The State News Editorial Board sat down with Acting President Satish Udpa on April 17. This is a transcript of the interview. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What do you want to accomplish as acting president before the permanent president is established?
I want to do everything I can to try and right the ship and bring some confidence to campus to make sure we are ready for the next president to come in and take over. I want to make his or her job as easy as possible because at the end of the day, we want that person to focus on things that are important. That’s the goal.
On March 26, you presented concerns about dispensaries near campus at an East Lansing City Council Meeting. What is the future of cooperation between MSU and the City of East Lansing and what issues necessitate such a partnership?
It’s quite important that we have a great common-ground relationship. It’s critically important, at the end of the day, for the city and the university to get along really well. My concerns rose from the time where we have a situation where we are likely to have a dispensary that’s very very close to campus. Given the fact that the dispensary is going to be so close to the main street where traffic is very high, students go back and forth in the street, that raises many concerns, so I communicated that to the city. Hopefully, they’ll do the right thing. But, it’s critically important that we have a solid common-ground relationship that we do everything we can to get along with the city.
Former president Engler, through the Attorney General, said he wouldn’t speak about the investigation until the current AG recused herself from the investigation. What are your thoughts on how Engler has communicated with the AG’s office thus far and what can the university do to compel him to appear in front of the AG? I know that Chair Byrum sent a letter April 9th I believe, but I was wondering what mechanisms the university has to compel him.
We have very limited means actually because he’s following the advice of his counsel. He’s following the advice of his counsel, but we are urging him to cooperate with the AG. Aside from that, I don’t know what else we can do.
Patrick Fitzgerald was hired by the university to conduct an internal review of the University’s response to Larry Nassar. Why haven’t any of his findings been released?
Well, that was done at the advice of our counsel, and we will respect the advice of our counsel.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released some new Title IX rules, specifically regarding sexual assault. How do you feel these are going to change things at Michigan State?
Well, we are preparing for that. One of the things that we have decided to do is to set up all the mechanisms that are required that are needed for administering the new set of rules. For better or worse they came and set up recommendations. It’s important that we follow the law. ... We have retained a judge to cover the first six cases. Then we are going to be going to the State to hash those out with the rest of the cases after that.
What are you doing to help the community heal and come to terms with the Larry Nassar scandal?
There are several things that we’ve done. One of them is that I have apologized now, twice, publicly. 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. We’ve also encouraged the board to reinstate the healing fund, and they are in the process of doing that now. It’s very close to being completed. But in the interim, we are also encouraging people to sort of use the old fund to take care of their needs.
Do you have a better timeline on when the healing fund will be reinstated?
We will get it done shortly. There’s been extensive discussions amongst the board; they are coming close to a resolution on the topic. I don’t see us spending a whole lot of time.
What’s the one non-negotiable personal attribute that the future president of MSU should have?
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. 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.
You mentioned the financial stress the university is under, are there any concerns about departments or programs or funding to different academic things being cut?
We have so far tried to insulate the programs, and I’d like to continue to do that. That’s the priority because you want all the colleges, all the programs to stay healthy, which means we will try to do everything we can to keep things that way.
If it does come down to something needing to be cut, how will the university determine who loses funding first?
Our governance process allows us. We have a number of processes that we can rely on to have a discussion among faculty and staff and administration to see what we need to do. But I don’t want us to get there. Right now we can manage, and I want to keep things that way. That’s important to me, and I suspect it’s going to be important to my successor too.
If in the scenario which the university loses the court battle with the insurance companies that they’re currently trying to get to cover the legal expenses, what additional stress might that place financially on the university?
We are going to follow the premise that we will get something. I’m not sure what we will get, but we will get something.
You were speaking to critics about the university’s refusal to provide privileged documents to the AG’s office, and you and others involved have spoken about the fiduciary responsibility to the university and how the documents would undermine the legal battle with insurance companies. How would the documents being sent to the attorney general affect the outcome of a private legal matter?
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.’ These are private discussions, and revealing that would adversely affect our ability to deal with these insurance companies. And that’s what I’ve been told by our counsel, I trust them implicitly in this regard.
What’s being done to ensure diversity and inclusion at MSU?
