When Katherine “Cookie” Rifiotis was asked last year to be the only undergraduate student on the 18-person committee to select Michigan State University's 21st president, she admits she was a little nervous.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, this is going to be a hefty one,’” the then-president of the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) said.
The process of selecting a new president after the resignation of Lou Anna K. Simon lasted over a year, encompassed dozens of listening sessions with different student groups and countless meetings of the search committee. Eventually, the search committee settled on Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr., the current president of Stony Brook University, who will begin his term August 1.
Rifiotis — the youngest member of the search committee by nearly ten years — said she knew the pressure was on her to represent the most important part of the MSU community: the students.
“The first community you’re serving is the students," she said. "Otherwise, this would just be a think tank with research and scholars."
She took it upon herself to hold additional input sessions with every college at the university in an attempt to have student-only conversations that were free from the limelight of the official listening sessions held by the committee.
“The amount of conversations I had with other students really equipped me to explain,” she said.
Rifiotis pointed to a conversation she had early on in the process with members of the James Madison College Student Senate. A member of the Senate asked her how her own personal views about what would make an ideal president differed from those of the student body.
“I have one very specific job, which is to convey the efforts and the voice of the students, and I had to take that voice as my own,” Rifiotis said. “I couldn’t have two parallel things going on. So, I was never one to say, ‘Well, my personal opinion is X, but their opinion on this is Y.’ I knew I couldn’t take that hat on and off, so I just kept it on the whole time.”
The search committee published a prospectus early on in the process, detailing the qualities and experiences they desired in the next president. Trustee Dianne Byrum, co-chair of the search, said Rifiotis and graduate student representative Greg Spray were huge parts of putting that prospectus together.
“They critiqued the prospectus to make sure it had a student voice in there, and whenever we had interactions with candidates, they made sure that questions were asked that really got to the essence of what a student focus means,” Byrum said.
Rifiotis, who already had a full-time job as president of ASMSU in addition to finishing her degree in international relations, said she spent much of her free time reading up on information candidates may ask for.
This resulted in some awkward moments in class, she said.
“I remember going to class and saying, ‘It’s not like I didn’t do the readings, I just didn’t read for your class,’” she said.
The members of the search committee were not at liberty to disclose how many candidates they interviewed or applications they received, but Rifiotis said every candidate had specific questions for her and Spray as the student representatives. When it came time to discuss the merits of interviewed candidates, she took a leadership role.
“To some extent, because I was the only undergraduate student, they would defer to me constantly,” Rifiotis said. “I felt at some times I was a little bit overbearing, but at the same time I was like they’re giving me the floor, I might as well take this opportunity and do the best I can do.”
When the committee did settle on Stanley, Rifiotis said she was thrilled.
“He truly grasps what it means to foster accountability and work to earn the trust of a community, understanding that integrity and other institutional values must emanate from the top,” Rifiotis said on May 28, the day the Trustees announced that Stanley was going to be MSU's next president. “When he was asked to outline his vision for MSU, Dr. Stanley’s first point was focusing on the healing that this community will undergo. He aims to do that through listening, being a present and accessible leader. I look forward to seeing the community embrace him and his leadership style.”