Sunday, August 9, 2020

'The next chapter in our history': MSU presidential search begins

October 25, 2018
Betsy Riley of Reclaim MSU passes out teal ribbons at the Kellogg Conference Center on Oct. 11, 2018. Teal ribbons are the symbol of support for sexual assault survivors.
Betsy Riley of Reclaim MSU passes out teal ribbons at the Kellogg Conference Center on Oct. 11, 2018. Teal ribbons are the symbol of support for sexual assault survivors. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

Hours after ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar — who sexually abused over 400 women and girls — was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned.

This came as calls for her to step down echoed across the state. Nassar survivors, student and faculty organizations on campus, members of the MSU Board of Trustees, politicians, lawmakers and newspapers across Michigan criticized Simon for the university’s inaction and for mishandling reports of Nassar’s serial abuse. Her Jan. 24 resignation marked a new chapter for the university to rebuild its culture and reputation.

“We have a long road ahead to repair the damage which has already been done,” Trustee Brian Mosallam said in a statement released a few days after Simon’s resignation. “We must restore confidence and trust in this university.”

A week after Simon’s resignation, ignoring input from the community, former governor John Engler was appointed interim president by the Board of Trustees. Less than an hour after his appointment, student protesters expressed outrage with the board’s decision. Campus organizations, members of the MSU community and others called for the board to resign as the semester progressed because they felt unheard.

“The university was in absolute crisis,” Trustee Dianne Byrum said at an emergency meeting held by the Associated Students of MSU, or ASMSU, when asked about why Engler was chosen so suddenly. Though some trustees disagreed with Engler and his policies as governor, Mosallam said support from the board was “unanimous” for the sake of unity.

Engler’s interim presidency continues to face criticism, but he doesn’t intend to stay any longer than he has to.

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 Months after Simon’s resignation and Engler’s appointment, the search for a permanent university president began. 

In a statement from Byrum and Trustee Melanie Foster, the co-chairs of the presidential search committee, this year-long process is referred to as “the next chapter in our history.”

The first phase, a month-long process of listening to the community at "input sessions," is over — but there are eight months left of work to do before the search ends.

Beginning the search

Talks about starting the presidential search process and establishing a structure for the search committee didn't begin until April.

In late spring, ASMSU called an emergency meeting to address topics and concerns with campus culture moving forward. Byrum spoke to student representatives about plans for the presidential search committee, and said that the process would be lengthy because MSU hadn't performed a presidential search for 25 years.

In June, Byrum and Foster announced the official timeline for the presidential search. In August, the members of the search committee were named. With a goal of diverse representation, the committee includes nine women and ten men, five of whom are people of color. 

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Faculty, staff, alumni, two students, half of the Board of Trustees — Byrum, Foster, Dan Kelly and Joel Ferguson — and other community members are on the search committee. ASMSU president Katherine "Cookie" Rifiotis is representing the undergraduate students, but a lack of student representation still raised concerns.

“One of my concerns is the fact that there are four Board of Trustee members out of 19," ASMSU representative Colin Wiebrecht said. "I don’t like that Ferguson is on there, given his comments. And we only have one undergraduate student for 40,000 undergraduate students." 

The listening phase began on Sept. 17 and concluded on Oct. 11. This phase consisted of input sessions held across campus, aiming to make the process more transparent and inclusive. 

These sessions included open forums with colleges, student groups and the broader MSU community with the goal of learning what the campus community wanted to see in the future permanent president of MSU.

"I feel like we have a pretty good sense of where is the MSU community at in terms what are they looking for in the next president, what do we see as challenges and opportunities on campus," Byrum said. "We are taking that input and we are utilizing that as we now start, in full steam, on preparing for the search." 

After the input is compiled from all the sessions, the committee will begin writing the position description. The description will become the "expansive" MSU president job posting and the candidates will be able to apply around the second week of November. 

"They're going over it, they're reading it, they're internalizing it," Byrum said. "Several of the committee members attended multiple input sessions, so we had really strong participation." 

Members of the public will not be involved with the second phase of the presidential search process, which will receive assistance from search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates and Teresa Sullivan, the former president of University of Virginia who was hired to advise the co-chairs during this process. 

"That kicks off, in earnest, the search for a new president," Byrum said. 

Candidates will be identified and initial interviews will begin in November. Final interviews with the MSU Board of Trustees are set to occur between February and May. 

The Board of Trustees will ultimately decide who the permanent university president will be. The new president of MSU will be announced in June of 2019. 

"We're trying to cast a very wide net," Byrum said. "There is no pre-determined candidate out there, this is truly an open search that will be national, if not international, in scope. And then as the applicants come in, the process will evolve more." 

Who will be the next president?

By providing input to the presidential search committee at these sessions, members of the MSU community began painting a picture of who they want the next president to be.

Someone who is not a politician. Someone who is not a businessperson. Someone who is not already a part of the MSU administration. 

A leader, a woman, a minority, someone who is committed to preventing sexual assault on campus, someone who will address “the administration’s lack of response to, prevention of and investigation of instances of sexual misconduct.”

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“If this new president does not see toxic, pervasive rape culture as the single number-one priority for the entirety of her tenure here,” Betsy Riley, a Ph.D. candidate representing Reclaim MSU said at one of the final input sessions, “then this whole problem is never going to be solved, and MSU is going to be the Nassar school forever.”

Each input session followed the same format: A moderator asked those in attendance three pre-written questions and gave them the opportunity to respond. A question-and-answer period was not allowed, and each comment was limited to two minutes. Students, faculty and others were asked about the qualities, characteristics and criteria desired of a new MSU president.

