Report asks MSU to have governor consider removal of trustees Vassar and Denno

Michigan State University. (Image via Susan J. Demas)

By Michigan Advance

March 4, 2024

BY ANNA LIZ NICHOLS, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

Some of the accusations flung between members of Michigan State University’s governing board are true, an investigation from an independent firm found this week. It’s recommended that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer review MSU Trustee Chair Rema Vassar and Trustee Dennis Denno’s actions, which it says violated bylaws and codes of ethics at the university.

The past few months at Michigan State University mark a crescendo on years of in-fighting between members of the East Lansing school’s leadership. Since 2018, MSU has had six different university presidents amid intense controversy and tragedy, from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal to the deadly shooting on campus in 2023. The sixth president, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, will take over the office this Monday, March 4.

Report asks MSU to have governor consider removal of trustees Vassar and Denno

Michigan State University Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar speaks to students after an MSU Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 2, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

The investigation report released Wednesday from Law firm Miller & Chevalier, in large part revolves around very public accusations made by members of the board of trustees condemning the actions of other members.

“The independent investigation substantiated certain, but not all, of the allegations raised. In some instances, Miller & Chevalier corroborated specific conduct, but did not find that it constituted a policy violation,” the report reads.

From interfering with university legal battles to intimidation and sabotage campaigns, the report said investigators looked into more than 50 allegations from members of  MSU’s leadership against other members of MSU’s leadership.

The investigation began in October, shortly after Trustee Brianna Scott distributed a letter to the board and the public accusing Vassar of violations of university rules in the school’s handling of the shooting and legal battles. Further, Scott called on Vassar to resign from the board, calling her a “bully” whose actions have “potentially harmful consequences for the University we have been entrusted to protect.”

Report asks MSU to have governor consider removal of trustees Vassar and Denno

Trustee Brianna Scott at an Oct. 27, 2023 meeting of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees. (Photo: Kyle Davidson)

Vassar refuted Scott’s claims in her own letter saying Scott “should read about leadership, race and racism, and literature related to Board responsibilities,” as all her claims were “untruths”.

Though the report makes the recommendation that Vassar and Denno face review from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for potential removal, it also finds Scott violated ethics, to a lesser degree. The reports says Scott’s letter contained “confidential information” to the university which violates the code of ethics warranting no more than censure.

The governor’s office hasn’t confirmed if Whitmer would consider removal of any trustees or that she has reviewed the report, but press secretary for the governor Stacey LaRouche said in a statement, “The findings outlined in the report 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.”

Further, LaRouche adds that the board ought to give the report serious review for the university community to “move forward and grow” saying the governor’s office is monitoring the situation closely.

Upon receiving the report, Board of Trustees Vice Chair and Committee on Audit, Risk and Compliance Chair Dan Kelly said in a statement that the board is reviewing the findings.

“The board takes our responsibility and governance seriously and is committed to upholding our code of ethics,” Kelly said.

The investigation found some truth in Scott’s claims of inappropriate actions with the release of Nassar investigation documents, the settlement with the former dean of the Broad College of Business and the aftermath of the deadly shooting.

For years the Michigan Attorney General’s Office has asked MSU to turn over thousands of documents requested in the office’s investigation into who knew what and when about Nassar’s  decades of sexual abuse of athletes and patients. MSU agreed in December to release the documents, but the decision had been highly contentious at the university, with Attorney General Dana Nessel sending another request for the documents in April of last year, which the board refused.

The report said Scott accused Vassar of corresponding with the attorney general’s office, without the input of the rest of the board, and misinformed Nessel’s office by saying the board would green light the request for documents at their next meeting.

The investigation also found that Vassar met with members of Nessel’s office twice in February and April without the knowledge of other trustees and though it isn’t known exactly what was said during the meetings, the “interactions resulted in a request for the Board to waive attorney‐client privilege over the Nassar Documents, in opposition to MSU’s prior…position that it would not waive the privilege.” Miller & Chevalier’s investigation concludes that Vassar’s actions violated the board’s bylaws by committing the board to a decision that hadn’t been decided by the board.

Another area where the investigation found Vassar “overreached” her authority were her attempts to broker a settlement of the lawsuit from former dean of MSU’s Broad College of Business Sanjay Gupta.

After a university investigation found Gupta failed to report a complaint of sexual misconduct by an associate dean, he resigned from being dean in August 2022, but raised a lawsuit saying he was forced out to pave the way for Interim President Teresa Woodruff to become university president over him.

Woodruff did not end up pursuing the presidency, announcing so in August of 2023.

Scott’s accusation that Vassar met with Gupta for settlement talks, was not denied by Vassar, who said in October the whole board was interested in coming to a settlement, so she was not truly acting alone without board input.