We want a whole set of institutional priorities that mandate that we look at this issue very, very carefully. For example, in each of the searches that goes on in a college, search committees have a person explicitly identifying to make sure that things like implicit bias and other things that most affect our ability to attract people from underrepresented groups. We have a representative — that person is called the faculty excellence advocate, FEA. The goal is to have these FEAs in each of the faculty searches to make sure that the process is clean, the process does not suffer from the bias of any one individual in the search committee. When I was the dean of the College of Engineering, I met with the faculty excellence advocate both before the interview as well as after the 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.
We do offer a whole bunch of financial incentives. We reach out to schools, for example, in communities from underrepresented communities to see if we can recruit students. We do a number of things to bring some balance into our demographics, because it’s the right thing to do, A. B, it improves the quality of education and it has a positive bearing on everything in so many ways. I’m committed to making this campus as diverse as we can possibly make it.
When a senior graduates and they were part of a marginalized community, what do you think sets their experiences at MSU apart from any other university they would’ve attended?
We have — if you look at the demographics of our student body — we have a lot of proportion of students from underrepresented groups than just about any Big Ten university. Even if you look at the remaining universities, we have a lot of representation numbers, if you will, look very good. There is strength in numbers, and the experience that they gain here is so empowering, so empowering, because we have a number of offices on campus that help support them. I’m reasonably certain that when it comes to our graduates, he or she walks out with assets that they are not likely to get in many other institutions.
Once diverse students are recruited to the university, what’s being done to make sure that they feel comfortable, engaged and appreciated on campus during their time as students here?
We have a whole set of offices, again, that keep track of these students, 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.
Overall right now, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges MSU is facing right now?
(Firstly,) State support. 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. That’s one thing, and that’s critically important for us to be able to hire quality faculty. We live in a very rough neighborhood, because the Big Ten programs are all very good, and so we’re competing with people who are excellent. We want to make sure we are able to attract the best and brightest, both in terms of students and faculty, that is critically important.
Of course, we have to deal with this additional issue of having to deal with the problems we’ve had the last several years on campus, that’s a big 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. And if I want to make sure the university is doing well the next five, 10, 15 years, we have to make significant investments now. You saw what happened seven or eight years ago, we decided to compete for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. That brought in a $740 million investment that will serve this university for many, many years. We are competing for similar projects, all of which requires us to make some investments in order to get those projects. We have to do those in order to make sure that the value of the degree that students get keep on increasing in the years to come.
What's your proudest accomplishment so far for your time as acting president?
I'd like to think that we’ve brought the temperature down on this campus. That's important.
I'd also like to make, you know, we've also made some investments, again, in support of what I said just now — quietly, but effectively hopefully. So these things are happening, the pace of activity on this campus has not slowed down, our research expenditures are fine.
What inspired you to accept the acting president role?
I’ve been at two other universities, and I look back and this university has gone out of its way — treated me and my wife so fairly and so equitably. 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. 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.
I think anybody on that fourth floor of the administration building would have gladly accepted this as well. So I'm glad they chose me.
Your position has a hard end date. What's next for you after a new president is appointed?
I go back to my old position. I continue to hold that position as we speak, so I’ll go back to that position and continue to do the things that I’ve been doing for the last six years.
The MSU museum opened their exhibit in support of survivors April 16. What does that mean to you and to the community as a whole?
One of the things I was truly sorry about — unhappy about — was my inability to be there at the event. I was in Washington at a meeting and by the time I returned it was already over so I couldn't join them. But you know, I recorded a message for them, and expressed my sorrow for not being there. You know, this is this is a step that needed to be taken. I'm glad much of the work inside the museum was done by the survivors. It is part of the healing process. You ask me, what is it that you're doing to right this ship? This is one of the things that needed to take place in order for us to do the right thing to convince the survivors that we are interested in their welfare, it's part of the process that you're committed to pursuing.
Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude this?
I said about a year ago, a year and a half ago, this university has been responsible for the past 160 years in building a mountain of hope. We have to keep doing that. It is vitally important not only from the point of view of our citizens, but it is vitally important from a global perspective. Our reach is not just Michigan or the United States. We are everywhere. And when I travel abroad and meet with alumni, I realize the impact that we have had on this entire world. I’d like people to think that that will continue for the next 1,600 years or more. It is vitally important that we do it. And I want this university to stay committed to that goal, that we are a force for good and we need to stay that way.