Saturday, May 18, 2024

Embattled MSU board members 'exploited racial identities,' manipulated students to smear colleagues, Palestinian student activist says

March 3, 2024
MSU student Saba Saed calls out the Board of Trustees’ lack of support of Palestinian students during the ongoing conflict in Gaza during the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
MSU student Saba Saed calls out the Board of Trustees’ lack of support of Palestinian students during the ongoing conflict in Gaza during the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.

The Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee released a statement suggesting that Michigan State University trustee Dennis Denno and former board chair Rema Vassar are being targeted “for their support of Arab, Black, Palestinian, and Muslim students” following an outside report’s finding that the two board members used student groups to orchestrate attacks on colleagues.

But prominent Palestinian student activist Saba Saed — who has had extensive conversations with the trustees this academic year in hopes of getting the university to increase support for Arab students affected by the ongoing violence in Gaza — says the criticism facing them has nothing to do with their support for Palestinian students. 

In fact, she told The State News, she believes the pair have “exploited (students’) racial identities” to support their campaign against colleagues who have publicly disapproved of them. 

Saed was recently interviewed for an investigation by the outside consulting firm Miller & Chevalier into widespread allegations of misconduct initially made by trustee Brianna Scott against Vassar. 

The investigation, which was released Wednesday, found that Vassar — who resigned as board chair today — and Denno violated board bylaws and code of ethics by interfering in university investigations and lawsuits and orchestrating “attacks” on colleagues, among other things.

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

Saed — referred to in the report as “Interviewee 10” — said she reached out to the consulting firm to raise concerns about the nature of interactions Vassar and Denno were having with her and other students. 

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She had started to feel that the two trustees were less interested in supporting herself and other Arab students, and more interested in using students as a means to denounce those who opposed them; namely, faculty senate chair Jack Lipton. 

Lipton, who publicly denounced Vassar after allegations of her misconduct came to light in October 2023, was found by the firm to have been inappropriately retaliated against by Vassar and Denno.

After a tense board meeting in October, Lipton — referring to disruptions by attendees in support of Vassar — said in a statement published in The Detroit News that Vassar “elected to let the mob rule the room.”

Students argued that Lipton’s use of the word “mob” to describe Black students weaponized stereotypes that Black people are inherently dangerous or angry. One student, Black student leader Missy Chola, filed a complaint with MSU’s accrediting body arguing that Lipton’s language endangered Black and brown students.

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

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Because of her suspicions, Saed said, she decided to start recording her conversations with the trustees. She ultimately provided those recordings to investigators. 

“If I wasn't sussed out about them, I wouldn't have recorded meetings,” she said. “How could you be talking so much crap about people you work with?”

Those recordings showed Denno and Vassar sharing confidential university information with students and encouraging them to “embarrass and scare Interim President Woodruff,” as well as call Lipton racist publicly, the report said. 

The report also uses text messages Saed had received from Denno.

In those texts, Denno gave Saed the name and email of the Detroit News reporter who published Lipton’s “mob” statement. 

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When asked what to say to the reporter, Denno replied, “Lipton=racist,” the report said. 

Saed said she was genuinely angry at Lipton at first, but later realized her anger was misdirected. She met with him and he explained that he only meant to convey that as chair, Vassar had the authority to call for order during the chaotic meeting, but chose not to.

“I reflected back about how much they fueled my anger and exploited my anger and redirected it towards a person,” Saed said. 

She hadn’t even read the Detroit News article, and said she felt genuinely “embarrassed” for her anger at Lipton. 

Saed also said Vassar encouraged her to collaborate with other student groups to file a complaint with MSU’s accrediting body that smears Lipton. 

Though a complaint was filed with the HLC in December, its author, Chola, said Vassar never encouraged or helped her write the letter, but that she wrote the letter independently as a “Black student leader fighting for marginalized communities on our campus.”

Saed also said she suspects Denno was behind the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee's statement in favor of Denno and Vassar. 

She suspects this because Denno had previously given her the phone number of the legal director of that organization, someone who she said Denno is friends with.

“Abed Ayoub from the ADC, meet Saba Saed, Palestinian. It would be great if u two connected, and keep me out of this lol,” Denno wrote in a group text to Saed and the legal director of the ADC.

Despite what Saed said were attempts by Vassar and Denno to make students angry with the administration, the administration has done more concretely to help Arab students than either of the two trustees, she said. 

Saed said Denno once told her he couldn’t publicly support the Palestinian cause, despite his true feelings, because he would be retaliated against. 

“I think that their actions didn't speak as loud as their words about their support for us,” she said. 

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Saed said several administrators have met with her and other Arab students and asked them how they can help support students. 

“They’re just very receptive to knowing how they can help,” she said.

She also said MSU’s department of police and public safety met with her and other Arab students and said they have been working on new training programs “to help understand Islamophobia and Anti-Arab rhetoric.”

“Everyone's doing their part,” she said. “We're still waiting on that from the Board of Trustees.”

Saed said she hopes Vassar and Denno are removed from their positions on the board given that they violated board bylaws and code of ethics. 

“She had a job that she failed to do,” she said. “In any other job, you break the code, you get in trouble for it.”

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