Wednesday, April 17, 2024

MSU president search continues in secrecy, under scrutiny

September 13, 2023
Student Liaison Hannah Jeffery raising her hand to ask a question at the Board of Trustees Meeting at the Hannah Administration Meeting on Sep. 8, 2023.
Student Liaison Hannah Jeffery raising her hand to ask a question at the Board of Trustees Meeting at the Hannah Administration Meeting on Sep. 8, 2023. —
Photo by Denille Reid | The State News

Last Wednesday evening, students gathered in an 80-degree room on the top floor of Michigan State University's computer center to tell the university's board what they want in the next president. 

Dennis Denno, the MSU trustee who’s been appointed to chair the presidential search committee, started asking the students questions. “What kind of background should the person have? What should they want to preserve about MSU? What should they want to change?”

“Someone who will preserve the culture and traditions of the university is really important,” Broad college sophomore Delaney Jones said.

Someone who’s intentional about increasing tenure-track faculty of color, public policy senior Devin Woodruff said, because “right now, if I go to a professor about something, they don’t look like me.”

Other students asked for a leader committed to improving the university’s handling of Title IX, or someone who takes accountability when they do something wrong, and can admit when they don’t know what to do. One student asked for a president that’s exciting and innovative, someone who’s ready to “break the status quo.” 

Though students were encouraged to give input for the search, they were discouraged from asking questions

Before the meeting began, John Issacson, the chairman of the executive search firm running search, told the students “We’re not here to answer questions about the search, that’s an entirely confidential matter.” 

That secrecy has been a point of contention throughout the process. This search, like MSU’s last and many other modern university president searches, is a closed one.

The number of applicants, who is and isn’t being considered, who’s being interviewed, who’s named a finalist, who the committee recommends to the board and which candidates the board ultimately considers for the job will all remain secret.

Denno and Issacson say the secrecy will attract the best candidates, because those who are currently in high profile positions don’t have to worry about looking disloyal to their current institutions. But experts and advocates worry that a completely closed search will further erode trust in MSU and whoever is selected, especially after the last president’s tumultuous tenure and sudden ousting.

No matter the concerns, the search moves on. 

In an interview with The State News Wednesday, Denno said the committee is still collecting applications and nominations but will soon move on to interviewing candidates and making recommendations to the board. They hope to have a final choice named by Thanksgiving, which has been Denno’s goal since the start of the search in March.

Jack Lipton, the chair of MSU’s faculty senate, criticized that timeline in his comments to the board at the board’s Friday meeting.

“As far as I’m concerned, the sky’s the limit when it comes to Spartans, that means not rushing the search to meet an arbitrary Thanksgiving deadline,” Lipton said. “If we only seek an adequate or convenient candidate for our next president, we’ve already failed.”

BOTmeeting.09.08.23.dr.1
Faculty liaison Jack Lipton at the Board of Trustees Meeting at the Hannah Administration Meeting on Sep. 8, 2023.

Who really decides?

While the search committee will interview candidates and make recommendations to the board of trustees, it will ultimately be the board who makes the decision. 

Denno said the board may even interview or select candidates who aren’t recommended by the committee, though they will “very, very strongly take into consideration the names the search committee provides to us.”

Half of the board also serves on the committee, making them the third largest faction represented.

MSU’s university council, an advisory group composed of students, faculty and administrators, tried to dilute that influence. In March, they wrote a proposal asking that board members serve only as non-voting members of the search committee because their inclusion as full members “essentially gives them two votes.”

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“​​Given that (the committee’s) work will culminate in a recommendation to the board and given that the board will vote on whether to accept that recommendation, it is unnecessary for the trustees on the search committee to have voting rights in developing that recommendation,” the proposal said.

But the trustees disagreed, Denno said, and have four voting seats on the search committee.

Student influence on the committee is also less than what the council desired. While the university council proposal requested five student seats, the current committee includes just three.

Emily Hoyumpa, one of two undergraduate students on the committee and president of MSU’s undergraduate student government ASMSU, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the confidentiality agreement she made when joining the committee.

Hannah Jeffery, president of the council of graduate students and member of the search committee, did agree to an interview. As the only representative of the university’s thousands of graduate and professional students, she worries that the committee doesn’t fully represent the student body. 

“I wish there were more (students),” Jeffery said. “I can’t be the voice of everyone." 

Jeffery said she's frustrated that six seats on the committee are occupied by people from the business community. While she commends them for their work thus far, she worries they will eventually put business interests over those of students.

“I just hope the board was thoughtful in choosing what vested interests they’re hoping to put in front of themselves and in front of the candidates,” Jeffery said.

Who’s it going to be?

