked by Michigan State officials to step down after allegedly not reporting an incident in which he was told about an intoxicated business school employee touching a student inappropriately. The board has tapped a law firm to investigate the request for Gupta to step down, a move that has drawn sharp rebukes and allegations of overstepping from Michigan State leaders and faculty who believe the board has no place with such decisions at the university. (This paragraph has been updated to reflect that Gupta was told about— but did not observe—the incident in question.)
Tensions surrounding those issues were reflected in public comments and a recent no-confidence vote by Michigan State’s Academic Congress in the leadership of trustees. For various bodies it was at least the third vote of no confidence in the board. And for those at Friday’s meeting, it was a long-awaited chance to confront the board they are publicly battling.
Karen Kelly-Blake, chair of the Faculty Senate and the Steering Committee, pointed to a Thursday no-confidence vote from MSU’s Academic Congress—a body comprised of a broad coalition of faculty members and academic staff—as evidence of significant mistrust in a board that she accused of “actively inflicting harm” on the university in a number of ways, as well as damaging its reputation, ability to hire employees and recruit students and potentially scaring the next president away.
“We continue to be gravely concerned about this board,” Kelly-Blake told trustees.
Kelly-Blake also called for the appointment of MSU provost Teresa Woodruff as interim president, a move she said could help restore lost confidence in the Board of Trustees.
Woodruff—who has been in the crosshairs of the board over her role in asking Gupta to step down—was recently endorsed by faculty and student leadership for the interim president role. [Update: The Michigan Board of Trustees has a meeting scheduled for Monday to appoint an interim president.]
Student representatives also blasted the board for a lack of transparency around the effort to push Dr. Stanley out and for allegedly not listening to student concerns on Title IX issues.
Trustees Sound Off
Forced to finally confront the community that has been calling it out for more than a month, board members weren’t just on the receiving end of the criticism; some fired back at faculty, while others offered tearful apologies and condemnations of their fellow trustees seated at the table.
Comments from trustees show a board that struggles to communicate, finds itself in regular disagreement and suffers from a lack of trust that has challenged its ability to work together.
While some trustees were restrained, others were defiant.
The most pointed comments came from Pat O’Keefe, a Republican who has served on the board since 2021, who took aim at the votes of no confidence from various bodies at Michigan State and returned fire, defending the board and focusing on “sexual transgressions of faculty.” (He did not name any.)
O’Keefe accused critics of hypocrisy. He noted that while the board faced criticism for the lack of an independent investigation into the misconduct of Larry Nassar—a convicted sexual predator who abused scores of female athletes under the guise of medical treatment while working at Michigan State—there are now objections to investigating current Title IX issues under Dr. Stanley’s leadership that some board members believe need further scrutiny.
He also pushed back on notions that board micromanagement has usurped academic freedom and disputed that the authority of the provost was being questioned but rather Title IX processes.
“I find it an interesting strategy from the faculty and provost to make this about academic freedom,” O’Keefe said, pivoting to the need to corral what he referred to as the unchained sexual appetite of faculty members. “If academic freedom means diddling the most vulnerable on our campus without consequences then, yes, academic freedom should be removed.”
O’Keefe added the “excrement” must be removed from campus and told Dr. Stanley “you’ve failed us” on Title IX before donning a hat reading “No More Nassar,” a phrase he then repeated.
O’Keefe’s fiery comments were contrasted with a tearful apology from Brianna Scott, a Democratic trustee who has served on the board since 2019 and expressed regret for her role in the drama, apologizing for her initial support for an investigation into Gupta’s resignation. Scott said that she had been flooded with countless messages from Gupta supporters before fellow trustee Renee Knake Jefferson convinced her such an investigation was beyond board authority.
Scott noted that she had refrained from public comment and criticized unnamed board members for communicating through statements to media rather than talking to one another.
“I find it concerning that we talk about wanting to build trust and we talk about wanting to heal when we aren’t 100 percent transparent with relation to everything that transpired to get us into this position today, which I think is very unfortunate. As an alum, as the parent of an alum, as a trustee, as someone who loves this university and bleeds green, it is very disconcerting to me that we have not always had the right motivations behind the things we do,” Scott said.
She added that while the campus may not trust the board, its members don’t trust one another.
“It’s unfortunate that the distrust we have amongst each other has played out into the inefficiencies that we have had as a board. The inability for us to come to decisions allowed weeks to transpire where we didn’t have any communication with you all, that we didn’t have any communication with our president, that resulted, I think, ultimately in him feeling that he couldn’t work with us and therefore resigning,” Scott said in a lengthy comment critical of fellow trustees.
Other members echoed similar frustrations around board communication and a lack of trust, though O’Keefe was alone in an adversarial position toward faculty requests for transparency.
Taken together, these individual comments represent the most insight into the board’s operations and motivations to push Dr. Stanley out since news of the effort leaked to local news outlets in September. While some members have weighed in, the board has only released one brief public statement on the matter, noting earlier this month that it had accepted Dr. Stanley’s resignation.
What’s to Come
Dr. Stanley, on his way out as president, noted that this was likely his final board meeting.
Some students and faculty members have already signaled a preference for Woodruff.
Felecia Wu, who is a John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor at Michigan State, urged the board to act in a more professional manner, which will be needed to attract a top presidential candidate. She also threw her support behind Woodruff, stating, “We expect Provost Woodruff be given serious consideration for interim president to guide us all back onto a rational course.”
With the board divided, distrustful of one another and offering little in the way of uniform statements, the Faculty Senate has urged trustees to seek out professional development. For their part, trustees seem to have heard that message with Chair Dianne Byrum, a Democrat first elected in 2008, noting that trustees are working with an outside group to overhaul board policies.
Byrum noted that the review and revision process was expected to take roughly a year to complete. But for now Michigan State will turn its attention to appointing an interim president, someone to take the helm as MSU sees a third president ousted since 2018 over Title IX issues.