MSU board asks Whitmer to consider removing trustees Vassar and Denno amid misconduct allegations

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

By Michigan Advance

March 5, 2024

BY ANNA LIZ NICHOLS, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

In a late night meeting Sunday, Michigan State University trustees formally removed Rema Vassar as the board’s chair after she had resigned the post hours earlier following an outside report released last week.

Vassar and Trustee Dennis Denno were the only two members to vote against the resolutions removing them from their influential positions, 6-2. Both remain on the board with scaled back authority. Denno was stripped of his chairmanship of the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Academic Affairs.

The board also requested Gov. Gretchen Whitmer review the conduct of both for possible removal.

MSU board asks Whitmer to consider removing trustees Vassar and Denno amid misconduct allegations

Dennis Denno.

Trustee Brianna Scott made a flurry of public accusations against Vassar’s conduct as an elected official to MSU’s board of trustees in October and an investigation from the outside law firm Miller & Chevalier followed.

A report from the investigation says of the more than 50 accusations made from different members of the university community against several leaders at the school, investigators were able to confirm multiple violations of the board’s bylaws and codes of ethics.

The investigation found that Scott violated ethics policies by distributing a letter of allegations against Vassar which referenced confidential information from the board, her actions simply warrant censure, which trustees voted to approve 7-1, with Vassar voting no.

The findings in the report concerning Vassar’s and Denno’s actions are more serious and the recommended action was more severe.

Investigators found that Vassar acted without consultation or consensus from the rest of the board when attempting to broker a settlement to the lawsuit raised by former MSU Broad College of Business Dean Sanjay Gupta. The report also found the same pattern when Vassar met with members of the state attorney general’s office, resulting in Attorney General Danna Nessel requesting the long-withheld documents involving former Olympic and MSU doctor Larry Nassar.

Nassar is currently serving essentially three life sentences on child pornography charges, as well as several charges of criminal sexual conduct across three courts, with many of the over 150 women and girls telling a Lansing court in January 2018 that Nassar abused them in his capacity as a physician at MSU.

Vassar told the board Sunday that although there are things she could have done better and humans make mistakes, her actions are led by integrity.

“I’ve been unapologetic in my allyship to survivors and students. The fact is they are no longer unseen and unheard. That’s progress. It didn’t come easy,” Vassar said. “I will continue to be a staunch supporter for marginalized faculty, staff and administrators, elevating and sharing transformative power with the most vulnerable in our community. No title facilitates that work; my passion drives it.”

While Vassar argued the board’s actions are “over the top,” she said she’s been honored to serve as chair. But as the first Black woman to ever hold the post, Vassar expressed concern for what may have been considered by investigators.

“I certainly hope that who I am did not influence anyone involved in this investigation and report,” Vassar said. “As an African-American woman, I am always aware that who I am, who I am proud to be, impacts how other people see me and consider my work. Of course African Americans, other people of color and women are oftentimes held to a much higher standard or diminished and dismissed as irrelevant [which] is a national and international issue.”

The investigation found that Vassar accepted a private jet ride and courtside tickets for her and her daughter from a donor for her and her daughter in violation of the Trustee Conflict of Interest Policy. Vassar has admitted publicly to accepting the flight, saying during an October trustees meeting that other members have accepted similar offers and she wasn’t aware it presented a conflict of interest.

“Without clear bright lines, we are subjected to bias that holds some accountable to ambiguous policies, unduly punishes trustees for inconsistent bylaws and excoriates some for uncommunicated expectations,” Vassar said.

The investigation found one other unnamed current trustee and a former trustee did travel on a donor’s private jet, but their conduct occurred prior to guidance issued to trustees in March 2023 clarifying travel guidance compliant with the Code of Ethics and the Trustee Conflict of Interest Policy.

“Nevertheless, Miller & Chevalier credits Chair Vassar statements that she believed she was involved in an activity regularly engaged in by others,” the report reads, still acknowledging a violation from Vassar.

MSU board asks Whitmer to consider removing trustees Vassar and Denno amid misconduct allegations

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

Scott also accused Vassar of overstepping in her role as chair as trustees were presented with a review from an outside firm examining the university’s response to the deadly Feb. 13, 2023, shooting on the school’s East Lansing campus. Scott said Vassar advised the firm to revise the assessment that some trustees have acted outside their authority in response to the shooting.

However, the report found that Denno was the one who, according to other trustees, was “aggressive” and “bullying” towards the presentation of the review by Security Risk Management Consultants.

“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.”

Together, in what the report deemed the accusations of “most concern,” Denno and Vassar were found to have directed students to “embarrass and unsettle” Interim President Teresa Woodruff and publicize personal attacks on Faculty Senate Chair Jack Lipton.

Vassar and Denno encouraged students to “embarrass and scare” Woodruff in front of the public and advised students to “attack” Lipton, recordings from a Nov. 1 meeting between both trustees and students revealed, the report said.

Trustee Dan Kelly, the lone Republican who will be taking over as board chair, spoke highly of both Vassar and Denno despite approving the resolutions.

“A lot of what she [Vassar] said, I agree with; it’s only a title and I do hope that she stays engaged. She is very valuable to this board and I know that I personally appreciate her input,” Kelly said. “I appreciate his [Denno’s] input and hard work to this board. I hope he remains committed to this board. I think this action is reasonable and I hope Dennis stays engaged with the board.”

Vassar and Denno are also suspended from all appointments to board committees until Dec. 31. Vassar’s elected term doesn’t end until 2029 and Denno’s doesn’t end until 2031.

Trustees for Michigan State University are elected positions for eight-year terms, which has been a contested issue in the past, with lawmakers considering changes.

Dianne Byrum, who has served on the board since getting elected in 2008, announced in January that she would not seek reelection as her term expires at the end of the year. She applauded Scott during the Sunday meeting for her courage to publicly voice her concerns.

“I would only say that Brianna, thank you for voluntarily stepping forward and accepting the censure. I know that you came forward, it was a very courageous act to put your accusations on paper in a letter and the findings have resulted in the action today,” Byrum said “I know that that was at a lot of a personal cost to you and I want to let you know that I appreciate that.”

Scott had said in her October letter that the board has become increasingly fractured and contentious and Vassar has repeatedly bullied members of the board. She echoed those sentiments on Sunday.

“I just want to say that this has been pretty difficult and I have basically stood alone on this board and it’s really unfortunate that it had to get to this place,” Scott said. “I don’t know what type of precedent we’re setting where someone who does step forward to showcase dysfunction and some improprieties has to be censured. It’s hurtful to me that my legacy will be that I was censured as a trustee for doing what I felt had to be done under the circumstances.”

The board also adopted a resolution to work on enhancing trustee onboarding, ongoing education and understanding of the university’s policies and procedures.

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

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