Q&A: The State News sits down with next MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr.
Samuel Stanley Jr. was unanimously approved as Michigan State's new, permanent president Tuesday morning by the Board of Trustees. Stanley will begin his term as president August 1, 2019.
He was Stony Brook University's president for nearly 10 years.
In an exclusive interview with The State News, Stanley discussed transparency, healing and moving forward, student success, diversity and inclusion and goals he has as MSU's next president.
What drew you to want to be MSU’s next president?
Well, Michigan State University is an incredible institution. It’s known around the world and it’s a place that has incredible impact. I think, when you look at the size and scope and scale of the university, there’s a great opportunity to do good, not just for individuals, but for families, communities, the region, the state and the nation. And the opportunity to work with an institution like that is extraordinary.
And then I think of all the things that are being done in terms of the history of the land grant. It’s the pioneer land grant institution, and that mission really matters to me: the idea of providing access for individuals to reach their full potential, and the concept of the university being a service to the public. That’s really exciting for me as well, being engaged with a public university with this kind of impact.
Some of the things that are happening in terms of student success really resonate with things I was working on at Stony Brook University. Some of the things that are being done in research and discoveries that change the world really resonate with me as well. The opportunities here are just incredible.
I’m very excited about it. Very excited about getting on campus, getting to know people, taking the time to listen and learn from individuals, to understand what’s important to them. And, of course, I know there are some challenges as well, and we’ll talk about those. But I’m very, very excited about the opportunities.
At the beginning of the presidential search, the presidential search committee held input sessions where community members could voice their opinions and give input on what they wanted the next president to be. One of the questions the search committee asked the community was what they think are some of the biggest challenges facing the university. What sort of challenges do you think MSU faces now?
One of them, obviously, is related to the events that took places associated with Nassar. I think it’s really important that we work on healing for the university as a whole. I think the present leadership has taken some very positive steps in moving in this direction, really working to make a safer campus and create a culture that’s more accountable and emphasizes prevention, and also education and awareness. All those things are critical in changing culture on campus. There have been some positive things happening there.
And then I think meeting with the survivors, that’s something I look forward to doing as soon as is reasonably possible. I really want to listen to them, I want to hear their voices, I want to hear their thoughts on these issues and understand what their thinking is on how far Michigan State has come and where the gaps are and where we still need to do more. So that’s going to be very important to me. And that is certainly one of the most important challenges.
Then, I think, restoring trust in the administration. I think there’s been concern about the accountability and responsibility that the administration is taking. And that’s something, obviously, that doesn’t happen right away. Trust is earned. And that’s a responsibility for me to make sure my words and actions are aligned, essentially. The things I say and do, as a university, we will do. And that’s a very strong commitment on my part, to make sure I’m doing that.
Finally, to be more inclusive and transparent. To be out there more. To make sure people know who the president is, what I stand for, what I’m interested in, what are the things I care about. And at the same time, learning what you care about as students, what the faculty and staff are concerned about and what the community and the region are concerned about. That kind of listening is going to guide what I do.
But I see the biggest challenge as making sure we’re really working toward that healing process and earning trust, because that’s going to inform everything. If we have a safe campus and we’re building more trust, then every other component of our mission is going to move forward in a much better way. I’m excited about the research, I’m excited about all the other things I’ve talked about like student success, but I want to make sure we have that safe campus that’s going to allow everyone to reach their full potential.
What do you consider to be the most important strengths and opportunities for the university?
I think the caliber of the people who work here. As you look at Michigan State University, what you see is an outstanding faculty, one of the best in the world. You see outstanding students. Again, I’m impressed by the student body and their success and the growing diversity of the student body as well. And then again, as I said before, the scope and scale — what you can do by being larger. It really gives you the opportunity to have a great impact.
So, I think it’s all about making sure we continue to pursue excellence, that — faculty, students, staff — this is our goal, to be excellent in what we do, and I think that’s happening in the campus, but something that is really important.
The other thing is just the critical, central role that Michigan State plays for the state, and one of the things I’m really excited about learning is the work in agriculture and the extension. It’s really important that the university, as I said before, is working the service of the public, so the ways in which the university does that. I’m intrigued by things like the arts program that they’re setting up, which is designed to really use the Michigan State Extension program to spread the arts throughout the state. That kind of thing really excites me, that creative thinking that is going on.
And then, of course, things like the (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams) and the scientists. I was a life scientist, but I'm still fascinated, I think like all of us are, by physics. The idea of being at the front end of critical discoveries in nuclear physics. Having one of the best nuclear physics departments in the country. And also having one of the best African history departments in the country. That kind of breadth of expertise and excellence really appeals to me.
But most of all, it’s going to be about the people, just to make that clear. It’s the human capital of the people on campus. The people who make a difference.
