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Stanley says long-term interference, dysfunctional MSU board was cause of his departure

November 3, 2022
<p>Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. answers a question during an interview with The State News on Nov. 3, 2022.</p>

Michigan State University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. answers a question during an interview with The State News on Nov. 3, 2022.

President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. has been at odds with the Board of Trustees for months.

Prior to his resignation on Oct. 13, he received a request from the board to renegotiate a new contract, which he called “a surprise.”

“I felt the work at the university was going extraordinarily well,” Stanley said. “I still had work to do for the university.”

Aside from brief comments to the Faculty Senate and limited opportunities to share information with the MSU community, Stanley hasn’t been able to weigh in on the turmoil in depth. 

In an exclusive interview with The State News, Stanley revealed what it was like to work with board members who were often in conflict with each other, often interfering with his role.

Stanley said the power of the presidency was called into question. Day-to-day operations, administrative decisions like mandating vaccines, and more, he said, were his responsibility to maintain. 

“The board always has the ability if they’re unhappy with me to do what they may have tried to do, which is fire me,” Stanley said. “They always have that ability to do that. But while I’m running the institution, I have to be responsible for the health and safety and well-being, I can’t say that’s the board’s job to do that. That’s my job to do it and take care of it.” 

Stanley’s relationship with the board

Stanley boiled down the cause of the trustees’ request to renegotiate his contract and his resignation to the board's interference with administrative matters. 

He listed examples:

The board and administration disagree on whether this investigation interferes with MSU’s own investigation into the business dean. After receiving a letter from the president and provost criticizing its investigation of the dean, the board defended its investigation in a letter from “the majority” of board members.

“We know the board has a lot of power, but the question is, should the board use that power and when should it use that power?” Stanley said. “These cases, I think, were examples where the administration was making important decisions, holding people accountable.”

Not all of these responsibilities are feasible for a president to maintain solely, but that’s why Stanley delegates to various university leaders and sets up a hierarchy for the university to operate.

At the last Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Brianna Scott referred to Stanley as “collateral damage” from the board’s chaos. Stanley disagrees.

“I consider myself as doing my best for Michigan State University and continuing to try to do my best for Michigan State University until the day I step down,” Stanley said. “Doing it with integrity and doing it in a way in which I believe that the actions I’m taking are really to support the university.”

He said he found himself in a position where the actions of the board weren’t in the best interest of MSU, which made it hard for him to work.

Could have all of this been avoided?

“No, I don’t think so,” Stanley said. “I think members of the board have a view that they need to be more engaged in the running of the university. They have particular issues they’re interested in, and they want to get engaged in those in ways that I think are counterproductive.”

Division between board members with eight individually strong beliefs about how a university should run turned out to be a recipe for chaos responsible for pushing out a university president.

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Tension with Title IX certification

A point of tension between the board and Stanley was the debate over the Title IX certification process — a review required by the state in which the president and at least one trustee verify the university’s sexual misconduct reports. 

Trustees blamed Stanley for the failure. Stanley said he complied with his part of the review but said the trustees didn't do their job

When asked about Title IX at MSU, Stanley pushed his prepared notes away. His tone shifted. 

“The simple thing is that certain board members did not complete their assignments to review cases, period,” Stanley said. “That led to the potential certification error that we may have had. I still am not convinced whether that was an error or not, whether we actually certified it correctly or not in 2021.”

The trustees hired another law firm to look into the certification error, previously reviewed in late September by MSU’s own Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance. Results from the board’s external investigation will be released to the public as soon as it is finalized.

The board has already seen the reports from its firm, which was investigating a procedure that explicitly involves board members.

“(This) raises questions in my mind about the process for that and how independent the report really is if the board members have seen it,” Stanley said. “I’ve not seen it. I’ve not been allowed in the rooms when they’re discussing it.”

Stanley pointed out that 14 other Michigan public universities have the same requirement to certify Title IX reports, yet “You’ve never heard of a conflict there.”

“It tells you something about our board,” Stanley said.

A university post-Nassar

When Stanley first came to MSU, the university was in a Title IX crisis after the ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar scandal. Stanley “knew there was healing necessary on campus.”

Because of this, he headed an initiative to meet with survivors, organize new leadership and develop a strategic plan to improve the support of survivors on campus. 

Some say that isn’t enough and that Title IX is still in crisis at MSU. Stanley disagreed, citing growth within university initiatives: Staff in the Title IX office has grown from 15 to about 45 employees, “with new staff being added daily.” A law firm has been monitoring the process and “consistently said that that process is thorough, it’s unbiased and it applies the policies correctly,” Stanley said.

He noted the university has struggled with the timeliness of reports but said the university hired another firm to look at the process and suggest how to improve the efficiency. 

The number of women who have experienced sexual assault against women has decreased. Still, the number of people reporting to Title IX and/or seeking help through resources such as the Center for Survivors has increased. Stanley said this statistic shows that mandatory reporting policies are working.

The future of MSU

When Provost Teresa Woodruff takes over his place to become interim president on Saturday, Stanley said he would assist her in the transition period, saying he’s available “on her speed dial.”

“I think having a good relationship between the board and interim president is incredibly important,” Stanley said. “Teresa, I’m sure, will work very hard to cultivate that.”

Woodruff was appointed interim president unanimously by the board. She has supported Stanley’s decisions, as evidenced by her message to the board. Stanley said he’s also backed Woodruff in her decision-making, like when she “made the decision to hold the dean of the College of Business accountable for his failure to report.”

Stanley said the next president should adhere to board bylaws and work closely with the board chair. He said he’s convened with members himself but also relied on board chair Dianne Byrum to communicate his ideas to board members. 

Stanley hopes all of the votes of no confidence in the Board of Trustees will be a wake-up call for the board.

“I hope … (the MSU community’s) response to what’s been going on here will raise the board’s sensitivity, to the votes of no confidence, to these issues,” Stanley said. “I hope that the next president will not have some of the same challenges I ran into because of that, but time will tell.”


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