Friday, April 12, 2024

Black student groups petition to retain MSU trustees following misconduct findings, say report is inaccurate

March 3, 2024
<p>MSU board chair Vassar presents her comments and report during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.</p>

MSU board chair Vassar presents her comments and report during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.

Photo by Jack Patton | The State News

The Black Students’ Alliance and the MSU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have started a petition against the removal of MSU board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno. 

The student groups’ petition, which has received over 100 signatures since being created this afternoon, says the embattled board members have given “unwavering support for the Black community” and should not be removed following an outside firm’s findings that they breached board bylaws and the code of ethics. 

“Their removal from the Board would not only be a loss for us but also send a disheartening message about how much this university values its students' diverse experiences and perspectives,” the online petition states.

Vassar and Denno were the focus of a 63-page report into allegations of board chair impropriety which was released Wednesday. 

It found that Vassar and Denno interfered in university investigations and lawsuits, encouraged personal attacks against Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton and “encouraged student actions intended to embarrass and unsettle Interim President Woodruff,” among other things.

But Black student leaders say the decisions shouldn’t be made based on the report since it contains false and misleading information and because investigators never interviewed Black students. 

The investigation, conducted by the firm Miller & Chevalier, recommended Vassar and Denno be referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for corrective action under a law in the state constitution that gives the governor the right to remove members of boards of state universities from office. 

It also recommends that trustee Brianna Scott be censured for publicly releasing a letter of allegations against Vassar, which triggered the investigation in October 2023. 

The board will hold a special meeting tonight to discuss the firm's findings. Though no motions are listed on the agenda, MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant said the board is “planning to take actions” but couldn’t comment on specifics. 

Board bylaws prevent trustees from voting on any motion or resolution not included on the agenda prior to the meeting unless it is endorsed in writing by three or more trustees. Guerrant said the board could vote to amend the agenda and vote on certain resolutions.

Though the board cannot vote to remove trustees, it can vote to strip trustees of their committee assignments or chair positions, Guerrant said. It can also vote to censure trustees. 

BSA President Ty’Rianna Leslie said Vassar and Denno’s potential removal is “concerning.”

Leslie says Vassar and Denno have often been the only board members to reach out to Black students after recent instances of racism on campus and the only ones to attend a NAACP town hall on racial justice last semester.

Rebuking investigative methods and findings

Miller & Chevalier found that Vassar encouraged a student to write a letter to MSU’s accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission, as part of a campaign orchestrated by her and Denno to denounce faculty senate chair Jack Lipton.

The author of that letter, Black student leader Missy Chola, has rebuked that finding, saying Vassar never encouraged or helped her write the letter. Instead, she told The State News that she wrote the letter independently as a “Black student leader fighting for marginalized communities on our campus.”

Given the alleged inaccuracy in the report’s finding, Missy Chola, who is an NAACP MSU liaison and a member of BSA, said she does not believe it should be used as the basis for a decision to remove Vassar and Denno.

“I do not believe that decisions should be made based off a report where a section is false,” she said. “That opens up the doors to a lot of different questions.”

The letter to the HLC raises general concerns about the treatment of marginalized students on campus and specifically accuses Lipton of putting marginalized students’ safety at risk by publicly labeling them as a “mob” after they voiced their support for Vassar at an Oct. 27, 2023, board meeting.

Following that meeting, Lipton was quoted in a Detroit News article saying the meeting, “filled with Chair Vassar supporters, demonstrated Trustee Scott’s charges of intimidation and bullying in action” and “the chaos brought and disrespect shown by her supporters could have been stopped by a single statement from Chair Vassar, yet she elected to let the mob rule the room.”

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Lipton publicly apologized for his comments during a board meeting on Dec. 15, 2023, after public backlash.

“I have heard from some members of our community who felt that the word mob was racially loaded,” Lipton said during the meeting. “While I was not referring to members of any specific racial or ethnic groups, I recognize that the impact of my statement on some Spartans was real, and I apologize.”

Chola, who said she was in attendance at that meeting, said the language used by Lipton weaponizes stereotypes that Black people are inherently angry and dangerous.

“You do not refer to them as a mob,” she said. “That connects to (them to an) ‘angry Black woman’ (and) that connects (them) to Black people just being rowdy. That word has so much inside when it comes to marginalized communities and Black history.” 

In response to Lipton’s statements, Chola wrote the letter to HLC — an action the report claimed was orchestrated by Vassar to retaliate against Lipton. 

But Chola said the evidence the firm used to support its finding that Vassar encouraged her to write the letter isn’t solid.

Chola said a text she sent, used in the investigation as evidence that Vassar encouraged her to write the letter, was taken out of context.

In the text, Chola tells others that the HLC would not be moving forward with an investigation into her complaint. She notes that “Dr. Vassar is quite pissed too,” according to the report. 

Chola said she did reach out to Vassar after hearing that the HLC wouldn’t be investigating her complaint “in hopes to create next steps with her and the Board of Trustees on the safety of students on our campus.” Chola said she and other Black student leaders have discussed their experiences on campus with Vassar in the past and worked with her to make improvements to the campus culture. 

In response to that message, Chola said Vassar “expressed that she wasn’t happy that the HLC did not respond well to marginalized communities being treated poorly at our institution.”

But Chola said this chain of communication gives no indication that Vassar encouraged her to file the complaint with HLC or that her filing of the complaint was part of a campaign by Vassar and Denno to denounce Lipton, as the report found. 

“Obviously, (Vassar) was mad that students weren’t being protected, and I was mad about that too,” she said. “But the way it was put in the report is making it seem like she was mad that Dr. Lipton wasn't being attacked or anything. I very much disagree with that.” 

Vassar and Denno both denied encouraging students to file the complaint with HLC, “claiming they only advised students to document incidents on campus and that it was ultimately the student’s idea to file the HLC report,” the report said. 

Chola also said she was surprised to see her letter used as part of the investigation because she was never contacted. 

“If you are going to use something for a certain piece, you should hear from the person who wrote the letter themself,” she said. “You should not get information from somebody else.”

Miller & Chevalier did not respond to requests for comment about its methods.

Chola said she believes the investigators wanted to complete the investigation quickly, which is why they failed to investigate the issue more diligently by interviewing her.

“They didn’t reach out to us because they knew we weren't going to help the report,” she said. “We weren't going to help that investigation with anything. We weren’t going to show that these two people do not deserve to be removed.”

Leslie says the finding is demeaning to Black students. 

“It’s kind of questioning our intelligence,” Leslie said. “Any person would know that calling the student group a mob is not right or OK.”

Student group manipulation

During a meeting with student groups, the report said Vassar and Denno gave students inaccurate, confidential information about university affairs, which Vassar advised students to “hold onto like a trump card” in order to embarrass the administration.

Vassar suggested that the students “pressure the administration to meet their specific demands” by following suit of public commenters at the last board meeting who “came for (Woodruff’s) neck,” according to the report. 

“But there’s so many other groups that you could partner with to crucify her,” Vassar told students, according to the report.

“Embarrass (Interim President Woodruff) … tell her you’re working with (Black Student Alliance), whether you are or not … that will terrify her,” Denno told students, according to the report.

But Leslie doesn’t see Vassar and Denno’s comments as manipulation or retaliation.

“I really don't think it means to embarrass her,” Leslie said. “​​I think it's more so just saying, ‘make (Woodruff) actually do work,’ because that's something that we have been struggling with this whole school year.”

Their suggestion to partner with BSA was a strategic one, Leslie said, considering the group’s “powerful voice” in the community.

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