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MSU trustee, search committee chair concedes to president search criticism

October 8, 2023

The Michigan State University trustee chairing the current Presidential Search Committee released a statement Sunday promising to pick a candidate endorsed by the committee amid widespread criticism of his earlier comments suggesting he would do otherwise. 

The trustee, Democrat Dennis Denno, said in the statement that he “misspoke” last month when he told The State News the Board of Trustees will “very strongly consider” the recommendations of the committee in selecting the next president but could ultimately choose someone who doesn’t get the committee’s endorsement. 

That idea prompted letters and formal resolutions demanding that the board only choose committee-approved candidates from MSU’s undergraduate student government, faculty senate and every dean and vice-provost

In the statement, Denno said he “listened to the MSU community” and will now “not deviate from the candidates that the search committee has chosen in the first round and the final candidates that they will present to the full Board of Trustees.”

It’s unclear if the rest of MSU’s board is supportive of that.

In the statement, Denno said he “hopes all trustees agree” with his commitment to select a candidate endorsed by the search committee.

Board chair Rema Vassar did not immediately return a call from The State News Sunday afternoon seeking comment on whether the whole board is supportive of Denno's promise.  

Denno’s statement also pushes back on a recent Lansing State Journal report, in which a researcher who studies university presidential searches said the recent firing and looming legal battle relating to former football coach Mel Tucker’s alleged sexual harassment could make the MSU presidency unappealing to potential candidates.

“The presidential search has incredible candidates who want to come to MSU,” Denno said in the statement. “Our search has not been damaged by any recent issues, and MSU has a lot to offer our new president — we are one of the top 40 public universities in the nation, one of the top 100 research universities in the world, we have top-ranked academic programs, some of the brightest faculty, and the best students in the country.”

The statement does not mention Denno’s comments about the candidates’ backgrounds or the criticism that followed them. 

He told The State News last month that the committee is giving serious consideration to non-academic candidates “from the business world” and “people who have a very strong military background.”

That comment was criticized by the faculty senate, deans, vice provosts and current Interim President Teresa Woodruff, who all argued that the next president should be someone with an academic background.

As for when the final choice will be announced, Denno’s statement affirms his previous commitment to complete the process by Thanksgiving, saying “there is no need to slow down the search process.”

The faculty senate resolution pushing back on Denno’s ideas took issue with that timeline, saying that the search should be allotted as much time as is needed, rather than being “limited by arbitrary deadlines” like the Thanksgiving goal.

“There’s a time and place to make concessions, but given everything we as a community have experienced this last decade, we should not be settling on the qualities of the next president, particularly for an arbitrary deadline,” Justin St. Charles, one of the faculty senators supporting the resolution, said at the meeting.

Denno’s full statement is as follows: 

“I want to clarify a few messages that have been presented in the media:

First, the presidential search has incredible candidates who want to come to MSU. Our search has not been damaged by any recent issues and MSU has a lot to offer our new president — we are one of the top 40 public universities in the nation, one of the top 100 research universities in the world, we have top-ranked academic programs, some of the brightest faculty, and the best students in the country.

Second, I want to clear the misperception that the search committee and trustees will pick a candidate outside of those candidates recommended by the search committee. I misspoke in The State News and have listened to the MSU community. I will not deviate from the candidates that the search committee has chosen in the first round and the final candidates that they will present to the full Board of Trustees, and I hope all trustees agree. I am committed to the fidelity of the search process and commend everyone on the committee who has worked hard to recommend the strongest candidates possible as our new president.

Finally, there is no need to slow down the search process. MSU’s students, staff, faculty, and alumni deserve a leader who has the vision and skills to lead this university into the future.” 

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