Reclaim MSU aims to change structure of board in search of new president
Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. April 12 with a changed headline and some clarified language, and again later to clarify the organization's goals.
Student group Reclaim MSU’s quest for community involvement in selecting MSU’s next president faces several hurdles — but the group is diligently taking steps forward.
The university’s bylaws do not extensively detail the selection process for MSU’s president, but do leave the choice in the hands of the Board of Trustees. On paper, there is plenty of room for flexibility as to how the process is run. But as the bylaws are written, the decision itself is made by the board and no one else.
Reclaim MSU is a group of students, staff, faculty and alumni “working for broad institutional & cultural change at MSU,” according to the group’s website.
Former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned in January after facing mounting backlash in response to the university’s handling of ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse.
Interim President John Engler was officially appointed and saw his first day on the job Feb. 1, a decision which led MSU faculty to vote no confidence in the Board of Trustees, claiming their suggestions were disregarded by the board.
“Engler was appointed by the board kind of autonomously and actively despite wishes of the Faculty Senate,” comparative culture and politics senior and Reclaim MSU coordinator Samuel Klahn said. “President Simon actually was just appointed by the board, they didn’t go through a firm or through a large vetting process that was public.”
Reclaim MSU’s goals are to tweak this process to create more accountability. The plan has two steps: to amend the Michigan Constitution to add four positions to the Board of Trustees — one undergraduate student, one graduate student and two faculty members — and to amend the university's bylaws.
Klahn said Reclaim MSU has asked the board to consider the proposal for changes to the bylaws at its April 13 meeting.
Klahn said the board has not officially responded to Reclaim MSU's request.
ASMSU has proposed a similar plan to amend the Michigan Constitution to reserve one voting position on the Board of Trustees for a student.
Reclaim MSU communications coordinator Natalie Rogers said the major hurdle is not the constitution, but the Board itself. The board is free to change their bylaws at any time, Rodgers said, and the constitution does not need to be amended to change them.
"They have ignored our proposal," Rogers said in a message.
It’s still possible, if the board chooses to consider the changes, that action could be taken at the same meeting the proposal is introduced, Klahn said.
“I still remain quite hopeful ... that they’ll see the importance of a kind of going away from the status quo, and not using convention in the playbook when we’re kind such turbulent times and we really need to galvanize,” Klahn said.
Following a meeting with ASMSU, Engler told The State News there’s no timeline currently set for the presidential search.
“The trustees, that’s their process,” Engler said. “My job is to get as many problems fixed as I can so this campus is in perfect shape for the next president.”
While he will not play an active role in the process, Engler said the board has asked him to identify past successful presidential searches.
“The eight elected trustees are the ones who will take the lead, and constitutionally it’s their duty to do so,” Engler said. “What I can do is encourage them to be open, to be transparent, to be inclusive in that process. And they’re responding to that. I mean, they recognize that it’s a challenging time right now and they’re part of, sort of, the debate, we’ll call it, on campus.”
On April 2, the Board of Trustees announced it would hire an adviser as a guide for the presidential search.
“Our goal in selecting an adviser is to identify someone with deep experience and stature in public higher education leadership who can ensure student, faculty, staff and stakeholder input are a key part of the search effort,” according to a statement from the board.
Engler said recently retired or retiring university presidents are being considered as potential candidates for an adviser to the board during the process.
“So I think their thinking is that, in order to run a transparent, inclusive process, they want to get a seasoned education leader that’s respected and have that person here helping them on campus, and that person will be interfacing with a lot of the different campus constituencies,” Engler said. “That’s how they’re thinking about going about this. And they’ll make an announcement when they’re ready to do so.”
Klahn said he and others believe outside help will restore trust in the search process.
Going the “safe route” won’t be enough, he said — the administration needs to trust students and faculty with a voice in the process before the community can trust them.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to really matter what they would do, just because that trust is gone,” Klahn said. “Even if they move forward well, or if they move forward perfectly, I think the solution to reclaim trust is to give trust.”
MSU Communications and Brand Strategy, or CABS, replied to a request for comment by sending the recent statement about the board’s desire for a search adviser.
“The presidential search is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees,” according to an email from MSU CABS. “More information will be shared as these decisions are made.”