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Michigan State University campus

The investigation of Michigan State University’s board was prompted by Trustee Brianna Scott’s calls for Board Chair Rema Vassar’s resignation in October. 

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Two members of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees “engaged in conduct that exceeds the scope of their authority,” according to an external investigation of alleged misconduct on the board.

Examples of the misconduct include interference with university affairs, attacking colleagues and accepting personal gifts from donors.

Based on those findings, the report released Wednesday recommends that board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno be referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for possible removal from office, which state law authorizes.

“The Board dynamics, particularly the actions of Chair Vassar and Trustee Denno, have created a fear of retaliation amongst administrators and other MSU personnel,” the report said. “The identified conduct has created fissures that have weakened the governance structure of the University and encouraged and created openings for members of the MSU community to also circumvent the Administration and reporting protocols, by leveraging individual Board members to act on their behalf.”

MSU's Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance hired Miller & Chevalier, the law firm that authored the report, soon after another trustee, Brianna Scott, sent a letter to the board last October—and shared with the local press—accusing Vassar of 10 separate infractions, including violating university ethics codes and bullying her colleagues. Scott called for Vassar’s resignation, and for Whitmer to remove her if Vassar refused to step down.

In response, Whitmer said in a statement that the allegations were “deeply concerning” if true. “The university owes it to students, alumni, and our entire state to get to the bottom of this and take appropriate action.” But Vassar characterized Scott’s allegations as "fabrications" and "untruths.”

The 66-page report released by the law firm Wednesday is the culmination of 69 interviews of 43 people, including board members, administrators, faculty and journalists. It showed that while investigators could not substantiate every allegation made against Vassar, some of them turned out to be true and implicated Denno as well.

The revelations include evidence that Vassar and Denno interfered with university investigations and litigation and “provided students with confidential and inaccurate information” and “encouraged student actions intended to embarrass and unsettle” Teresa Woodruff, MSU’s interim president. Vassar and Denno also "encouraged a campaign of personal attacks" against Jack Lipton, chair of MSU's faculty senate, by student groups and the press “likely due to” Lipton’s calls for Vassar’s resignation, according to the report.

Additionally, investigators also found that Vassar accepted a ride on a private jet and, on two separate occasions, tickets for courtside seats to a basketball game from a donor.

And while the report didn’t recommend Scott, the trustee who originally raised the alarm about Vassar, be referred to Whitmer it did say that “some sanction may be appropriate” because Scott violated the ethics code when she shared her letter calling for Vassar’s resignation with news outlets. The letter included references to confidential communication about university litigation. At the same time, the report noted “the courage it takes to publicly denounce misconduct, especially in light of the tangible and personal repercussions that Trustee Scott has suffered.”

Investigators acknowledged the turmoil that has befallen MSU in recent years, including the fallout from former MSU sports medicine physician Larry Nassar’s exposure as a serial rapist and his later conviction; a deadly campus shooting; high turnover in the president’s office; and the resignation of a dean amid concerns that he failed to report incidents of sexual misconduct.

“Each of these events is sufficient to test the strongest of institutions and governing bodies,” the report said. “For MSU, this series of crises, coupled with a rapid change in presidents, has led to a fraught relationship between the Administration and the Board of Trustees, resulting in the Board of Trustees at times assuming an outsized role in the institution.”

'Potentially Larger Issue'

The report also disclosed that investigators found additional instances of board misconduct beyond the original allegations, “signaling a potentially larger issue than reported” to the law firm.

One example included evidence that Denno unilaterally emailed MSU Housing Services Department, on behalf of a personal friend, to request that two students be assigned to live in the same room because “it would be a priority for them and me."

"Interviewees from a cross‐section of the University, who have observed Board dynamics, reported both a fractured Board plagued by distrust and an environment in which colleagues no longer assume positive intent and often act as adversaries,” the report concluded. “These observations cannot be ignored. They signal that the tone and culture at the Board level is already felt by at least some, and if left unchecked, could permeate other aspects of MSU culture.”

Over the course of the investigation, the authors of the report also got some firsthand insight into that retaliatory culture described by many of the people they interviewed. At the end of Denno’s final interview with Miller & Chevalier investigators, he told them that if their report “solely attacks” Vassar, “I am going to publicly say this is a public lynching,” according to the report.

While those comments didn’t influence “the integrity” of the final report, the authors noted that “there is a well‐based concern that the impact of similar conduct towards a University employee, regardless of seniority, could be chilling.”

After the report was released Wednesday, MSU Trustee Dan Kelly who chairs the Committee on Audit, Risk and Compliance said in a statement that the board “is reviewing the findings carefully,” and “takes our responsibility and governance seriously and is committed to upholding our code of ethics."

In a statement to State News, the outlet which first published Trustee Scott’s call for Vassar’s resignation, Stacey LaRouche, Whitmer’s press secretary, said the report’s findings are “concerning.”

“It was an important step forward for the Board of Trustees to commission these investigations to give students, staff, and alumni the transparency they deserve,” LaRouche said. “The board needs to give this report a thorough review to ensure the university can move forward and grow. We will continue to monitor this situation closely."

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