Friday, April 10, 2020

Takeaways from The State News' sit down with Satish Udpa

April 22, 2019
Interim President of Michigan State University Satish Udpa sits down with the State News Editorial Board at the State News office April 17, 2019.
Interim President of Michigan State University Satish Udpa sits down with the State News Editorial Board at the State News office April 17, 2019. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

Members of The State News Editorial Board sat down with Michigan State Acting President Satish Udpa on April 17. Udpa was asked a wide range of questions about his tenure and current campus issues. Here are five takeaways from Udpa's interview.

Udpa took over following former Interim President John Engler's January resignation. In June, he will be replaced by a permanent university president.

MSU will not release privileged documents to the Attorney General's office

In a December 2018 update on the Michigan Attorney General's investigation into MSU, Special Prosecutor William Forsyth said the investigation was not over because many documents were yet to be released by the university. MSU claimed attorney-client privilege on thousands of documents and refused to hand them over.

In another update on the investigation into the university's handling of reports of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse in February, Attorney General Dana Nessel called upon the university to waive attorney-client privilege again. However, in a letter from Nessel to Chair of the Board of Trustees Dianne Byrum dated March 19, she wrote, "Our job is still incomplete because the university has failed to deliver on its promise of full cooperation."

Udpa spoke on how he has a "fiduciary responsibility" to the university and how releasing the documents would undermine the legal battle with insurance companies at a University Council meeting on March 26.

When questioned by The State News about how providing them would affect the outcome of a private legal manner, Udpa noted these are private discussions.

"Most of the documents are related to things like, ‘What is it that we need to do to get what I think is due to us from the insurance companies,'" Udpa said. "These are private discussions, and revealing that would adversely affect our ability to deal with these insurance companies. That’s what I’ve been told by our counsel, I trust them implicitly in this regard."

Addressing campus culture

At two previous Board of Trustees meetings, Udpa gave a formal apology to survivors. He said this was one of the ways the university was working toward helping the community heal from the Nassar scandal. 

"I’ve also had an opportunity to meet with some of the survivors and some of the parents, I’ve personally met with them, acknowledged the issues that we’ve had in the past," Udpa said.

He also discussed the progress on the creation of a new healing fund, replacing the one closed by Engler in December 2018. The fund — established to provide Nassar survivors with resources needed for counseling and mental health services — was reinstated by the board in January. 

"There’s been extensive discussions amongst the board; they are coming close to a resolution on the topic," Udpa said. "I don’t see us spending a whole lot of time."

The challenge of state funding

When asked about what some of the biggest challenges facing MSU were, Udpa brought up state support for funding.

"We would like that to increase over the next few years in order for all of us — all the higher education institutions — to do well," Udpa said. "That’s one thing, and that’s critically important for us to be able to hire quality faculty."

He said competing with other Big Ten universities, as well as "this additional issue of having to deal with the problems we’ve had the last several years on campus," has made receiving adequate state funding a challenge.

"But at the end of the day, we have to make the kinds of investments we need to make in order to keep this university competitive and among the top 100," Udpa said. "If I want to make sure the university is doing well the next five, 10, 15 years, we have to make significant investments now."

Increasing diversity on campus

Udpa said MSU is aiming to implement "a whole set of institutional priorities that mandate that we look at this issue very, very carefully."

When asked about what was being done to ensure diversity and inclusion on campus, Udpa discussed a current method.

Committees assembled to conduct searches within colleges require a faculty excellence advocate, or FEA, to be in charge of making sure implicit bias doesn't affect the search committee's ability to attract people from underrepresented groups, Udpa said.

When Udpa was the dean of the College of Engineering, he met with the FEA before and after an interview to "make sure that the process is clean."

"As a result of what we did, we increased the number of people from underrepresented groups," Udpa said.

When asked by The State News about what is being done to ensure students from marginalized groups are feeling comfortable and appreciated on campus, Udpa noted there are "a whole set of offices" that keep track of these students and "make sure that their experience is positive."

"In the unlikely event that they encounter something that’s not right, we have mechanisms for these people to report those facts to appropriate people in the system, and we will try to right them," Udpa said.

Making way for new leadership

Udpa said his proudest accomplishment during his time as acting president was "bringing the temperature down on this campus."

He said he was glad he was chosen for the role.

"I’ve grown here both as a human being and as a faculty member, and that’s partly due to what this university did for me," Udpa said. "I've seen my colleagues here, both in my department and the college do very well over the years. It's because I think this university has treated me well."

Once a permanent president is chosen in June, Udpa will go back to the Executive Vice President for Administration. As for the next president, Udpa said the one non-negotiable personal attribute they should have is integrity.

"Whatever we do, there are two actions that guide me. One is my love of the university, that’s critically important. We have to make sure that whatever we do is in the best interest of the university. The second thing is integrity," Udpa said. "I wouldn’t do anything that would make it difficult for me to sleep for the rest of my life. That is critically important. I think the rest of the things fall into place once those two things are in place."

A transcription of the The State News Editorial Board's interview with Udpa can be found here.

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