At the input session held for the Council of Racial and Ethnic Students and Council of Progressive Students, a representative from the Black Student Alliance said they want the president to be a minority.

“According to the American Council on Education, only 17 percent of college presidents are minorities. I feel having a minority president as an MSU student will be helpful,” they said. “Especially in the face of racism, it will show that MSU is culturally diverse.”

Students at this session also expressed they want someone who would prioritize lowering tuition, diversity, inclusion, transparency and communication from the administration.

At the final input session, Board of Trustees candidate Dave Dutch told the committee the university needed a strong and experienced leader as president.

“This is a complex university,” Dutch said. “We want someone who’s done it before at some level and has gone through a cultural transformation. We are going through a cultural transformation. I think it’s imperative ... they’ve done this before.”

“We do not trust this process”

The presidential search process was met with backlash from the MSU community. 

Reclaim MSU, a student and faculty activist organization, released a statement of distrust in the presidential search process, search committee and input sessions. The group cited a lack of community involvement in the rest of the process, and concern with the fact that the committee will consider both external and internal candidates. 

“We do not trust this process,” the statement reads. “Our community has described and endorsed an inclusive and open presidential search. The Board of Trustees has not listened.”

Riley attended four input sessions, all of which had low turnout, and going to them “feels like banging my head against the wall,” she said.

“Because of the format, where they can’t respond to us, I feel like we’re talking into a black hole,” Riley said. “I don’t know what they’re writing, I don’t know what they’re taking in, I don’t know how to speak to them in a way that I feel like my voice is being heard.”

She hopes there will be close ties between the community input gathered by the committee and the final decision from the Board of Trustees, so the lack of input during the decision to appoint Engler doesn’t happen again. 

“It’s a very real possibility this Board of Trustees will just say, ‘To hell with this process, we want this guy,’” Riley said.

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Another concern was with the input sessions being scheduled at inconvenient times for students. Comparative cultures and politics junior Natalie Rogers, the communication coordinator for Reclaim MSU, also said the dates, times and locations weren’t being sent out soon enough. 

ASMSU Representative Isaiah Hawkins said he was one of the only students who attended the input session held for his college because it was at a time most students had class. He also said it would have been beneficial if the sessions were publicized more, so students were aware they were happening. 

“There’s a lot of students who can’t go, and if it’s at a time they have class, then they’re definitely not going to go,” Rogers said. “It’s very important to have student input in this process because they do have a different outlook on these issues than faculty and staff will have on these issues. If students aren’t actively included in the process of the input sessions, and they’re not included really on the committee, then how will their voices be represented?”  

For those who could not attend any of the sessions, an opportunity to submit input online was made available on the official presidential search website. 

“We had 22 sessions, plus the ability to go online and provide any input you wanted to,” Byrum said. “There clearly was opportunity.” 

Students were also concerned about who made up the committee. ASMSU Representative Colin Wiebrecht said the amount of trustees on the committee is concerning, as well as that students were not given the option to choose who they wanted to represent them in the presidential search. 

Byrum said the Board of Trustees empowered her and Foster, as co-chairs, to choose the members of the presidential search committee. 

“They talk about how diverse they are, and it’s ten men, nine women. That already doesn’t sound great,” Wiebrecht said. “It’s very much the illusion of diversity; they’re trying to say ‘we checked all the boxes,’ but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t give people the opportunity to choose who they want to represent them.”

At the input sessions Wiebrecht attended, he expressed to the committee there is still time to change the presidential search committee and process to include more student input.

“They’re holding these input sessions, but that doesn’t mean anything if they’re not listening,” he said. “It’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to act on those things and put them into practice and they haven’t done that,. They haven’t shown us that, especially in the last year.”

Moving forward with hope

Despite concerns, Hawkins has hope in the process. 

“I know there’s a lot of distrust in the process because of how little student representation is on the search committee, which is something that I’m pretty upset about as well,” Hawkins said. “But from my experience with the individual committee members themselves, they are all extremely receptive to student input, student voices and picking the best president. They take their role seriously.”

At one of the sessions he attended, he recalls a search committee member telling him about the importance for students to “spam” the online input forum on the presidential search website, to fill it with their voices until “it’s impossible to ignore.”

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“This is a very engaged search committee. They’re taking this role very seriously, they’re engaged, they’re participating, they’re prepared,” Byrum said. “There isn’t a single member on the committee that is afraid to speak their mind and speak up and share their opinions, which I find very refreshing.”

ASMSU Representative Carla Simone, who attended one of the alternative input forums held by ASMSU, was impressed with the ways the committee is seeking community input, especially with the online forum. 

“If they use that a lot in the future, and if they give these concerns to the future president and the Board of Trustees, then a lot of progress will happen,” Simone said. 

But some students are not as hopeful. 

“I want to be hopeful but based on my experience here in the last six years — no, they’re not going to listen to us,” Wiebrecht said.

Andaluna Borcila, James Madison professor and a member of Reclaim MSU, attended the final input session and said she fears students don’t think their voice matters.

“Even though I don’t trust the process for this search, I don’t trust this Board of Trustees and I don’t trust this president, I still think it’s important for people to voice what they think they want to see in a president,” Borcila said. “Of course, people can choose to do what they want. It’s tiring to keep saying the same things and see that the upper administration is not listening.”

As the process continues, Byrum said although they can’t appease everyone, the presidential search committee is having active discussions and working to change the process. So far, things are going well. 

“I think that transparency is something you work at every day, but we’ve tried to inform the MSU community as to what is going on and what the process is and when decisions are made,” Byrum said. “Through this process, there’s been a greater sharing of information that may not have been in MSU’s history.”

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