Saturday, November 28, 2020

2019-20 in review: The biggest stories from this year

April 23, 2020
Students walk in and out of Shaw Hall after MSU cancelled classes due to coronavirus March 11, 2020.
Students walk in and out of Shaw Hall after MSU cancelled classes due to coronavirus March 11, 2020. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

The 2019-20 academic year marks a time of uncharted territory for Michigan State and the surrounding East Lansing community. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it can be hard to recall what happened before the university-turned-statewide shutdown.

As the spring semester comes to an end, here is a recap of this year's biggest stories.

President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. begins his tenure

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After a year-long search for the next university president, Samuel L. Stanley Jr. began his tenure on Aug. 1, 2019. Stanley permanently replaced former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, who resigned in January 2018 amid allegations against the university's handling of former MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.

In an August interview with The State News, Stanley said his goals are to create a safer campus, establish a culture that’s more accountable, emphasize sexual assault prevention, promote sexual assault education and awareness, meet with survivors of sexual misconduct, restore trust in the university administration and be more inclusive and transparent.

MSU moves to flat-rate tuition

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MSU instituted flat-rate tuition last fall. This model means all undergraduate students taking between 12 and 18 credits are charged at the same rate.

This change was met with disapproval by MSU's Black Student Alliance, or BSA. Flat rates benefit those taking 15 to 18 credits, but it raises prices for those taking 12 to 14. BSA group members called on MSU to charge students for 12 credits instead of 15 to make the model more affordable for students.

For the 2020-21 school year, Stanley has moved to freeze tuition rates amid financial concerns due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Office of Civil Rights finds MSU in violation of Title IX

In September 2019, the U.S. Department for Education's Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, found that multiple MSU employees failed to respond to and prevent abuse from Nassar and former Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel.

Ultimately, the report determined that MSU violated Title IX regulations and required the university to pay a record $4.5 million fine.

Among employees listed were Simon and then-MSU Provost June Youatt. Youatt resigned a day later.

June Youatt resigns, MSU searches for its next provost

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Youatt resigned in September 2019 amid OCR’s report that MSU failed to comply with Title IX regulations.

The report pointed to multiple people, including Youatt, to be reviewed for not following the laws and policies at the time. Others under review included Simon, employees of the Office of General Counsel, former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages and the associate vice president for academic human resources.

In response, Stanley created an oversight committee for ensuring that MSU follows the steps outlined in agreements with the department and OCR.

In October, former president of the University of Virginia and MSU alumna Teresa Sullivan took office as interim provost and executive vice president of academic affairs. Sullivan will remain the interim provost until the end of the academic year.

The three finalists seeking to fill the provost position held virtual public forums this month. The candidates — Wanda Blanchett, Antonio Tillis and Teresa Woodruff — answered questions from the MSU community via Zoom.

Trustee Schlichting resigns, Renee Knake appointed

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In October 2019, MSU Trustee Nancy Schlichting resigned, citing MSU's failure to move forward with an independent investigation into Nassar's abuse. Schlichting had been appointed in December 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder to fill former Trustee George Perles' seat following his resignation.

In June 2019, the Board of Trustees announced the law firm McDermott, Will and Emery would conduct the independent investigation, but in the first meeting of the 2019-20 academic year, Board Chairperson Dianne Byrum said the investigation could not go forward due to a split vote among trustees.

In her resignation letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Schlichting wrote she could no longer serve on the board because of the decision.

In December, Whitmer appointed Renee Knake to fill the remainder of Schlichting's term, which ends in 2023.

In an interview with The State News, Knake said she wants "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."

Former head football coach, Trustee George Perles dies

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MSU alumnus George Perles died in January at 85. Perles was a former MSU football coach, athletic director and trustee.

Perles served 12 years on the MSU Board of Trustees and resigned in 2018, citing health reasons.

As a coach, Perles was described by his former assistant Mark Dantonio as exuding confidence, conviction and toughness. Perles led the Spartan football team for 12 seasons, bringing the Spartans to two Big Ten conference titles, seven post-season bowl appearances and a 1988 Rose Bowl victory, the first since 1956.

Perles served as the MSU athletic director for two years before resigning.

Mark Dantonio retires, Mel Tucker becomes new football coach

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Former MSU football coach Mark Dantonio announced his retirement in February. Dantonio led the Spartans to a 114-57 record during his tenure, the most wins of any MSU football coach.

Dantonio's resignation followed months of involvement in a lawsuit filed by former MSU football staffer Curtis Blackwell. The lawsuit alleged Dantonio pushed for the admission of then-recruit Auston Robertson, despite his history of sexual misconduct, and of dismissing warning signs from other staff members.

