In a little more than a year, Michigan State University Interim President Teresa Woodruff has made two consequential decisions regarding university leaders who tangled with the school’s policies on relationship violence and sexual misconduct.
In Aug. 2022, her final days as provost, she ousted then-MSU business dean Sanjay Gupta for his handling of sexual misconduct by a subordinate. That decision sparked massive donor boycotts, a $1.6 million independent investigation ordered by MSU’s board and an ongoing lawsuit from Gupta.
Then on Wednesday, Woodruff supported Athletic Director Alan Haller’s decision to fire then-football coach Mel Tucker amid allegations of sexual harassment before an MSU hearing which will decide whether he violated policies.
Tucker has argued Haller had no right to fire him for cause, and allegations that someone associated with MSU’s board outed the accuser have prompted an independent investigation.
Experts told The Lansing State Journal Wednesday that a long, costly legal battle looms for MSU.
But, the tumult hasn’t shaken Woodruff.
“My job is to make every decision in the best interest of the students and employees, whose best interests I serve,” she said. “ … You have to make those principled choices, and in the end, you have to live by those choices, and that’s what I’ll do.”
She’s been criticized, namely in the investigation into her removal of Gupta, which found her actions were “disproportionate” with MSU policies and other people’s handling of similar cases.
But, in her statements to investigators and a letter to MSU’s board explaining her Gupta decision, Woodruff has argued that after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, MSU’s leaders should be held to a higher standard than just what’s in the policies.
“We work in an environment of heightened public scrutiny of the seriousness with which we carry out these responsibilities,” Woodruff said in the letter to the board.
As her interim-presidency nears its end, Woodruff sat down with The State News to discuss her handling of the Tucker scandal, the leak of his accuser’s name, how she hopes MSU will move forward and who she hopes will succeed her as the permanent president.
The Tucker scandal was thrust into the public eye by a Sept. 10 USA Today report revealing that prominent rape survivor and advocate Brenda Tracy had accused him of sexual harassment. She provided interviews and thousands of pages of documents to USA Today for that story.
Tracy has since said that she had no intention of publicly coming forward and wanted the MSU investigation into Tucker’s conduct to proceed confidentially. But, she said her name was leaked to local media, forcing her to tell her story.
That leak has become a subject of controversy, as MSU’s investigations are supposed to be completely confidential. Experts and advocates have said the leak could be a chilling factor for future victims who will fear similar leaks of their information.
When asked whether she shared their concerns, Woodruff said “privacy is part of what we believe is necessary to enable the process for all parties to have a fair process.”
“We’re working on culture and climate; it’s a very broad kind of work that we need to do,” Woodruff said. “(The leak) is something we need to look back on in an evolutionary way, about how we can better enable the best outcomes for the people who are involved.”
Woodruff has ordered an independent investigation into the leak.
She said that global law firm Jones Day will conduct the probe, but declined to provide any details on the scope, methods or timeline. She also declined to say whether the university will waive privilege over the findings so the public can see them.
“That’s not been a part of any of the discussions I’ve had with anyone,” she said.
The State News reported Wednesday that in a draft statement shared with MSU, Tracy accused “someone associated with the MSU Board of Trustees” of being the leak.
Woodruff declined to comment on that as well.
Going forward, MSU can’t just focus on its investigative processes for handling sexual misconduct that’s happened, Woodruff said.
Instead, she wants to see the university examine and change the “culture and climate” that lead to the conduct happening in the first place.
She said the university is already making strides in improving the broader culture by including a new voice in key discussions: Vice President for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance Laura Rugless, who joined MSU in July. The position was previously an associate level position but has been elevated to vice presidency, putting Rugless in high-level meetings and discussions her predecessors were left out of.
In June, she told The State News that “being in those discussions and being at the table is really going to be key.”
Woodruff agreed, and said in the few months Rugless has been around, she’s already getting a better understanding of how the university can work cohesively to combat issues with sexual misconduct.
“We needed that guidance at the top level,” Woodruff said. “Now she can always weigh in. That diversity of voices in the room allows you to look around and say, ‘What perspective would others have?’ I think that’s the important part of having RVSM as a discipline represented in the room.”
But Woodruff — who was appointed last fall as interim president when then-president Stanley resigned after clashing with the board — won’t be in the room much longer. She announced last month that she would not be seeking the permanent presidency.
That leaves MSU simultaneously searching for two high-profile figures: a president and a football coach.
For those leaders, Woodruff wants to see people with the “highest integrity” when making tough decisions, people with a strong sense of purpose for the institution, and people who “know that their job is about the institution and not about themselves.”
For the presidency, she also said it would be important that the chosen person “be a great academic who understands student pursuits.”
That’s in conflict with comments made by Dennis Denno, the MSU trustee chairing the current presidential search committee. Earlier this month, he told The State News that the committee is carefully considering non-academic candidates “from the business world” and “people who have a very strong military background.”
Woodruff isn’t the only one who disagrees. Denno’s comments prompted a resolution from the faculty senate demanding that the next president be an “accomplished academic.”
Beyond those qualifications, Woodruff said her successor should be someone “educable,” who’s constantly learning and truly considering new ideas.
“As president, that’s one of the things that I think I am,” Woodruff said. “I’m always in a learning mode, but I’m always in a mode where someone has to take critical action and I’m ready to do so.”
Why then is Woodruff not seeking the position?
“The most important thing to me is MSU and I want to make sure that I support it in every way I can,” she said. “My belief is this decision is in the best interest of the institution.”
When asked why her stepping down is in the best interest of MSU, she said, “I think the university selected me as an interim and I’ve been happy to serve in this role.”
When asked if the board or someone else has told her that her leaving would be “in the best interest of the university,” a spokesperson interrupted to say, “It’s a personal decision. I’m not trying to speak for her, but that’s all she’s going to elaborate on.”