Tuesday, April 23, 2024

MSU trustee calls for board chair Vassar’s removal over 'harmful consequences' of her bullying, plotting

October 22, 2023
<p>MSU board chair Vassar presents her comments and report during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.</p>

MSU board chair Vassar presents her comments and report during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.

Photo by Jack Patton | The State News

Michigan State University trustee Brianna Scott called for the removal of board chair Rema Vassar in a letter sent to the board Sunday night, alleging she bullied colleagues, interfered in legal disputes and attempted to keep word of her meddling out of an official report about the February campus shooting.

Scott, a Democrat elected to the board in 2018, describes a “fractured and contentious” board with Vassar single-handedly orchestrating numerous major university decisions without the knowledge or consent of other board members or interim-president — often leading to costly legal entanglements and public controversy.

The accusations shed new light on Vassar’s outsized behind-the-scenes involvement in numerous recent MSU controversies, including the ousting of a controversial business dean, withholding of the Nassar documents, rapid presidential turnover and the looming legal battle over the university’s firing of its football coach over sexual harassment claims.

Scott’s letter, which she shared with The State News Sunday evening, connects each of the revelatory accusations to board bylaws and university policies that Vassar allegedly violated.

Scott says she and other board members attempted to resolve their frustrations “behind closed doors,” but that “only led to more bullying from Dr. Vassar and potentially harmful consequences for the University we have been entrusted to protect."

After reading the letter Sunday evening, Trustee Dianne Byrum said she also wants Vassar to resign.

"I acknowledge the courage of Trustee Scott and I support her letter," Byrum said.

Vassar and the other members of the board did not immediately return calls from The State News seeking comment Sunday evening. Trustee Sandy Pierce did answer a call but ended the conversation saying she "didn't have time."

Bullying the interim president

The letter accuses Vassar of “bullying” Interim President Teresa Woodruff “on a regular basis” and usurping her authority on numerous occasions.

Scott says Vassar requested Woodruff’s schedule and demanded that she also speak at each of her engagements. The letter says Vassar was late to many of the events, notably delaying a reception for student leaders by 90 minutes.

Woodruff announced in August that she will not be seeking the permanent presidency but did not explain why.

Woodruff was unavailable for comment Sunday evening. A spokesperson said she was traveling.

Woodruff’s predecessor, Samuel L. Stanley Jr., resigned last fall when Byrum was board's chair. He and told The State News that he grew frustrated by the board’s interference in the day-to-day business of the university.

Scott’s letter alleges after becoming chair in January, Vassar took that interference to a new extreme, meeting with City of Lansing officials this summer to “pitch moving university colleges and students” to a downtown Lansing site without the knowledge or consent of the full board or administration.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor confirmed that he had a meeting with Vassar, trustee Dennis Denno and Norm Beauchamp, the executive vice president for health sciences. They met in July without the interim-president or provost.

In an interview with The State News, Schor described wide-ranging discussions about public-private partnerships and potential MSU real estate investments downtown, but said it was “preliminary.”

A person in the provost's office who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the meetings were “inappropriate” and interfered with their work.

“If board members are talking out of school, that can be problematic,” the person said. “Particularly when communication is not shared with those who are responsible for those areas, like the offices of the provost and president.”

Overstepping during the mass shooting and trying to cover it up

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An independent investigation into MSU’s handling of the February campus shooting originally found that board members “desperately wanted to help and became involved in the incident beyond their expertise and outside of their appropriate role,” according to the letter.

Vassar was displeased with the finding and “inappropriately suggested” to the consultants who prepared the report that they revise it before publicly releasing their report, according to the letter.

They did, and the version released earlier this week instead included a softer finding which said board members “became involved in the incident beyond the customary role and expectations of a governance board.”

Flying on donors’ private jets

Scott’s letter also accuses Vassar of violating the board’s ethics policy by flying in MSU donors’ private jets to New York City for the 2023 NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament.

“Even if (Vassar) asserts that this gift will not influence their decision-making, it has the appearance of doing so and could implicitly influence the decision-making,” Scott said in the letter. “If the flight is to an MSU event, there is an even greater appearance of influence in public duties.”

In her letter, Scott included a photo of Vassar sitting courtside with then-MSU football coach Mel Tucker.

University travel documents for the trip obtained by The State News contain no records of Vassar’s travel, unlike the other MSU attendees who submitted commercial airline tickets to the university for reimbursement.

The letter says the other trustees confronted Vassar about the private jet trips ahead of their September meeting.

They suggested that she personally pay the donors the market-value of the flights because the board’s ethics policies prohibit trustees from receiving things of value in conjunction with their duties. But Vassar refused, according to the letter.

Gupta meddling

Scott says in the letter that Vassar attempted to single-handedly settle a lawsuit by controversial former business dean Sanjay Gupta, who alleges that the university's administration conspired against him in a presidential succession plot.