The lawsuit was dismissed last month.

Dantonio's position didn't remain empty for long. Mel Tucker, who was previously head football coach at the University of Colorado, became the Spartans' 25th football coach in the same month Dantonio announced his retirement. Tucker spent his first week as coach recruiting, making appearances at Spartan athletic games and assembling his staff.

Tucker promised to "bring the juice" to the MSU football program in a press conference on Feb. 24.

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Kathie Klages found guilty of lying to police, William Strampel released from jail early

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Ex-MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was found guilty of lying to police on Feb. 14. Klages' charges stem from her denying knowledge of Nassar's abuse prior to the 2016 MSU investigation.

Klages marks the second former MSU employee charged in connection to Nassar.

The other former MSU employee is Strampel, who was sentenced to one year in Ingham County Jail. His charges involve two counts of willful neglect in his role as Nassar's boss and a count of misconduct in office, a felony.

Strampel was released early from Ingham County Jail on March 23. Strampel was originally set to be released on April 3 on "sheriff's good time," but his release came two weeks earlier than scheduled. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Ingham County Jail released dozens of low-level offenders to reduce the risk of the disease spreading, but the Ingham County Sheriff's Office did not confirm in a statement whether this was the reason Strampel was released early.

Fall break approved for 2020-21 academic year

Last month, MSU approved a pilot fall break for all undergraduate students. The break will take place Oct. 26-27.

The university will remain open, and all planned activities will continue during the break. As for graduate students, their respective colleges will choose if classes will remain in session.

Several racist incidents occur on campus

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In October, two students in Bryan Hall reported a toilet paper noose hung on their door. The incident was initially described as a “Halloween prank" in an email from MSU Residence Education and Housing Services.

In the same month, a Sona survey distributed in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences included racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic slurs. 

Both incidents were followed by discussions hosted by BSA, the Associated Students of Michigan State University and the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. 

Racist incidents continued in February when a display of prominent African American figures was removed from the Wharton Center after complaints of its offensive presentation. The incident was featured on "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update" segment.

In response, the Wharton Center agreed to racial bias training with employees and volunteers that centered its attention on the difference between intentional and unintentional racial bias.

The 50th annual Spartan Stampede drew complaints after a rodeo clown performed a racist skit in February. The incident involved a rodeo clown taunting a Mexican caricature, calling him "Taco" and asked why he didn't go "back to the border."

The clown actor, a contractor for the show, was required to remove the language from all subsequent shows and MSU made the decision not to bring the actor back next year.

Also in February, a public forum with Stanley included racist comments in the online question submission platform. The Michigan State University Police Department, or MSUPD, reviewed the comments posted and determined it was not criminal.

East Lansing elects new council members, Biden takes Michigan in presidential primary

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With six candidates vying for three open city council seats, East Lansing voted in Jessy Gregg, Lisa Babcock and Mark Meadows — who held onto a seat by just two votes — in September. Following the election, Ruth Beier was named East Lansing's mayor and Aaron Stephens became mayor pro tem.

On March 10, East Lansing voters moved to increase funding for special education programs in the Ingham Intermediate School District, Ingham County parks and trails, Potter Park Zoo and mental health services for low-income residents. Additionally, voters approved the millage of CATA transportation services for 2021-25. Voters also approved the sale of city land to MSU Federal Credit Union. The land will be used to build a commercial office space.

Statewide, former Vice President Joe Biden won Michigan's Democratic primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

Spring semester ends abruptly due to COVID-19 pandemic

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When COVID-19 surfaced in Michigan, MSU students were met with total upheaval.

Plans to handle the coronavirus began in February, though students' worlds were turned upside down after Whitmer declared a state of emergency on March 10. The following day, MSU made the decision to transition to online instruction, which has been extended into the summer semester.

Following the announcement, MSU students packed East Lansing bars, despite university and Centers for Disease Control instruction. Later, the state implemented regulations on the number of people who could gather at once, and eventually closed bars and restaurants.

Cancellations and postponements soon spanned nearly every event that couldn't be transitioned to Zoom, including all spring athletics and graduation commencement ceremonies.

On March 23, Whitmer announced the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, which remains in effect until the end of April, pending extension.

Many students returned to their permanent addresses and those who could not return are being provided for on campus.

To compensate for the difficult transition to online instruction, MSU is offering satisfactory/not satisfactory grading. Under this option, students are able to choose on a class-by-class basis if their grades are reflected in the typical 4.0 system or through satisfactory/not satisfactory marks.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold into uncharted territory for the university, as well as the East Lansing community.

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