Sunday, February 25, 2024

MSU trustee Scott disappointed by embattled board chair Vassar’s racial rebuttal

October 25, 2023
Trustee Brianna T. Scott speaks at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022.
Trustee Brianna T. Scott speaks at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Michigan State University trustee Brianna Scott is disappointed that her colleagues haven't publicly joined her call for the removal of board chair Rema Vassar. But with Vassar branding the allegations as racially motivated, Scott says she understands their fear.

The clash ignited Sunday when Scott sent the board a letter calling for Vassar's removal, describing 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 letter also accused Vassar of bullying colleagues, flying to sporting events on a donor’s private jet, appearing in an ad for a former trustee's wealth management firm and attempting to keep word of her meddling out of an official report about the February campus shooting.

Since the letter was first publicized by The State News Sunday evening, former trustees, one of Michigan's US Senators, faculty leadership and a former governor have seconded Scott's call for Vassar's removal.

However, the current board has been largely silent on Scott's demands. Four of the eight trustees have not publicly said whether they support Vassar's removal.

Scott said Wednesday evening that the lack of public support from her colleagues is "disappointing," but she "understands, based on what (she’s) going through, why people are afraid to come forward."

Vassar, the first Black woman to chair MSU's board, has rebuked Scott's allegations, saying it's a racially motivated “old-style political hit job.”

Scott, who is also Black, said it's maddening but unsurprising that Vassar has "made this a race thing." In her letter, Scott said Vassar had previously threatened to call those on the board who challenged her racist.

"It's concerning to me that a person, with all that we as Black American(s) have gone through, would turn this into a race issue," Scott said. "But it also smacks of desperation because it's all she has. It's just unfortunate because I think it's extremely wrong to weaponize racism.”

The allegations are factual, Scott said, and have nothing to do with Vassar's race.

Scott said she believes Vassar's racial rebuttal is stopping like-minded board members and university leaders from coming forward with criticisms of Vassar.

"People have felt they could not speak up for fear of retribution, fear of being labeled a racist," Scott said. "No one wants to be called racist. I look at my colleagues, and I don't think one of them is racist. So it’s unfortunate that they’re being stereotyped in a way that's self-serving for (Vassar)."

Despite the public silence, Scott believes there would be sufficient support to remove Vassar as chair if taken to a vote.

But it's unclear when that will come together, as Scott says there's disagreement over taking a vote at the board next meeting on Friday or waiting until MSU's review of Vassar's actions is complete.

The agenda for Friday is set and does not include a vote on the chair. Adding one now would require the support of three trustees.

Passing it and removing Vassar as chair would require six votes, according to the by-laws.

Scott's only public supporter on the board is longtime trustee and former chair Dianne Byrum, who said Sunday that she would support removing Vassar and supported all the allegations in Scott's letter.

Scott said she's also counting on Democratic trustees Kelly Tebay and Renee Knake Jefferson.

In her first statement to the media after sending the letter, Scott alluded to their support, telling members of the press to contact them to "verify the facts and for their comments."

However, they've been silent. Tebay and Jefferson haven't issued public statements or returned numerous calls and messages from The State News.

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Scott said Wednesday night she is still confident they will vote for removal either Friday or after MSU’s investigation is complete.

Tebay and Jefferson would bring Scott to four votes.

Vassar has said she's not interested in stepping down, and trustee Dennis Denno has publicly supported her.

That leaves trustees Sandy Pierce and Dan Kelly as Scott's possible fifth and sixth vote.

Kelly – the board's lone Republican and chair of the committee on Audit, Risk and Compliance – made a statement Monday evening indicating that he wouldn’t support removal before MSU's investigation is done.

Kelly said, "Following the completion of the review, any recommendations will be shared with the full Board, who I am confident will take the appropriate action in a fair and unbiased manner."

Pierce, an independent appointed to fill a partial term in December 2022, has not made a public statement on the matter.

Neither of them has returned calls and messages from The State News.

Scott said she foresees things changing by the meeting on Friday. The board has not met since she sent the letter but will be in an all-day closed-session meeting Thursday, she said.

If Vassar is removed, the chair would be passed to Kelly, the current vice-chair, who would serve until Vassar’s term expires in January 2025.

A vote to remove Vassar wouldn't be the first challenge to her authority since she took the chair.

Last month, Scott introduced by-law revisions that would end chair elections in favor of a seniority-based system – killing the possibility of a second term for Vassar.

The revisions passed 5-2, with Vassar and Kelly voting no. Denno did not attend the meeting.

In her comments at the meeting, Vassar said the change was an attempt to "change the rules on her" because she is Black. Scott pushed back on that, saying the change had been discussed before Vassar was chair and aimed to end contentious chair elections that created rifts between board members.

Even if Scott can rally support to strip Vassar of the powerful chair position, she cannot kick Vassar off the board completely. Only Gov. Gretchen Whitmer can remove a trustee.

Whitmer has not yet said if she plans to remove Vassar from the board but is “closely watching” MSU's board and weighing her options.

"I've got a lot of questions, and I think Spartan nation has questions," Whitmer said at a press conference Wednesday.

Michigan's land-grant university boards – MSU's trustees, University of Michigan’' regents and Wayne State University's governors – are some of the only in the nation to be elected in state-wide, partisan elections.

Whitmer said Wednesday that her office is "having conversations" about other systems like appointing university board members. Changing the selection process would require an amendment to Michigan's constitution.

Scott said Tuesday that she hasn't spoken to Whitmer since releasing her letter but hopes she will remove Vassar.

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