When reading the presidential prospectus and what the community outlined for what their ideal president would be, what were some things that stood out to you?
I think the ability to, again, reach out to people and to be visible from the student letter, I was very impressed by the letter that came from the Associated Students of Michigan State University, and how it talked about what they believed the next president should be. I think one of the things that really resonated with me, and I won’t quote it perfectly, was their idea that I will be a part of a very strong Spartan community.
The president, while they may be responsible for helping lead that community, also needs to be an integral part of that community. That really resonated with me and I’m really interested, essentially, in playing that role and being visible and being part of the community. I actually plan to live on campus, so (people) will be able to drive by my house, walk by my house and see me, although maybe not through the walls. I think that kind of accessibility is important. I think the fact that this is something that campus wants really resonated with me.
And then I think experience, at least, is something I could check that box pretty well, having the chance to manage a school, work with a school for 10 years. I think people need to bring that expertise in, and bring maybe a little different perspective on things, but one I would hope will be helpful to the university.
And I think, again, the ability to focus on diversity and inclusion. That’s been a really important part of my presidency at Stony Brook. We’ve worked really hard to improve diversity on campus, to be a more inclusive campus, and to be a more welcoming campus. And we’ve also pushed very hard for gender equity. That’s been something that I’ve done both on the national and international level. I’ve been involved in a big project for UN Women, involved in pushing gender equity but also involved in getting men who are active in helping foster gender equity. It’s called the HeForShe program, I was in one of two U.S. universities — one was Georgetown, the other was Stony Brook — that were leading the U.S. contingent for UN Women on this. These are the kinds of things that were in the prospectus that excite me, the things that they were looking for in a president, and I can’t wait to get started.
Can you talk a little bit about HeForShe and some of the things that you were previously involved in? When talking to community members, support for sexual assault survivors and addressing the culture on campus seemed to be some of the most important issues for them.
It’s a really broad question and there’s many components to it, obviously, but I think in terms of survivors, and in terms of issues around sexual assault, working on Title IX, working on a response to that problem has been a critical part of what I’ve been doing really since I’ve been at Stony Brook. We’ve done a number of the same things, actually that MSU has done, in terms of expanding access, in terms of working to simplify reporting, so that there’s one source people can come through, and trying to find ways to make sure that you are as absolutely supportive as possible to those who do come through. And then setting the policies and procedures that really clearly lay out what’s going to happen if somebody makes a report, and make sure that we follow up and give everybody the attention and the response that they need when something like this happens.
We have a hospital right across the street from the campus at Stony Brook, so that’s been helpful for us in dealing with issues around immediacy after a sexual assault, for example, to make that simpler for people, again, to come forward while protecting confidentiality. All that has been, I said it basically in a Title IX working group, which I met with on a very regular basis, just to understand where we stood, how we were doing and also to make sure that there was the ability to respond. So, if things were changing, both within our campus and externally, what was happening in the law, what was changing, to make sure that we were doing the right thing for everybody on campus.
Another thing, I think, that’s been very important in that realm has been our work to educate the campus. Very similar to MSU, we've developed a number of programs to educate faculty, staff and students in this area, so we now have mandatory training for students, we have both online, but we also have an orientation when they arrive, in-person training sessions. We’ve done the same for faculty, we’ve mandated online training for faculty but also in-person, so we’ve had some very large in-person training for faculty. It’s part of a culture change, to really get people to think about this more and to think about their actions and what they’re doing. And the same approach has been useful for diversity and inclusion as well, if you’ve thought about things related to challenges we have in that area.
I could go on and on, there’s a lot more to talk about. We’ve developed a very comprehensive diversity and inclusion plan at Stony Brook and that’s something that I want to bring to MSU. I think it’s very beneficial to the campus to understand what the current issues are and how we’re going to approach them, and really lay that out in a concrete way, and that takes place on our website, if you take a look at that.
The university has faced a lot of challenges in the past few years, and you talked about having an outside perspective. What was your perspective, looking at the news surrounding the university?
Obviously, I was horrified at what had happened in terms of the activities of Nassar, and particularly as a physician, knowing the trust people put in you, when that trust is betrayed, the extent of the injury goes beyond anything I could imagine. Again, one of the things that is important to me is going to be to listen to the survivors. Being away from that experience, hearing their voices, I think, will help me understand this issue better, and that’s why it’s so important.
But what I saw was a campus that had a crisis, that was working to try to help people deal with something this horrific and difficult to deal with and understanding the trauma. I really admire the courage of those who came forward and how difficult that must be. I appreciate that fact, and when we talk, I hope they’re willing to tell those stories again, as difficult as it must be.
