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MSU president search committee done, choice now in board’s hands

October 24, 2023
<p>Spartan Statue, photographed on Aug. 31, 2020.</p>

Spartan Statue, photographed on Aug. 31, 2020.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

The search committee tasked with helping Michigan State University select its next president has concluded its work and turned over recommendations to the board of trustees, which is tasked with making the final decision, the university’s search consultant said Tuesday.

“The committee has done a very fine job of evaluating candidates and has now made their views known to the trustees,” John Isaacson, of the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, said. His firm has been contracted by MSU to facilitate the presidential search. 

This comes as the board’s leadership is embattled, with trustee and vice-chair of the search committee Brianna Scott sending a letter to the board Sunday night demanding the resignation of board chair Rema Vassar.

Scott’s letter describes a “fractured and contentious” board with Vassar “bullying” the current president by single-handedly orchestrating numerous major university decisions without her knowledge or consent and attempting to usurp her at public events. Vassar has denied the allegations, calling them "fabrications."

Isaacson said that the accusations haven’t shaken the “very strong pool” of candidates.

“The board has been highly reassuring to the candidates,” Isaacson said. “I think the candidates have accepted that.”

Judith Wilde, a George Mason University research professor who studies university presidencies, said she can’t imagine the accusations having no effect on the candidates.

“I think at this point, anything they say is going from the frying pan to the fire,” Wilde said. “I don’t think there’s a way to clean this up … I would not want to be in a situation like that.”

She said the new allegations add to years of tumult and turnover in MSU’s administration and board, with multiple national scandals like the university’s handling of sexual abuse by ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar and alleged sexual harassment by now-fired football coach Mel Tucker.

Pointing to the five presidents MSU has had in as many years, Wilde said candidates will be asking “do I want to be number six?”

“They'll say, is that where I want to spend my time and energy trying to clean up something, and now part of the issue is (the board) that supervises me?” Wilde said. “How do you clean up your supervisor?

Wilde, who has been cited as the nation’s preeminent expert in the modern college presidency, suggested MSU “take some time to clean things up” before engaging with candidates or making a selection.

The faculty senate expressed similar concerns before Scott’s letter brought about the bullying allegations. They passed a resolution last month criticizing the current goal of announcing the choice by Thanksgiving, saying it’s an “arbitrary deadline” and that the board should instead take however much time it needs to select the best person.

Isaacson pushed back on those worries, saying the process is “on track” for an announcement around Thanksgiving.

“We’ve had a very strong candidate response to the search,” he said Monday. “We have a strong pool of potential presidents and they’ve stuck with us.”

Wilde said a strong pool doesn’t necessarily mean the search ends with a strong president.

“They may have excellent candidates, but when they get down to the last interviews, and people want to know what’s really going on here, when the rubber hits the road, what are they gonna say?” Wilde said.

It's unclear what exactly the search committee's work culminated in. Isaacson said “they’ve expressed their views and such, but I can’t be precise about that,” pointing to the condition of confidently that has defined much of the search.

Dennis Denno, the MSU trustee who chaired the search committee, created a controversy last month when he told The State News that the board could pick a candidate that wasn’t approved by the search committee, which includes representatives of students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and the greater state of Michigan.

MSU’s faculty senate, undergraduate student government, deans and vice provosts all wrote letters or passed resolutions pushing back on that idea.

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Denno eventually conceded to the criticism, releasing a statement saying he “listened to the MSU community” and would “not deviate from the candidates that the search committee has chosen.”

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