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President Stanley talks COVID-19, campus culture, leadership changes with The State News

April 6, 2020
<p>Doctor Samuel Stanley Jr. interviews with The State News at the Hannah Administration Building on May 28, 2019. </p>

Doctor Samuel Stanley Jr. interviews with The State News at the Hannah Administration Building on May 28, 2019.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

Michigan State President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. met with The State News Editorial Board via Zoom on April 2. He was asked a wide range of questions about his first year at MSU, the university's response to the COVID-19 outbreak and other campus issues.

Stanley began his term as MSU's 21st president before the start of the 2019-20 academic year, following a year-long search process. He permanently replaced former President Lou Anna K. Simon, who resigned in January 2018 amid fallout from the Larry Nassar cases.

Now, Stanley is running the university from his home at Cowles House on MSU's campus.

"I'm very aware that for students, faculty and staff, this is a very, very stressful and trying time," Stanley said. "But I'm amazed at the job people are doing. It's really amazing to me how faculty stepped up on very short notice, as you're all aware, to begin the transition to remote teaching ... I'm incredibly impressed by what the students have done, and the patience, really, that you've had."

Providing for the community amid COVID-19 pandemic

Stanley is a former medical doctor, and his wife, Ellen Li, is currently working in one of the hospitals in New York that Stanley said is "most under pressure." He said his medical background has helped him better understand COVID-19, and that the university's response to the outbreak is what he's most proud of from his first year at MSU.

"Sometimes, this really is what tests people and tests an institution — essentially, how they respond," Stanley said. "I'm so proud of the students. And I look not just at what we're doing in terms of continuing teaching, continuing the normal functions of the university, but what we've been doing to reach out to the community as well."

He discussed how the university has helped students during this time, from providing housing for international students who are unable to return home to providing employment opportunities and financial assistance to students who have lost their jobs.

"There will be money coming from the new stimulus package that was passed, there will be money coming to the university," Stanley said. "We haven't gotten a check yet, but the estimate would be, there'll be about $17 million that would be targeted toward students to help students who are in financial need. ... But again, I think we want to work with students to find creative ways that we can help them work and stay employed."

Stanley said the College of Human Medicine, College of Osteopathic Medicine and College of Nursing are working with Sparrow Hospital in Lansing and plan to help if there's an overflow. Some MSU health care students have also received their degrees early so they can help the community immediately.

"We've offered the Breslin (Center), we've offered the Pavilion, we've offered our dormitories, we've offered the Kellogg Center — we've offered anything that we think would be helpful in this to the state as they respond to this," Stanley said.

Stanley mentioned that postponing commencement for MSU seniors was a difficult decision to make, and that he plans to eventually hold a ceremony.

"I am committed to having an event where we celebrate your completion of your Spartan journey — absolutely committed to that," he said. "Whether that's done in the wintertime in December, whether that's done next May or April ... I'm committed to doing it."

Changing leadership and addressing campus culture

When Stanley was selected as the president in May 2019, he emphasized his role as a listener. Last semester, he met with sexual assault survivors in order to hear their concerns and ideas for improvements. He was asked about the effect of these conversations on his leadership.

"They were very beneficial to me, there were some things I learned — in a very broad sense — about the extraordinary sense of betrayal that people had, the feeling that the administration had really turned a deaf ear to them, not listening to their complaints," Stanley said. "They hadn't been listened to, they hadn't been paid attention to."

His conversations with survivors led him to realize there was concern about some of the regulations "that have been put into place by the university to try and make things better," such as mandatory reporting.

"That was something that I hadn't realized. My initial impression had been the more mandatory reporting that was there, the better we would be and the safer we'd be on campus," Stanley said. "That helped me realize that for some individuals, it was really taking away their sense of their control over the situation — not giving them the opportunity to talk to someone and think about what they wanted to do to move forward."

Stanley said improvements to the healing fund established for survivors of Nassar's abuse have been implemented recently as a result of these meetings, which include reimbursing additional mental health services.

When asked about his role in restoring trust in the administration, Stanley brought up some changes in leadership that were made during his tenure.

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"I do think that one of the things we've done is really changed the personnel in those offices," Stanley said. "So bringing in Tanya Jachimiak to lead the office that's involved in Title IX essentially, and to be the single point of contact for all those issues around the university."

One of the first things Stanley did when he became president was restructure the College of Osteopathic Medicine, College of Human Medicine and College of Nursing. When asked about how this contributed to establishing more accountability at the university, he said they wanted to make sure every entity that deals with patients had the "same high-level of requirements in terms of compliance and safety."

"In terms of things like chaperones, in terms of things like people entering rooms and whether you are alone with a patient — all this guidance that we had, both from the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Health and Human Services," Stanley said. "We were implementing all these things and doing it the same across the board, and making sure, then, that those deans were accountable in making sure that their colleges were successful in doing this."

In addition to navigating the impact of COVID-19, another challenge Stanley said the university is facing right now is selecting a new provost, as former Provost June Youatt resigned in September 2019. He also commented on the ongoing provost search, and said he's looking for someone who's ready for the "scope and scale of Michigan State."

"I'm looking for someone who's an expert, who really has that experience and in high-level administration, because this is a huge job," Stanley said. "I'm interested in someone who understands excellence, who's been at places, I certainly would be looking for somebody from an (Association of American Universities) institution, because I think those are our peers. Those are the top 65 research universities in the country."

When asked about the 6,000-plus documents the Attorney General's office still needs in order to continue their investigation into MSU's handling of reports of Nassar's abuse, Stanley said the Board of Trustees have been consistent with choosing not to waive attorney-client privilege on those documents.

Responding to diversity, equity and inclusion concerns

Several racist incidents occurred on campus during Stanley's first year at MSU, including a display in the Wharton Center’s gift shop depicting current and historical black figures hanging from trees and a toilet paper noose taped to the dorm room door of two black students.

Stanley said although they didn't respond as quickly as some would have liked, he hopes the university responded well and said its goal "has always been to identify behavior like this that we don't find acceptable on campus."

"I think some of the things that happened on campus were because people were really ignorant about issues, they really didn't understand the cultural context in which they were dealing," Stanley said. "And that's hard to imagine, I'm sure for some of us, but I think it's true. So that's why I think education is so important."

Stanley said the university is working to develop mandatory education for all students, faculty and staff online and eventually in-person that would be similar to the mandatory Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct training. He said they're pushing to have something ready in the fall.

Diversity, equity and inclusion was another major challenge Stanley said MSU is currently facing, and he hopes the importance of addressing this issue won't be put on the back burner amid COVID-19.

"(It) continues to be important. We had a search on for a chief diversity officer to help lead that, (but) those things have been postponed, so I'm concerned about that, and I'm concerned in general that those things aren't lost sight of during the crisis we face now," Stanley said. "So those are some of the things that I'm thinking about, but mostly, I'm thinking about the safety of everybody. ... As difficult as this is, we will get through this. We'll get through this as an institution, we'll get through this as a state, we will get through it."


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