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MSU board ends chair elections in split vote

September 8, 2023
<p>Chairperson Vassar speaking at the Board of Trustees Meeting at the Hannah Administration Meeting on Sep. 8, 2023.</p>

Chairperson Vassar speaking at the Board of Trustees Meeting at the Hannah Administration Meeting on Sep. 8, 2023.

In a rare contested vote, Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees amended its bylaws during a meeting Friday, ending contentious chair elections in favor of year-long turns at the helm decided by seniority.

Until now, every two years the board voted to select a chair charged with leading, setting the agenda and speaking publicly for the board at events and with the media. But with the new decision, every year, the trustee who has been on the board the longest will have a chance to serve as chair, or they can decline, passing the offer to the next most senior trustee.

The revisions passed 5-2, with current chair Rema Vassar and current vice-chair Dan Kelly opposing. Trustee Dennis Denno was not present at the meeting.

Trustee Brianna Scott, who introduced the revisions, said they were prompted by contentious chair elections that have divided the board.

“It has caused divisiveness, it has caused rancor, it has caused bullying, and it has caused posturing, and favors, doing favors for one another in exchange for how we vote (for chair),” Scott said. “None of these things should be part of what we deal with when we try to make decisions … I feel wholeheartedly that changing our board chair system is for the good of this board.”

Scott continued, saying “every two years we have issues. We have relationships on this board that have been fractured because of the board chair election.”

Vassar, who was elected chair in a 5-3 vote in January, explained her dissent by saying that the board was trying to “change the rules on her” because she is the first Black woman to have the role.

The new system will not cut her term short because it doesn’t go into effect until 2025. But it will likely prevent her from holding the position again as she is one of the newest members of the board.

Scott dismissed Vassar’s allegation, saying “maybe I need to read more books, as I was told yesterday, maybe I’m losing my identity as a Black woman. But, I don’t think so. I think I’m making this decision for the good of the university that I love. I’m tired of seeing the fractalization of this board.”

Kelly, the other trustee who opposed the change, said he feared a situation where the board has an “automatic chair.”

“I believe the chair should be elected on a regular basis,” Kelly said. “We’ve talked endlessly about the pros and cons, but in my mind, the board should get to decide who its leader is.”

The contested vote is a rarity for MSU's board. In its last two sessions, only 6 of 200 votes weren't unanimous.

The revisions also change the rules surrounding what can be considered at meetings. 

Previously, the board chair set the agenda and to add an item afterward, six votes were required. This meant that even an item supported by simple majority of five could be stopped by the chair alone. It’s similar to the controversial legislative filibuster that has stalled legislation for years in the U.S. Congress. But with the new revisions, adding something to the agenda will require only three votes.

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