Q&A with newly-appointed MSU Board of Trustees member Renee Knake
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Renee Knake as a new member of the MSU Board of Trustees after trustee Nancy Schlichting resigned. As a new trustee, Knake said she hopes to advocate for survivors and increase transparency and accountability among board members.
What did Governor Gretchen Whitmer say when she told you that you were the nominee?
Well, she asked me if I would be willing to serve on the Board of Trustees, and she told me that it was important to her to have someone who was independent and could bring in a perspective like mine, that is grounded in my work as a legal ethics scholar and also as someone who focuses my research and scholarship on promoting diversity within organizations. ... That is part of why she was reaching out to me, is because she felt that I would be someone who would listen to survivors, given the situation that Michigan State finds itself in, and would be someone who would take their concerns seriously.
Your background is based in not just legal studies, but legal reform and innovation. How do you plan to use your influence in innovating MSU's legal strategy in cases surrounding employees and administration officials?
I would say that my background, both in terms of being a lawyer and having practiced law, and now being an academic who studies, legal ethics, and also reform to systems, that are all of that background will certainly inform the way I approach this role. I think that one of the main focuses of my work as a scholar is to look at existing structures and, whether it's a particular legal ethics rule, or it's a policy in an institution, to ask if it's working the way it should.
So, sometimes there may be, in the way we regulate lawyers, that those lawyers, those rules are there in place to protect clients, but sometimes they don't protect the clients. So what I have done as a scholar is asked, 'okay, what can we do to reform the rules so that it actually accomplishes the purpose for which it exists.' And that's the same sort of perspective that I would bring to any organization and at Michigan State at a time where the university needs to be examining its institutional policies and positions and decision-making.
That would certainly inform the way I approach it. And to be a little bit more concrete, I can tell you that I value accountability, I value transparency and again, making sure that, whether it's laws or rules that are external or internal to an organization's policies that are in place, that they are actually serving those goals: accountability and transparency. In the very specific case of Michigan State, making sure that it is a university that is safe for the students and the staff and the alumni and anyone who comes to the campus.
How do you plan to deal with conflicts within the Board of Trustees?
So I come to this Board of Trustees with no prior relationship with any of the members. It's difficult for me to tell you in any specific way how I would act with them since I have not interacted with them in a personal or professional setting yet. But I can say generally, my approach any time I am entering a new environment is to do a lot of listening and of course, also ask questions, and part of asking questions is informed by the things I just talked to you about, wanting to make sure that an institution's policies are actually effectuating what it is championing and promising.
So, that's the approach I would bring, and as for particular conflicts or frustrations with the prior trustee who resigned, I don't know enough details about — I only know what we've all read publicly, so I just don't know enough details to know what led to those tensions for her, and that's something you'd have to talk to her directly about. But again, for me, the place I will begin is by doing a lot of listening, asking questions, and working together with the other trustees to make sure that Michigan State's campus is a safe place for the students, the staff, the faculty or anyone who is on the campus.
In a tweet from April, you criticized the escape hatch for judges who resigned and avoid consequences for sexual misconduct, saying “policies like this are why we see institutions that have allowed abuses to continue for years, even decades.” What specific policies need to change at MSU and how?
I have not been in the role yet of trustee to examine and see the policies that have existed, but I do know enough from the outside looking in, of what's publicly available, to know that the institutional policies that existed over the decades where these survivors endured horrible abuse cannot remain, because those, you know, the internal reporting structure was obviously not working as it should to protect them.
I would want to see changes made to encourage a culture of transparency and accountability, where survivors are taken seriously and heard. When survivors come forward, they are brave, and they need to feel that they can come forward. It also needs to be an environment where there's due process for all individuals involved.
The Board of Trustees has been criticized for their responses to revelations of Larry Nassar’s abuse. How will you respond to these statements when you're on the board?
I think it's so important as a member of the board to take very seriously the concerns of survivors, and part of doing that is what's said publicly, and for me, what you will hear from me is what you've heard on this call. That I want to hear from survivors, I think that we need to take their voices very seriously.
It's important, you know, if they are willing to come forward and speak publicly about what they've endured, we need to take it seriously for that reason, but it also needs to be taken seriously because hearing from them and learning from them is ultimately what can help guide and inform institutional reform to make sure — hopefully to prevent — something like this from ever happening again, but certainly ensuring that there are open channels of communication for individuals who are reporting about — when there's an issue like this or any sort of misconduct or wrongdoing, and so that’s what you will hear from me as a trustee over and over again.
I want to be there to listen to anyone who is ready to focus on how to bring increased accountability and transparency to ensure that this campus is safe for students, for faculty or staff or for anyone who is there.