I saw that, and I also saw a university that is a great university that wants to continue to do the amazing things it does, in terms of student education. So I saw the complexity of that, and I think that was a challenge, but I think there’s been a lot of progress made, from my view. Particularly things like the apology made to the survivors, things that are, hopefully, helping things heal. And I think that’s a process that has to continue.
Students, faculty, survivors and other members of the MSU community have, throughout the presidential search, raised concerns about the search being closed to the public. What would you say to those who have lost trust in MSU’s leadership?
So two questions: one, about the search. This is a search I entered, basically, so it’s difficult for me to make a comment about whether it was a good search or a bad search. I think Dianne (Byrum) may be the right person to talk to about why the search was done the way it was. But I was very pleased to be a part of it, and frankly, was very impressed by the presidential search committee, the people on it. They represented their constituencies incredibly well, they asked penetrating and difficult questions — I was there, so I know — and I think, they really, as I said before, they were putting aside everything else to find the best person for MSU.
So in terms of what I would say to people who lost trust, I would say, 'give me the opportunity to get to know the campus. Give me the opportunity to meet with you and listen to you and understand the issues on campus. And then, when I promise to do things or say I’m going to do things, do I deliver on that? When I have tough decisions, do I make sure that I’ve talked to people and understand the issues before I make those decisions? Do I do them in the most inclusive way I possibly can for the university?' Those are the things I’d like to be judged by.
I think that there’s probably nothing more important than personal integrity. As I said before, I’m honest, and when I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it. And when I tell people, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that,’ I have a reason and an explanation why the university should not move in that direction. They should expect that from me.
What are some of the goals you have as president?
I think, again, the things that are important to me are student success and well-being. I think, again, MSU has made really good progress in that area. At Stony Brook, we made progress when I was there as well. Great team, great people working there. We were able to eliminate the gaps between black and white students in graduation rates, eliminate the gaps between white and Hispanic students with graduation rates and we eliminated the gaps between Pell (Grant) eligible students and non-Pell students with graduation rates.
I’d like to bring some of those approaches to MSU. Again, it’s a different student body and different demographics, so not everything is going to be achievable right away, but I think the fact that we were able to do it at Stony Brook tells me these things are possible and can be done, and I’m excited about developing the abilities to do this on campus.
I’m also, again, really impressed by what’s happening in sponsoring research. So Michigan State is now well over $600 million, closer to $700 million — that’s very impressive, puts you in the top 30 or so. I’m not satisfied, and I’d like to grow that further. I think there’s an opportunity to have an even greater impact, and I’m particularly excited about the number of programs that are coming here. I think we’ll be able to do even more, particularly on the biomedical research side. That’s my background. I think there’s a possibility of growing that, too.
And, as I talked about, diversity and inclusion. Taking a look at our student body and making sure we do the best we can to represent this region and the areas around this. Making sure we’re providing access to individuals and helping them succeed. Again, all of this is in the context of working to earn the trust of the campus and working with the campus, and learning from the campus at the same time.
You’ll start August 1. What will you be doing in the meantime?
I still owe Stony Brook some time, so I’m excited about helping them transition. I think this next month, I’ll certainly be in touch with MSU, but I’ll also be helping Stony Brook in transition. Having been there for 10 years, I have an incredible affection for the institution and I want to see it continue on a great trajectory.
I’ll keep following and reading. I got an incredible briefing book from the presidential search committee that I went through and read, I haven’t memorized all of it, nor do I think I’ll be able to. There’s a lot to learn and I’ll continue to think about what kinds of things to do in the first 100 days after I arrive. I can promise you there will be meetings with students, there will be meetings with survivors, there will be meetings with campus leadership from a number of areas.
You’ve been in leadership positions within higher education before. During your career, what would you say are your biggest accomplishments?
I appreciate you asking that question. I think we talked about some of them already — I think, the ability to take Stony Brook, essentially, around 30 spaces up in the U.S. News and World Report. I don’t always care about rankings, but the reason we rose was an important one. We rose because we increased our graduation rates at a very fast rate, and we rose because they had a new scale for impact and social mobility at Stony Brook.
Stony Brook is one of the top schools in the country for economic and social mobility. In other words, the ability to take students and their families from the bottom 20% of income and take them to the top 20% of income. I’m really proud we were able to accomplish that.
I’m also proud of what we did with sponsored research. We had significant increases in that area. And I’ll just point out two more things. One, again, the commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity, which had not been a prominent component of the campus, and we really worked hard to make it top of line for everyone on the campus. And the last is in our medical and health services. We really grew that tremendously. Maybe not quite doubled, but a very large increase. We’re talking, going from a city with a little less than a $1 billion operation to one that’s in excess of $1.6 billion now, so we put in about $600 million there. It’s not about money, it’s about growing an enterprise to provide more and better services to the region.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Madison O'Connor and Mila Murray also contributed to this story.