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MSU board was down to two finalists in president search, but one already dropped out

November 15, 2023

Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees was down to its final two candidates for the university presidency on Wednesday.

The two finalists were University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy, sources with knowledge of the deliberations told The State News Wednesday morning.

Guskiewicz and Eighmy did not return calls or emails seeking comment at time of publication.

Soon after the messages were sent, Eighmy withdrew his name from consideration, John Isaacson, the chair of Isaacson, Miller, the outside firm facilitating MSU's search, told The State News.

"He dropped out," Isaacson said.

It's unclear what this means for the board's choice.

MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant declined to comment Wednesday evening, saying she had no knowledge of the board's deliberations or how Eighmy withdrawing would effect them. 

These final discussions mark the end of a search shrouded in secrecy and marred with controversy. From the beginning, MSU’s board was steadfast behind a commitment to keep the candidates completely confidential, only committing to announce one final choice.

The faculty senate and other campus groups have repeatedly asked for more transparency and public input in the process. The board has rebuked the demands, arguing the secrecy attracts the best candidates by allowing them to apply without the knowledge of their current employers.  

Trustee Dennis Denno, who is the search committee chair, has long said the board would publicly announce the chosen candidate by the Thanksgiving holiday next week.

It’s unclear if that promise is still in place. Denno did not return calls from The State News on Wednesday.

The deliberations come at a time of heightened tensions on MSU's board.

Last month, trustee Brianna Scott wrote a letter demanding board chair Rema Vassar's removal over wide-ranging allegations of unethical conduct. The dispute escalated at a tense public meeting, with various board members taking sides and making impassioned speeches.

The sources who described the deliberations to The State News said the board was deadlocked and unable to agree on one candidate.

The narrowing of the search was first reported Friday by the Spartans Illustrated blog. Citing unnamed sources, the post said the board was considering two candidates “from North Carolina and the Texas area.”

That report was then echoed in a post on the SpartanTailgate blog, which cited anonymous sources saying one candidate “is currently a chancellor at a flagship university, while the other is a president at a smaller D1 university.”

The State News’ sources confirmed that those individuals are Eighmy and Guskiewicz.

Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist, has been at UNC nearly his entire career, beginning as an assistant professor in 1998 and climbing the ranks of the institution until he became the chancellor in 2019, according to UNC's website.

His research on the science of sports-related head injuries was widely praised and led him to consult for the NFL and NCAA on their problems with concussions and CTE.

Eighmy has been UTSA president since 2017. He previously worked as chief research officer at multiple universities and has degrees in biology, civil engineering and environmental engineering, according to his UTSA bio.

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His research on waste management, geochemistry and microbiology has been widely cited. Much of Eighmy’s work seeks to control air pollution in waste disposal.

Recent political conflicts over white supremacist iconography on their campuses have put both of them in the spotlight — though for different reasons. 

UNC faculty criticized Guskiewicz for settling a lawsuit with a local confederate group. The UT Board of Regents criticized Eighmy for ending a football team slogan that has white supremacist ties.

Guskiewicz’s UNC dispute centered around a campus Confederate statue toppled by protesters in 2018, according to reporting by NC Newsline.

Upset with the statue’s removal, the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the university and its board. Eventually, UNC settled the suit, agreeing to give the group the statue and $2.5 million for its continued upkeep.

At the time, Guskiewicz told upset UNC faculty that he and other administrators were not a part of the settlement discussions, instead pinning the deal on members of the governing board.

But it was later revealed that one of Guskiewicz’ vice-chancellors, Clayton Somers, was directly involved in crafting the controversial settlement.

That twist outraged some UNC faculty.

“It’s surprising that senior leadership, the chancellor, would maintain we had no involvement in it when it appears we did,” Eric Muller, a member of UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee said to NC Newsline in 2021.

Eighmy’s scandal put him at the opposite end of outrage, with critics saying he went too far in distancing the university from a history of white supremacy.

Eighmy stopped flags reading “Come and take it” from being displayed at UTSA football games in September 2021, sparking backlash from the university system's board of regents, according to reporting by The Texas Tribune.

The slogan originates from a historic battle that took place during the 1835 Texas Revolution in which Texan troops refused to return a borrowed cannon.

The cannon, borrowed from the Mexican army, was used to fight Native American tribes during the colonization of the West. When Mexican authorities asked for it back, Texan troops infamously told them to “come and take it.”

The phrase, accompanying an image of a cannon under a star, made it on a flag UTSA began displaying at the start of its first football season.

To many, the flag is a symbol of Texas history and pride. But it has often been adapted to express more controversial sentiments, from pro-second amendment rights to anti-immigration and anti-Mexican beliefs. The flag was also seen, superimposed with the Confederate flag, at the Jan. 6 2021 capitol riot.

Due to its ties with what many now consider to be a distasteful history, Eighmy decided to end the six-year tradition of displaying the flag at football games.

“The phrase — as well intended as it was upon inception and adoption — has increasingly become incongruent with UTSA Athletics and our institution’s mission and core values,” Eighmy wrote in a September 2021 release.

The UT board of regents were unhappy with that decision, calling it an abandonment of Texas tradition and history. But Eighmy stood firm in his choice.

Eighmy and Guskiewicz were among the candidates presented to MSU's board by the search committee, the sources said. It's unclear who the others were. 

Denno told The State News in September that the board could ultimately choose someone who didn’t get the search committee’s endorsement.

But, after backlash from MSU’s undergraduate student government, faculty senate and every dean and vice-provost, he retracted those comments.

In a statement, Denno said he “listened to the MSU community” and would “not deviate from the candidates that the search committee has chosen."

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