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Breakdown of allegations, responses to MSU board chair controversy

October 24, 2023
<p>MSU Interim President Woodruff alongside Trustee's Vassar and Scott listening to public comments during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.</p>

MSU Interim President Woodruff alongside Trustee's Vassar and Scott listening to public comments during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.

MSU trustee Brianna Scott called for the removal of board chair Rema Vassar on Sunday in a letter accusing her of orchestrating major university decisions without the knowledge or consent of other board members or interim-president.

Vassar rejected all of Scott’s claims, calling them “fabrications” and denying wrongdoing in a written response released Tuesday.

Bullying the president

  • The allegation: Vassar bullied interim-president Teresa Woodruff by single-handedly orchestrating numerous major university decisions without her knowledge and attempting to usurp her at public events.
  • The response: Vassar rejects the “coded language of ‘bully’” and says “none of the assertions made” are true.

Vassar held a donor event at Woodruff’s house and attempted to exclude her from it against the advice of staff, according to emails obtained by The State News.

She also met with City of Lansing officials for wide-ranging discussions about MSU’s downtown presence behind Woodruff’s back, creating issues for university administrators tasked with developing those partnerships.

Woodruff said in a statement Monday that work under Vassar has been “challenging.”

“Victim-blaming” texts

  • The allegation: Vassar engaged in “victim-blaming” texts with former trustee Pat O’Keefe when discussing Brenda Tracy, the woman accusing now-fired MSU football coach Mel Tucker of sexual harassment.
  • The response: The text exchange was “one sided with no input from me.”

Vassar did engage with the texts from O’Keefe.

A copy of the messages obtained by The State News show that Vassar placed a heart reaction on a text in which O’Keefe explained how he thought the woman accusing Tucker could best be discredited.

The exchange ends with Vassar saying, “I need to talk with you.” O’Keefe then says “call me.”

Tucker accuser leak

  • The allegation: Vassar has refused to allow lawyers investigating the leak of Tracy’s identity to review the contents of her cell phone to rule her out as being the leak.
  • The response: Vassar contends no board member has “produced their phone for a forensic review." Vassar also says it is improper for Scott to be publicly talking about an ongoing outside investigation.

Vassar says no one on the board has turned over their phone, but a person close to the board says it’s complicated.

The person — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss the ongoing investigation — said that at least one trustee has already agreed to have their phone reviewed, but the investigators just haven't done it yet.

Other trustees haven’t had their interviews with the firm yet, the person said.

Vassar has been interviewed, the person said.

Releasing Gupta investigation

  • The allegation: Vassar unilaterally released an independent investigation into controversial former business dean Sanjay Gupta’s ousting against the advice of MSU’s lawyers and the outside lawyers who conducted the probe in March.
  • The response: Vassar points out that in February, the board voted unanimously to release it when it was finished. She says that the board “affirmed” that decision before it was released.

Emails between board members about releasing the investigation show disagreement.

The exchange, which was obtained by The State News through a public records request, begins with Vassar sending a draft statement announcing the release, then includes heavily redacted discussions about the decision to release, and ends with a Zoom meeting invite being shared so trustees can further discuss the topic.

In one email, trustee Renee Knake Jefferson says “as you know, professor Gupta has now sued the university. In addition, we now have advice from not only our general counsel, but also our outside counsel, advising (redacted).”

Ad for former trustee’s firm

  • The allegation: Vassar violated board ethics policies by appearing in an advertisement for former trustee Brian Mosallam’s wealth management firm. Vassar’s appearance in the ad is a “de facto endorsement” of the firm, Scott contends.
  • The response: Vassar did not address this accusation in her response.

Settling Gupta case

  • The allegation: Vassar attempted to single-handedly settle a lawsuit from Gupta in January 2023. Her attempts “interfered” with the administration's attempts to settle the suit.
  • The response: Vassar says the “entire board was then and is still now engaged in this matter” and criticizes Scott for publicizing “confidential” settlement discussions.

Private jet travel

  • The allegation: Vassar created a conflict of interest by flying on a private jet and accepting courtside tickets for the 2023 NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament. Board policies say trustees should not accept items of value from those outside the university as it could influence their decision-making.
  • The response: Vassar says there’s no board policy specifically regarding private jet travel and defends her choice, saying the trip “cost the university nothing.”

Softening of shooting review

  • The allegation: Vassar asked consultants reviewing MSU’s handling of the February campus shooting to soften a finding suggesting trustees overstepped during the emergency response.
  • The response: Vassar says it was “another trustee, not me” who objected to the finding, and that was an “appropriate question” that’s in line with the board’s “obligation to ensure the safety of our community.”

Threatening to call critics racist and the “read a book” remark

  • The allegation: Vassar threatened to call board members who voted against her racist and told Scott to “read a book” when she challenged her.
  • The response: Vassar says she did tell Scott to “read a book about leadership, race, and racism, and literature related to board responsibilities.” But, doing so was an act of “transformative leadership.”

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