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UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz appointed MSU president by board

December 8, 2023
<p>Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz speaks at the dedication of the memorial for James Lewis Cates, Jr. on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. Photo taken by Ira Wilder and provided by The Daily Tar Heel.</p>

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz speaks at the dedication of the memorial for James Lewis Cates, Jr. on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. Photo taken by Ira Wilder and provided by The Daily Tar Heel.

Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees appointed Kevin Guskiewicz to the university’s vacated presidency at a special meeting Friday, ending a months-long, secretive search and giving the university its sixth leader in six years.

Guskiewicz, a neuroscientist and concussion researcher, has served as the chancellor of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill since 2019.

His appointment at MSU — approved unanimously by the board — will begin March 4, 2024.

Guskiewicz joined the Zoom board meeting from North Carolina.

"I am aware that MSU has faced more than its share of challenges in recent years," Guskiewicz said. "Yet I see a strong university with an inspiring historical foundation that can reach new levels of excellence through its powerful commitment to student success, knowledge, discovery and land-grant service."

He said he would begin his tenure with a "listening and learning tour to hear from our community about how to ensure a bright future for our university."

Trustees expressed excitement about Guskiewicz’s appointment, describing him as both a skilled administrator and an accomplished professor, with an understanding of the demands in the classroom and in research.

“We have chosen the most qualified candidate to lead the university forward,” board chair Rema Vassar said. “Guskewicz doesn’t know it yet, but he has always been a Spartan in spirit.”

She said the board is “committed to working side-by-side with Guskewicz to propel MSU forward.”

Dennis Denno, trustee and chair of the presidential search committee, said he's excited for the "bright future" MSU will "forge together" with Guskiewicz at the helm.

“Like all major universities, we’re facing challenges, but we hold high aspirations,” Denno said. “With Dr. Guskiewicz’s academic credentials, administrative experience, and vision for 21st century higher education, we’re confident that the university will continue to move forward.”

Hannah Jeffery, president of MSU's graduate student government and member of the search committee, said she believed the board made the "best possible decision" with Guskiewicz.

"When I reviewed his credentials, he stood out to me as a thoughtful, qualified individual with a great attitude towards higher education leadership," Jeffery said.

Head men’s basketball coach and member of the search committee Tom Izzo, said he was especially impressed by Guskiewicz's fundraising experience, saying "fundraising requires developing trust and relationships, so it’s no surprise he was successful in that area."

"I've said my teams are only as good as their leaders, and the university can only be as strong as its leader," Izzo said. "From the time I met (Guskiewicz), when he became a candidate for our next president, he stood out as a tremendous choice."

Friday's announcement comes two weeks after the Thanksgiving deadline that Denno set at the start of the search in March.

The search was conducted in complete secrecy by the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, which collected applications and facilitated the process. A committee of students, faculty, staff and alumni were tasked with screening the candidates and providing feedback to the board

Both groups signed legal agreements that mandated secrecy for all aspects of the search.

John Isaacson of Isaacson, Miller told The State News on Oct. 24 that the committee had concluded its work and turned over its recommendations to the board

Sources with knowledge of the board’s deliberations told The State News on Nov. 15 that the board had narrowed that list down to two final candidates, Guskiewicz and University of Texas at San Antonio President Taylor Eighmy. 

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Shortly after The State News sent messages to both candidates, Eighmy withdrew his name from consideration.

The next day, Guskiewicz announced he was “weighing” the decision to leave his current position to come to MSU.

“I am focused on serving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a special place I have lived, worked, and loved for 28 years," Guskiewicz said in a statement. "I am very proud of what our university accomplishes every day as one of the best public universities in the country. Through the years, a variety of professional opportunities have been presented to me. My family and I must weigh each one, and we are weighing this one.” 

Guskiewicz has said his decision to come to MSU was affected by allegations of interference by MSU’s elected board of trustees.

In written statements made to MSU's faculty weeks ago, Guskiewicz said he’s had “very direct and honest conversations” with MSU’s board — who have been accused of interfering in the university’s last two presidencies — about working more cohesively with his theoretical administration.

“If I were fortunate to be selected as the next president, I would only accept the role if I were given the opportunity to lead (MSU) without undue interference; instead, leading in a trusted partnership with the trustees, faculty, and staff," Guskiewicz wrote in the statements.

He wrote that he is “confident that the trustees are committed to this” and that he believes the board “values the principles of shared governance.”

The writings — which were initially written anonymously but later attributed to Guskiewicz and obtained by The State News — are the only public glimpse into his weeks-long discussions with MSU’s board over the presidency.

Meetings with stakeholders 

After Guskiewicz’s candidacy was revealed in the State News report, various MSU groups unsuccessfully demanded chances to meet with and question him.

Faculty senate leaders wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees on Nov. 17 pitching a 90-minute Zoom webinar with Guskiewicz where faculty and students could ask him questions

But Guskiewicz turned down the meeting, Isaacson said. 