Vassar did so in January without Woodruff’s knowledge, who eventually found out and said Vassar’s involvement “interfered with the ability of the University to effectively engage in settlement negotiations,” according to the letter.

Vassar and the rest of the board have all since been added as individual defendants in Gupta’s suit.

Vassar also publicly released the board’s $1.6 million outside investigation into Gupta’s ousting without discussing it with the rest of the board, according to the letter. Doing so was against the guidance of MSU’s general counsel and the outside lawyers conducting the probe, according to the letter.

Scott contends those decisions violated four provisions of the board’s code of conduct:

  • The policy barring actions interfering with the administration. 
  • The policy saying the board must act within the fiduciary interests of the university.
  • The policy against communicating with the administration.
  • The policy barring the release of privileged information without proper authorization.

Unsuccessfully orchestrating the release of Nassar documents

Scott also says Vassar violated those policies in April, when she asked the Michigan attorney general for a letter requesting thousands of long-withheld documents relating to the university’s handling of disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar — then didn’t release them.

At the time, Attorney General Dana Nessel told The State News she had “literally no idea” why Vassar would ask for the request if she wasn’t going to comply and release the documents.

Scott alleges Vassar asked Nessel for the letter without consulting the the administration or other board members.

But, when she met with members of Nessel’s staff in February, Vassar “explicitly told them” she had the votes to release the documents, AG communications director Kimberly Bush said in an email to The State News.

Brenda Tracy leak investigation

The letter criticizes Vassar for refusing to allow investigators to review the contents of her cell phone for the ongoing investigation into who at MSU may have forced Brenda Tracy, the woman accusing Tucker of sexual harassment, to publicly come forward by leaking her name to local media.

“The investigation will cost MSU thousands if not millions of dollars, with the likely result being inconclusive” because of Vassar’s refusal to participate, Scott says in the letter. 

The letter also provides additional insight into what prompted the investigation, saying MSU received information which alleged that a current member of the board leaked Tracy’s name to two former trustees, prompting the university to investigate.

That’s the most specific allegation to date. The State News reported last month that Tracy first accused “someone associated with the board of trustees” of leaking her identity, but this accusation implicates only the eight board members.

Scott also criticizes Vassar for “victim-blaming and minimizing of trauma” when texting about Tracy with former trustee Pat O’Keefe last month.

Vassar placed a heart reaction on a text from O’Keefe explaining how he thought Tracy could best be discredited, according to a copy of the messages obtained by The State News.

Appearing in an ad as board chair

Vassar also violated the board’s policies when she appeared in an advertisement for a former trustee’s wealth management firm earlier this year, according to the letter. 

The ad, ran in various Michigan publications, features Vassar posed beside trustee emeritus Brian Mosallam, who is a managing partner of Spartan Wealth.

The firm has no official connection to MSU, though it does share the university mascot’s name and is run by Mosallam, who also played on the MSU football team.

The image is captioned “a spartan’s greatest strength is the warrior standing next to him her,” seemingly alluding to Mosallam, who is next to Vassar holding a spartan warrior helmet in the image.

A higher-education expert who reviewed the ad said it constitutes an endorsement of Mossallam’s firm, something unusual and "ethically questionable" for a university board chair to do.

“She's in her role as a trustee to represent and support the interests of the university, not to promote, endorse, or support the interests of a company,” James Finklestein, a George Mason University professor who studies higher education governance, said.

Removal of Vassar

In the letter, Scott asks Vassar to resign from the board.

If she doesn’t, Scott calls on the other trustees to

  1. Vote to remove Vassar as chair.
  2. Refer the matter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who could remove Vassar from the board altogether through an impeachment process outlined in the Michigan constitution.

Scott, who voted for Vassar in the January chair election, notes that by speaking out she is herself violating the board’s code of conduct, which designates the chair as the board’s sole spokesperson.

“As a Trustee and as an attorney, I must weigh the harm of sharing these internal issues against the standards of transparency we are tasked with upholding,” she wrote. “If I must choose one, then I choose the latter.”

Scott also says Vassar has threatened her against speaking out.

“I have been threatened by Dr. Vassar that speaking out against her decisions would result in her turning the Black community against me — and I myself am a Black woman,” Scott writes. “I have also been warned that speaking out will cause unwanted attention to the Board of Trustees and will harm the university and interfere with our current Presidential Search. But of the many values I've developed as a Black person, as a woman, and as a Spartan, chief among them is standing up for what's right.”

The racial tensions Scott alludes to were on full display last month when the board modified the process for selecting a chair.

During the meeting where the change was passed, Vassar said the revisions — which would end chair elections in favor of a seniority-based system, denying her the possibility of a second term in 2025 —  was an example of the board “changing the rules on her” because she is the first Black woman to lead the board.

Scott, who introduced the change, pushed back on 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.”

The board will next meet Friday, October 27.

Letter from MSU trustee Brianna Scott by State New Media Group on Scribd

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