Here’s where the MSU Board of Trustees dispute stands  ⋆

This week, trustees on Michigan State University’s governing board released written statements with contradicting narratives about several recent events at the East Lansing school, including the handling of several key investigations into sexual violence and the deadly shooting on campus earlier this year.

MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar responded Tuesday to several assertions made by Trustee Brianna Scott accusing Vassar of bullying colleagues, violating ethics codes and interfering with the board moving forward from past controversies afflicting the university.

On Sunday, Scott called on Vassar to resign, saying she’s acted unethically and outside her scope as chair, further dividing the already “fractured” board and potentially damaging the school. 

Brianna Scott | Courtesy photo

“…[T]he BOT has become more fractured, more contentious, and Dr. Vassar has developed a pattern of violating our codes of conduct, ethics, and conflict of interest, including engaging in repeated undue influence, and bullying of Board members and administrators,” Scott said in her Sunday letter. “We tried to manage this behind closed doors. However, it has only led to more bullying from Dr. Vassar and potentially harmful consequences for the University we have been entrusted to protect.” 

Both trustees are Democrats, with Vassar elected in 2020 and Scott elected in 2018.

Vassar refuted Scott’s accusations Monday night in her own letter, calling them “fabrications, misstatements, innuendo, and untruths” and outlined her narrative of recent events that have shrouded the university in controversy.

“Transformative leadership calls for transparency, accountability, and clear communication — that’s how I lead,” Vassar said in her statement Monday night. “I wholly reject the coded language of “bully” when describing me in any context. None of the assertions made regarding me and the Interim President are true. However, I did tell Trustee Scott that she should read about leadership, race and racism, and literature related to Board responsibilities.”

MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum, a Democrat former board chair, also called on Vassar to resign, according to the State News.

Trustee Dan Kelly, a Republican, said that a university review of the allegations is underway.

“I have read Trustee Scott’s letter, and in my capacity as Chair of the Board’s Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee I agree a review of whether these allegations rise to the level of a violation of our Code of Ethics and Conduct is appropriate,” Kelly said.

“To do so, I will follow our existing practice of requesting the University’s Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance to thoroughly examine these allegations and provide an update to the ARC Chair. The University’s General Counsel’s Office initiated this review this morning.  Following the completion of the review, any recommendations will be shared with the full Board, who I am confident will take the appropriate action in a fair and unbiased manner.”

Trustees are partisan positions on Michigan’s statewide ballot with candidates elected to eight-year terms.

Michigan State University has had scandal after scandal for the last several years and various trustees — past and present — have long pointed fingers. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the keynote address at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference on June 2, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Many members of the MSU community have been critical of the board, holding out hope that the university will remain out of national headlines. That includes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, an MSU alumna.

“This university has been rocked by scandal after scandal with no clear unified leadership or direction and tragically no accountability either,” Whitmer said in a statement, as reported by the Associated Press. “Right now, there are too many questions and not enough answers. The university owes it to students, alumni and our entire state to get to the bottom of this and take appropriate action.”

Mel Tucker controversy

Scott said in her letter that the board learned on Sep. 11, that “a specific member of the Board of Trustees was alleged” to have leaked the name of sexual violence advocate Brenda Tracy. That was amid an investigation into Tracy’s complaint to the school that Head Football Coach Mel Tucker made sexual comments and masturbated on a phone call with her in 2022. 

This prompted the board to request an investigation into the leak, for which Vassar has not allowed a forensic review of her cell phone to rule her out as the leak. 

Vassar said in her statement, ”I had no involvement with the alleged leak and am not aware of any Trustees knowing the identity of Brenda Tracy prior to its public dissemination.” 

Vassar added she has been cooperative with investigators and to date, no trustees have produced their phones for a forensic review, and the request that she submit her phone “is part of an ongoing discussion between the board and investigators.” 

Vassar was found by Deadspin to have engaged in a text exchange with former Trustee Pat O’Keefe, a Republican, about the leak, with the conversation ending with O’Keefe saying he thinks Vassar has grounds to fire interim President Teresa Woodruff.

MSU Trustee Patrick O’Keefe

In the exchange, published by Deadspin, O’Keefe talks about Tracy in such a way that Scott says engages in victim-blaming.