"His schedule just didn't work, (the proposal) was kind of short notice," Isaacson told The State News. 

Isaacson said that he's talked through the proposed meeting with Guskiewicz, who said he "might do it, but it would be later." 

Isaacson said Guskiewicz is committed to "engaging not just the faculty but every constituency" eventually, but likely not this week during ongoing deliberations over his candidacy.

Faculty senate chair Jack Lipton criticized Guskiewicz’s response, saying "I don't know if it's really availability or if it's desire.”

The Michigan State University Black Alumni, or MSUBA, and the MSU Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association, or BFSAA, also requested an opportunity for university stakeholders to interview Guskiewicz. 

The request came as concerns arose over Guskiewicz’s role in a number of race-related UNC controversies.

Throughout Guskiewicz’s time at UNC, multiple controversies put him at odds with the university’s politically conservative board of governors

He has been vocal about his disagreements, but figures on UNC’s campus and beyond have criticized him for not doing more to intervene

Guskiewicz has been criticized for not intervening in UNC’s handling of a prominent Black journalist whose application for tenure was deadlocked by their board for months, according to reporting by NC Newsline

He also faced backlash for claiming he had no involvement in a controversial settlement with the North Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans over a toppled Confederate monument

"Given the concerns being raised publicly about the candidate, we are requesting an opportunity for stakeholders' groups to ask questions of this candidate, including MSUBA and BFSAA, and give feedback before the final selection and decision is made," MSUBA President La Verne Wilson wrote in an email to the Board of Trustees. 

Stratton Lee III, president of BFSAA, said those events "are relevant to the necessity" of speaking with Guskiewicz. 

"It is important for any candidate (that) we are considering for presidency to meet and understand the constituency for which they will be working with and serving on behalf of," Lee told The State News

The end of the search

The announcement that Guskiewicz will be the next president ends the highly scrutinized and secretive search. 

The search’s secrecy, according to Isaacson and Denno, attracted the best candidates because people in high profile positions don’t have to worry about looking disloyal to their current institutions. 

The number of applicants, who was being considered, who was being interviewed, names of finalists, who the committee recommended to the board and which candidates the board ultimately considered for the job all remained secret for a majority of the process. 

Denno told The State News in September that the next president didn’t need to have an academic background. He said the search committee was also carefully considering candidates “from the business world” and “people who have a very strong military background.”

He added that the board would “very, very strongly take into consideration the names the search committee provides” to it. 

That idea sparked backlash from MSU’s undergraduate student government, faculty senate and every dean and vice-provost, who demanded the board only choose committee-approved candidates.

Denno conceded to the criticism.

In a statement, Denno said he “listened to the MSU community” and would “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.”

Denno also drew criticism after promising the president would be chosen before Thanksgiving.

MSU’s faculty senate passed a resolution in November criticizing the deadline, calling it “arbitrary,” and suggesting the board take “as much time as it needs” to select the best candidate.

Recent turmoil within the board gave advocates another reason to delay the deadline. An investigation is currently being done into the actions of board chair Rema Vassar, whom trustee Brianna Scott accused of bullying and meddling in the university’s legal affairs last month.

Denno and Isaacson have repeatedly denounced speculation that suggests recent university drama and scandals have shaken the search.

Judith Wilde, a George Mason professor who studies university presidential searches, said 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.

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."

The search has also been scrutinized for an underrepresentation of students on the search committee and an overrepresentation of board of trustee members. Half of the board serves on the committee, making them the third largest faction represented

MSU’s university council, an advisory group composed of students, faculty and administrators, tried to dilute that influence. In March, they wrote a proposal asking that board members serve only as non-voting members of the search committee because their inclusion as full members “essentially gives them two votes.”

However, according to Denno, the trustees disagreed and maintained their four seats on the committee.

Student influence is also less than what the council desired. While the university council proposal requested five student seats, the current committee includes just three

Hannah Jeffery, president of the Council of Graduate Students and member of the search committee, said she worried the committee didn’t fully represent the student body

“I wish there were more (students),” Jeffrey said. “I can’t be the voice of everyone.”

A history of tumult

Guskiewicz will be MSU’s sixth president in the last six years

Lou Ana K. Simon resigned from the presidency in January 2018, hours after disgraced ex-MSU gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was criminally sentenced for his decades-long sexual abuse of athletes at MSU.

Former Michigan governor John Engler was appointed later that month. But shortly after, Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz alleged Engler tried to coerce and bribe her into settling her lawsuit, prompting outcry and his resignation.

Satish Udpa, former dean of the MSU College of Engineering, was appointed as MSU's interim president the day after Engler’s resignation. He served briefly until Samuel L. Stanley Jr. was hired in Aug.2019.

Stanley served until 2022, when tensions grew between him and the board over his ousting of business dean Sanjay Gupta and broader handling of Title IX. Eventually he resigned, saying he lost confidence in the board of trustees’ ability to lead the university.

He was replaced by then-provost Teresa Woodruff, who has been serving as an interim since.

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