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Trust, transparency, transformative leadership: Vassar shares goals for term as board chair

January 31, 2023
Trustee Rema Vassar on March 28, 2022.
Trustee Rema Vassar on March 28, 2022. —
Photo by Sheldon Krause | The State News

At the end of 2022, the MSU Board of Trustees left campus in the wake of several no-confidence votes from students and faculty, a presidential resignation, a trustee resignation and admissions of distrust within the board. Newly-elected board chair Rema Vassar, who took over the position of chair on Jan. 11, said restoring trust and transparency is her first priority.

“Making sure that folks see us as cohesive, collaborative, collegial and approachable and accessible, I think, would change some of the dynamics that I've seen in the last year that need to be addressed,” Vassar said.

With two new board members, Dennis Denno and Sandy Pierce, Vassar said she is optimistic about a fresh start. The board will also begin professional development, which Vassar hopes will be “the glue that brings (the board) together.”

“Both Sandy and Dennis really love MSU, they're excited about doing work for MSU with trustees and so I think starting fresh with two new faces always gives us an opportunity to reset,” Vassar said. “On top of that, though, we're undergoing some professional development around working with one another and trusting one another. Professional development is going to be important to make sure that we're on the same page and working collegially.”

Vassar said she will be responsive to concerns around issues that happened outside of her term as chair or as a trustee.

“Even though some of those issues were not present or didn't happen when I was on the board at all, as a chair, I feel like I'm still beholden to the people who are asking questions about what has happened and wanting answers,” Vassar said.

Vassar said establishing better working relationships within the board is essential to the work she wants to accomplish as chair. Her goal is to provide “transformative leadership” to the entire Spartan community.

One of Vassar’s larger goals as chair is to bring rural and urban students together for a "cross-cultural experience." She envisions an on-campus experience for eighth through tenth grade students to encourage their potential.

“I'm hoping that maybe I can collaborate with the College of Education to do like a college experience and prime the pipeline for kids who may not think that they can come to MSU,” Vassar said. “Where I grew up, it was a small, small rural town, and a lot of the people that I went to school with are Michigan State fans but would never think to go to Michigan State. Rural Michiganders sometimes don't get the attention that they need. I live in Detroit, there's kids who are from urban areas who are not getting what they need.”

Within the first two weeks of her term, Vassar began work on the next permanent presidential search. The search committee, chaired by Denno with trustee Brianna Scott as vice chair and includes trustees Renee Knake Jefferson and Dan Kelly, will be in charge of the construction of the search, including listening instructions. Vassar’s role will focus on communicating the process to the community.

“My oversight is not day-to-day,” Vassar said. “I will be thinking about ways that we communicate to the Spartan community about the search … I'll be thinking about ways that we are transparent in our decision making.”

With her appointment, Vassar made history as the first Black woman to serve as chair for the Michigan State University. She originally ran for trustee because of her dedication to education, but went for the greater leadership role because she “fell in love with Spartans.”

“MSU has been a vitalizing, energizing experience for me,” Vassar said. “Working for MSU I thought wow, there's a lot that can be done with the quality of people that are here. They're bright, energetic, but also really, really, really good people.”

While she was overwhelmed at the thought of being the first Black female chair, as she reflected on the fact, Vassar said it shouldn’t have taken until 2023 for the first Black woman to serve as chair of MSU.

“It’s 2023, how am I the first Black woman to be the chair of the board?” Vassar said. “Just as I've had so many opportunities to go so many places and do amazing things, everyone should have that opportunity.”

Vassar said she hopes to use this opportunity to empower others during her two year term as chair.

“It just signals to me what my mother and my father and my grandparents have instilled in me in terms of making a way for other people,” Vassar said. “Always as you climb forward, going back and getting other people and bringing them along is deeply, deeply what my work is supposed to be here at MSU. There's a lot of work to be done and I'm the right person to do it.”

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