“Her actions are unprofessional and so out of bounds it is hard to figure why she would commit such career suicide. I have been around people who have been hurt and want to hurt someone just to feel good about themselves. She had plenty of outs if she didn’t want to be a victim. First, like hanging up the phone, battery went dead, got something else I need to attend to but she didn’t,” the O’Keefe text reads.

Vassar contests that the text exchange was “one-sided with no input” from her. While Scott wrongfully looks to make her responsible for the statements of others, Vassar said she is committed to ensuring confidentiality in all relationship violence and sexual misconduct prevention matters.

Scott also claimed that Vassar traveled at least twice on a donor’s private jet with Tucker and other donors.

“Even if [Vassar] asserts that this gift will not influence their decision-making, it has the appearance of doing so and could implicitly influence the decision-making. If the flight is to an MSU event, there is an even greater appearance of influence in public duties,” Scott said in the letter.

Vassar said that she was being subjected to “disparate treatment.”

“Certain Board members seek to cast dispersions on my travel decisions. The Board currently does not have a policy regarding private travel to MSU events. Previously, Board members have flown on donors’ planes without question,” Vassar wrote.

Feb. 13 mass shooting

On the night before Valentine’s Day this year, a shooter came to MSU’s East Lansing campus, firing at and killing three students, while injuring five others.

Scott accuses Vassar of overstepping her chair duties after the shooting by requesting the firm that reviewed MSU’s emergency response during the tragedy consider revising the assessment that she and some other trustees have acted “outside their appropriate roles.”

However, Vassar says in her statement it was another trustee that raised “appropriate questions and concerns” about the methodology and content in the report. Vassar did not provide a name.

Former Dean Sanjay Gupta

University leadership forced Sanjay Gupta,  then-dean of the school’s Broad College of Business, to resign in August 2022 after he failed to report a complaint of sexual misconduct by an associate dean.

Gupta then filed a lawsuit against the school saying that he was outed to remove him from competition with Woodruff for the presidency. 

Woodruff announced in August 2023 she would not be pursuing the presidency and will remain in her interim capacity.

MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff speaks at a vigil Feb. 21 honoring victims of the mass shooting on Michigan State University’s campus. (Andrew Roth/)

Scott said Vassar tried to negotiate a settlement with Gupta, authorizing a statement without consulting Woodruff and the other trustees, in violation of the Board of Trustees Code of Ethics and Conduct. Scott also said Vassar released the report from the university’s investigation into Gupta’s removal against MSU general counsel’s advice.

In her letter, Vassar does not dispute settlement talks with Gupta, but takes issue with Scott’s assertion that she supposedly acted alone, saying the whole board is engaged with the lawsuit and, “settlement communications are confidential and Ms. Scott, an attorney, should not have raised this in a letter she distributed to the public.” 

As for releasing the report, Vassar said “a majority of the Board” voted to release the findings of the investigation to promote accountability for the university. 

Nassar documents

Infighting in MSU’s leadership is nothing new, as the school has cycled through several presidents in the last five years since former MSU doctor and serial pedophile Larry Nassar was sentenced in January 2018 to essentially a life sentence after pleading guilty in Ingham County to seven counts of sexual assault.

According to Scott, Vassar — without consulting the rest of the board — told Attorney General Dana Nessel in April that she had the votes on the board to get thousands of documents the attorney general’s office asked for in the investigation into the university’s handling of the Nassar scandal.

It’s been over six years since former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched the investigation, at the request of the trustees, into whether anyone at MSU had knowledge of Nassar’s abuse prior to public reports in 2016, when the reports of sexual abuse first became public. 

Nessel calls for new MSU board to turn over Nassar documents

MSU has repeatedly refused to release over 6,000 documents the attorney general requested and Nessel ended the investigation because of it.

Nessel sent a formal request for the documents in April, which the board refused.

Vassar says Scott was the one that interfered with the documents being released, after the majority of the board expressed interest in releasing the documents. 

“The AG’s office sent a letter of request and a majority of the Board was willing to honor her request. Trustee Scott then said she spoke with Attorney General Dana Nessel, incorrectly represented our intentions, and was reportedly told that, in fact, the AG did not want the documents,” Vassar said. “Therefore, the Board decided not to give them to the AG. There is nothing improper about my actions.”

Nessel spokesperson Kim Bush told the Advance Tuesday in response to Vassar’s letter, “The Attorney General has never wavered on this request.”

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authored by Anna Liz Nichols
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F10%2F24%2Fheres-where-the-msu-board-of-trustees-dispute-stands%2F

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