While Denno is dedicated to protecting the identity of the applicants, he did share some general information about who they’re interested in and who’s applied thus far. He would not say how many people have applied or been nominated but did say he was “very pleased” with the turnout.

As for what would make a strong candidate, Denno said they need to have experience running large, complex “multibillion-dollar organizations like MSU,” have a commitment to diversity and be “someone who recognizes that sports is the front porch of university.” 

“A lot of people, rightly or wrongly, identify universities by their sports programs, or it’s the first thing they think of,” Denno said. “Let’s face it, when our sports do well, it helps with application numbers. It helps with philanthropy.”

The next president also doesn’t need to have an academic background, Denno said. The committee is also carefully considering candidates “from the business world” and “people who have a very strong military background.”

“We’re not excluding anybody who doesn’t have academic experience, we’re definitely looking at non-traditional candidates as well as traditional academics,” Denno said.

Jeffery, the graduate student on the committee, said she was impressed by the applicants thus far.

“They’re all late career, experts in the field, and they’ve done so many amazing things,” Jeffery said. 

She said she hopes the new president acknowledges the uniqueness of the graduate and professional student body and isn’t dismissive of their needs. 

For the university as a whole, Jeffery believes the next president shouldn’t be naive about the heavy undertaking and should have the ability to weather the university’s tumultuous inner workings.

A troublesome history

MSU’s recent spur of controversial leadership changes might deter candidates from applying to the position, experts in higher education administration say.

Lou Ana K. Simon resigned from the presidency in January 2018, hours after disgraced ex-MSU gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was criminally sentenced for his decades-long sexual abuse of athletes at MSU.

Former Michigan governor John Engler was appointed later that month. But shortly after, Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz alleged Engler tried to coerce and bribe her into settling her lawsuit, prompting outcry and his resignation.

Satish Udpa, former dean of the MSU College of Engineering, was appointed as MSU's interim president the day after Engler’s resignation. He served briefly until Samuel L. Stanley Jr. was hired in August 2019.

Stanley served until 2022, when tensions grew between him and the board over his ousting of business dean Sanjay Gupta and broader handling of Title IX. Eventually he resigned, saying he lost confidence in the board of trustees’ ability to lead the university.

He was replaced by then-provost Teresa Woodruff, who has been serving as an interim since.

Woodruff has said she isn't seeking the permanent presidency, but she does intend to remain interim president until a successor is selected to “ensure a smooth transition of leadership,” according to a statement she released last month.

Higher education administration expert Barrett Taylor said there’s a “push and a pull” for potential applicants at MSU.

“There's been so much tumult in the leadership at Michigan State in so many years, and multiple scandals now that I think anybody’s going to be wary,” Taylor said. “But I also think there are very few of these top jobs. Each university only has one president.”

MSU’s growing enrollment and amicable relationship with its state government could also attract candidates, Taylor said.

Jeffery, the grad student on the committee, said it’s hard to know what qualities will help a candidate break MSU’s streak of short, messy presidencies. 

“Are they going to have that little bit of finesse that we really need in certain circumstances?” she asked.

Felecia Commodore, a professor of Higher Education at Old Dominion University who studies shared governance, said that part of having a successful next MSU president will be building trust in the search that finds them.

She said that while secrecy may protect certain qualified candidates, any way the committee can open the process to the broader public will help build trust in the next administration.

The board’s rapid disposal of presidents also frustrated the past search committee members that picked them. 

Felica Wu, a Hannah Distinguished Professor in Food Science and member of the 2019 committee that selected Stanley, said it was “disheartening” to see their choice resign under such ugly circumstances.

“We felt that Stanley was a fabulous president who really helped to turn things around and reverse some of the culture associated with MSU after the Nassar crisis,” Wu said. “So when all the mayhem started last year, it really did concern many of us.”

Wu led a group of 94 high-ranking members of the MSU faculty who wrote a letter condemning the board for their ousting of Stanley and asking that they operate more transparently going forward.

Avoiding FOIA

MSU has gone to great lengths to ensure the search is not susceptible to public records requests under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

The work thus far has primarily been conducted by an outside search firm, Issacson Miller. That keeps communications with candidates off MSU emails, avoiding public records requests. The firm also handles expense reports for travel and meetings with the candidates, allowing those documents to avoid requests.

In all, the firm is charging MSU $270,000 for the search and has billed $56,700 in expenses thus far.

The committee members also received guidance relating to public records requests, though it’s unclear what it was.

The advice came from a memo titled “FOIA and presidential search records." It was completely redacted in responses to requests from The State News.

Pres. Search FOIA Memo
The memo advising MSU's presidential search committee on FOIA, which was ironically completely shielded from FOIAs through the attorney-client privilege exemption.

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