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MSU president search nears end in secrecy, amid tumult

November 10, 2023
The Board of Trustees during a meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
The Board of Trustees during a meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.

Michigan State University's presidential search has entered its final phase in a full embrace of the total secrecy that has defined the contentious process. 

The search committee has finished its work, placing the choice solely in the hands of MSU's board as their proposed Thanksgiving deadline nears. 

Their presidential deliberations come at a time of intense tumult for the university, with calls for the resignation of the board's chair, threats of a legal battle over the firing of former football coach Mel Tucker for sexually harassing a vendor and a newly public unionization attempt by tenure-track faculty.

The search thus far has been conducted behind closed doors by two entities: executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, which collected applications and facilitated the process, and a committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni tasked with screening the candidates and providing feedback to the board.

Both groups signed legal agreements mandating secrecy about all aspects of the search.

The committee finished their work, turning something over to the Board of Trustees, which is tasked with the final choice.

What they gave the board is unclear. 

John Isaacson, the search firm's chair, refused to tell The State News what the firm and committee turned over to the board. 

Dennis Denno, the board member who led the search committee, has not returned multiple calls and messages from The State News seeking comment. 

MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant said she wasn't included in the board’s closed discussions of the search and thus was unaware of what the recommendations looked like.

Board chair Rema Vassar did not return calls from The State News seeking comment.

Committees usually put forward three to five recommended candidates, Judith Wilde, a Goerge Mason professor who studies university presidential searches, said. 

What that looks like can vary, Wilde said, with some committees ranking candidates or some just providing feedback on each with no particular preferences.

Why the secrecy?

Wilde questioned the broad secrecy surrounding the search.

Isaacson and the board have argued that secrecy protects the best candidates because it allows people currently in high-profile positions to apply without fear of issues at their current employer.

Wilde said that isn't quite right. 

In her research, she's asked leaders of search firms for examples of that scenario. She said no one could ever point to one.

When she and her colleagues looked for themselves, Wilde said, "we couldn't find a single empirical, actual example of a person that's happened to."

In fact, there are examples of the opposite occurring.

Wilde said when a well-liked university leader applies for other jobs, their school usually takes steps to better their arrangement in hopes of keeping them.

She pointed to a 2019 example at Montana State University when then-president Waded Cruzado was being considered for a vacant presidency at another university. Their board swiftly offered her a $150,000 raise, which compelled her to stay.

So, if the job security concerns are unsubstantiated, why the secrecy?

Wilde said it's a tactic used by search firms to recycle candidates across multiple searches.

"It allows these firms to use the same candidates over and over again, without people knowing someone's been in different searches and never been hired or even named as a candidate," Wilde said.

Failed attempt at faculty input

The board's faculty liaisons were ready to go along with the secrecy of the search to get an opportunity to evaluate the finalists. However, their proposals were rejected. 

Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton said he and other faculty leaders asked the board for a chance to interview the finalists. He said they were ready to "sign NDAs" or take other secrecy measures if that's what it took.

Some on the board "advocated for it," but Denno and Isaacson ultimately rejected the idea, Lipton said.

Why didn't they like the idea? 

Lipton said Denno "gave some vague pushback that it's not what he promised the candidates," but Lipton speculated "that the search firm was afraid (faculty interviews) will scare away the finalists."

In general, Lipton said, the board has been resistant to ideas and discussions of the search since recent calls for Vassar's resignation as chair divided the trustees.

"I think the problem right now is that this group of eight people aren't really talking to each other," Lipton said.

Delaying the search over dysfunction

Lipton and Wilde both said the current board dysfunction and high-profile university scandals could be grounds to delay the choice.

"Under the best circumstances, choosing a president is a sensitive and risky position." Lipton said. "I think that with the current board situation, with the multiple investigations going on, in my personal opinion, it's probably not the best time to be making such an important, consequential decision."

However, Denno has recently reaffirmed his commitment to choosing a president by Thanksgiving, seemingly dismissing the idea of delaying the search until the board's internal battles are resolved.

Lipton said he worried the board will pick whatever candidate they can all agree on instead of taking the time to debate the best one for MSU.

"I'm very concerned that a consensus is going to occur so they can just get through it, so they can have an answer and move on," Lipton said. "They might be focused on expediency."

Wilde agreed, saying she's seen a divided board dismiss exciting candidates some of them liked, instead choosing a dull candidate they could agree on, all in hopes of avoiding more contentious deliberations.

She worries that's down the road for MSU.

"We can say with some certainty that, at this point, this board is dysfunctional," Wilde said. "They are not going to easily come to an agreement on a particular candidate."

Denno and Isaacson have repeatedly denounced speculation suggesting board drama, recent scandal and the university's rapid disposal of its recent presidents have shaken the search.

Wilde said she can't imagine they’re telling the truth. 

"They say nobody's dropped out because of what's going on," Wilde said. "Yeah, I'm not sure if I believe that. If I had been nominated as a potential candidate, one of the first things that would go through my mind is 'five presidents in six years. Do I want to be the sixth?'"

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