But the investigation determined Vassar did participate in at least one meeting with Gupta and his legal representation in the interest of coming to a settlement, and doing so, acted without the rest of the board’s knowledge, violating the board’s Code of Ethics.

Report asks MSU to have governor consider removal of trustees Vassar and Denno

Dennis Denno.

However, the last major accusation from Scott, that Vassar inappropriately requested that the outside firm that reviewed the university’s response to the shooting last year should revise the firm’s finding that some trustees acted outside their authority in the aftermath, was refuted.

“…it is apparent to Miller & Chevalier that the Trustees, including Chair Vassar, acted with sincere intent to support the MSU community following the tragic events. (…) Chair Vassar’s specific actions(…) though well‐intended, encroached on an area of responsibility reserved for the Administration,” the report reads. “The investigation did not substantiate the allegation that Chair Vassar inappropriately suggested that SRMC revise its findings.”

But Trustee Dennis Denno was a different story. The investigation found that Denno’s conduct during the preliminary review by Security Risk Management Consultants after the shooting violated the code of ethics.

The report said several Trustees told a consistent narrative that Denno questioned the consultants presenting the review in an “aggressive” and “bullying manner.”

“One Interviewee recalled that Trustee Denno took exception to certain parts of the report, including SRMC’s findings that Trustees should not have been present at Sparrow Hospital following the shooting,” the report reads. “According to other interview accounts, (…)He “took issue with the critique of the Board(…) [and] asked for the consultants to change the report in many ways(…) [and] was very rude to the [Consultants],” and was “bullying.”

Other accusations made by Scott were substantiated by investigators regarding Vassar accepting a ride on a private jet flight and courtside tickets from a donor for her and her daughter, violating the Trustee Conflict of Interest Policy.

Vassar didn’t deny accepting the flight, even publicly saying at an October meeting of the board, “I do know that several people on this board have been on private flights. I did not know that that was a clear conflict of interest.”

Additionally, Vassar was found by investigators to have accepted courtside seats on another occasion from a different MSU donor.

Of all the other allegations reviewed by the investigation the report said, the “ones of most concern” are the confirmed accounts that Vassar and Denno coordinated with students to “embarrass and unsettle” Interim President Teresa Woodruff and orchestrated a campaign of personal attacks on Senate Chair Jack Lipton.

Recordings from a November 1, 2023 meeting of Vassar, Denno and students reveal that the trustees encouraged students to “embarrass and scare” Woodruff in public settings and encourage students to “attack” Lipton.

“Their efforts to encourage students to publicly embarrass the leader of the University flies in the face of that duty, since inviting embarrassment to the head of an institution is akin to inviting public embarrassment of the institution itself,” the report reads.

Among statements in the recordings, the report says Vassar encouraged students to weaponize news outlets against Woodruff adding “…there’s so many other groups that you could partner with to crucify her.”

The report said Denno offered to pay for students to make #NOTASPARTAN t‐shirts, but told them “to keep [his] name out of it.”

Denno added that students could “help” him and Vassar by creating an “attack” against Lipton.

The Faculty Senate, which Lipton chairs, passed a resolution in October calling for Vassar’s removal. Lipton has also referred to Vassar supporters who disrupted an October Board of Trustees meeting as a “mob”.

Students of color at the school have raised concerns about being called a “mob” as they back the first Black woman to ever chair the university’s Board of Trustees.

“I mean this guy called you a mob . . . call him out, call him a racist,” Denno said in the recording transcribed in the report.

The report says Lipton says he has received letters from different groups on campus accusing him of racist language.

“Dr. Lipton denies that this was his intent and alleges that the letters he has received have been motivated by Chair Vassar and Trustee Denno in retaliation for the Faculty Senate vote,” the report reads.

A request for comment was made to both Denno and Scott, but has yet to be returned.

One of Vassar’s lawyers, Kevin O’Shea said in an emailed statement that Vassar takes issue with the assertion that trustees should not engage with students who express concerns for their safety and well-being at school.

“While such public engagement can become charged and uncomfortable for those in authority, it is essential that the University, and the Board of Trustees, provide a forum for the voices of students to be heard,” O’Shea said.

In addition to recommending censure for Scott and a review from the governor for Vassar and Denno, the report recommends the board go through training on university policies and other training on how best to communicate with the university community.

O’Shea said Vassar is an advocate for creating more clear guidelines for trustees recommended by the investigation.

“Most importantly, Dr. Vassar believes it’s appropriate that the majority of the Report’s recommendations involve steps the Board of Trustees should take to improve its governance practices, including ‘developing compliance guidelines’ for Trustees and ‘developing and implementing a set of Board-level procedures that describe with sufficient detail how that Board and each Trustee are to engage with the Administration and the University’,” O’Shea said.

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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