Prior to January 2021, the Michigan State Board of Trustees never had a female-dominated board. Now, six of the eight trustees are women, each with a diverse background.
This women’s history month, campus reporters Maddy Warren and Morgan Womack sat down with the women on the board to hear about their experiences serving in positions of power.
Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2016. Before her election, Byrum served as a state legislator in the house and senate for over a decade.
She also served as the Michigan House Democratic Leader, making her the first woman to lead a caucus in the state. In 2021, Crain’s Detroit Business named Byrum one of the most influential women in Michigan.
“I think my service on the board has been some of the most difficult and also rewarding service in my career,” Byrum said. “I came from many years as an elected official, so my adult career has been in public service.”
As a Michigan State alumna, Byrum said her service on the board is motivated by the ability to give back and ensure others have the same opportunities she did.
“Attending and graduating from Michigan State really changed the trajectory of my life,” Byrum said. “It created a lot of opportunities that opened a lot of doors for me that otherwise would not have been there had I not had that opportunity to go to Michigan State. So for me, it's giving back, making sure that those opportunities are still available for others to follow.”
Advice for women
Byrum said she always encourages women to take risks, including seeking positions of power.
“Take the risk, open the door and walk through it because you don't know where that path is going to go,” Byrum said. “Even if you're not successful, yet, you will be the beneficiary of having taken that risk, because new opportunities, new doors will open for you.”
Trustee Melanie Foster was first appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1991. She also previously served on the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees.
Foster transitioned into working for her family’s landscaping and farm business after her dad passed away when she was 15 years old. She grew the business into a commercial landscape contracting business, completing projects with places like Walt Disney World, FedEx and downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center.
“I was a bit of a trailblazer,” Foster said. “There weren’t many commercial landscape contracting firms that women ran, especially of the size of my company.”
As current chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, Foster feels her business background transferred well to her position.
“Being a business person who had to adhere to budgets (and) to bring in multimillion-dollar projects on time and within budget, make payroll, gave me a skillset, particularly, to chair the Budget and Finance Committee here,” Foster said.
Advice for women
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Foster said although society has made great strides with putting women in positions of power, there's still work to be done.
“Believe in yourself,” Foster said. “Network as much as you can. Never stop being inquisitive.”
RENEE KNAKE JEFFERSON
Renee Knake Jefferson was appointed to the board in 2019 to complete former Trustee Nancy Schlichting’s term after Schlichting resigned. Jefferson is a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center.
Prior to her time at the University of Houston, Jefferson spent over a decade at MSU, where she received tenure at the College of Law and taught at the Eli Broad College of Business and Honors College.
“I was a faculty member at Michigan State for a decade,” Jefferson said. “It's very different to be a part of Michigan State on this side of things, and so I've found that to be rewarding, especially when, as a trustee, I can sort of behind-the-scenes, ask questions or connect to people and make something happen. I call it like my trustee superpower.”
Serving on the board with incredible women is very inspiring, Jefferson said.
“I think something that's really special about our Board of Trustees that we have — not just that it's a majority of women, but that the women are all very diverse in our perspectives and our backgrounds and in terms of what led us to our place on the board,” Jefferson said. “We don't always agree and that's okay.”
Advice for women
Jefferson said women should put themselves out there for a new position or new role, regardless of whether they get it.
“You may or may not get it, but you want to make sure that you have learned something; that you come out on the other side better than before, that you're growing in that process,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson also advised women to not wait until they think they’re qualified for a position.
“Go get it and in doing it, you'll become qualified for it,” Jefferson said.
Brianna Scott was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2019. She founded the first African-American and female law firm in Muskegon in 2005. During her experience working in the Muskegon County prosecutor’s office, she worked on neglect, abuse and criminal sexual conduct cases.
Scott came onto the board when there was turmoil and turnover due to conflicts with the Larry Nassar investigation. She now serves as chair of the board’s Student Life and Culture Committee.
“I came in and it was like fire from the first meeting,” Scott said. “I'm just now feeling like things are settling down and that we're really getting into being able to not just react, but now be proactive in things that we can do to make the campus and our community safer, a better place for one and for all.”
Scott said having a majority-female board with Byrum as chair created a paradigm shift.
“As women, we really started to understand the power that we wield,” Scott said. “Also understanding that collectively, we all had a very common desire to make sure that women were heard, we were valued and that our feelings were not just put to the side.”
She said each of the female trustees hold different strengths and perspectives.
“None of us were the pushovers,” Scott said. “I think that kind of rocked the boat a little bit and people had to get used to the fact that women are coming in and we are demanding to be heard and to be respected.”
Advice for women
Scott advises women to follow their passions and use their talents to make a change.
“We're ushering in change, and with that, things will be uncomfortable,” Scott said. “But don't shy away just because you're rocking the boat or things are uncomfortable. That tends to be where you see the most effective change.”
Kelly Tebay was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2019. She is also a senior aide for the U.S. House of Representatives.
She was drawn to run for the board when MSU was dealing with the Nassar investigation.
“As leaders, this happened on (our) watch,” Tebay said. “That really upset me, watching an institution that I love so much go through this painful experience and the leadership really just not recognizing what they needed to do at the time.”
As a survivor of sexual assault herself, Tebay applies her personal experience to advocate for creating more resources for survivors and puts a focus on student health and wellness. She said having diverse representations of age, race and gender on the board can provide different perspectives.
“I wear my emotions on my sleeve and I find myself apologizing for it a lot, but I also feel like that is a perspective and a sort of uniqueness that (the board) hasn’t experienced,” Tebay said. “For many generations, that’s seen as a negative and I think that it can also be seen as a strength.”
Advice for women
Tebay said there is still a culture of women in positions of power not being listened to. She encourages other women to listen to their gut and continue to ask questions.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and question why things are done a certain way,” Tebay said. “Make sure you’re always keeping your eyes opened at opportunities as they come.”
Trustee Rema Vassar was elected in 2020 and has served on the board for just over a year. She is currently an associate professor in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University. Vassar also served in K-12 public education for over 20 years.
“Although we are in an institution of higher education, where patriarchy is still an issue, ... my colleagues are women who think intently about what it means to be a woman in these spaces,” Vassar said. “I haven't had any negative issues in terms of being a woman, I've only felt empowered.”
Advice for women
Vassar said she does not think of power in the traditional form, but rather, as a distributed, shared construct that allows for more voices to be heard.
“Women are not necessarily coming to get power, but they're coming to share power, which has not been normally what happens in these spaces,” Vassar said. “Getting other women into leadership roles is so critical.”
Vassar added there is still work to be done in terms of women serving in positions of leadership, and that society will have evolved when articles on Women’s History Month are not necessary.
“As long as there's been civilization, there's been women,” Vassar said. “There would not be civilization without women. So, the idea that we have to spotlight women means that we have so much work to do still.”
This story was in our March 29 print edition. Read the full issue here.
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