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Former MSU board chair Vassar: ‘I’m not going away’ despite ‘disturbing’ board vote

March 6, 2024
Chairwoman Rema Vassar at the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
Chairwoman Rema Vassar at the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.

Former Michigan State University board chair Rema Vassar called the board’s historic vote to censure her and fellow trustee Dennis Denno, strip them of their duties and refer them to the governor to consider their removal a “disturbing overreaction to my actions.”

The board’s “unprecedented rush to judgment … represent(s) a clear abuse of institutional power designed to silence those who speak uncomfortable truths,” Vassar said in a statement today, provided by her attorney, Kevin O’Shea of Miller Law.

The decision came Sunday evening, hours after Vassar announced her resignation from her position as board chair and days after the release of a 63-page investigation into allegations of board impropriety

The investigation, conducted by outside firm Miller & Chevalier and released publicly on Feb. 28, found that Vassar and Denno violated board bylaws and code of ethics by interfering in university investigations and lawsuits and using students to orchestrate “attacks” on colleagues, among other things. The report also recommended Vassar and Denno be referred to the governor.

The board also voted to censure Brianna Scott for publicizing the allegations against Vassar that prompted the investigation, an action which the report also recommended. All trustees voted in favor of Scott's censure, with the exception of Vassar, who voted against

But Vassar says the investigation was incomplete and not conducted properly.

“For example, Miller & Chevalier refused to disclose information and documents they relied on, and I was never permitted to know the names of my accusers, let alone to confront and cross-examine them,” Vassar said in a statement.

Investigators noted that many MSU administrators and personnel had a “fear of retaliation” from Vassar and Denno and as a result, kept the identities of those interviewed confidential.

Vassar also said the investigation ignored additional allegations regarding other trustees and “fail(ed) to question the basic unreliability of the accusations against me.” 

“As such, it’s no surprise that the findings of the Report align with what the MSU establishment has always wanted: business as usual and a Board of Trustees that goes along without asking any difficult questions,” Vassar wrote.

Hours before the vote took place, Vassar announced her resignation as board chair. She’ll remain on the board as a trustee.

She said that decision “was reached in the best interest of the University, to allow for the Board to move beyond its long history of dysfunction and personal recriminations, to get down to business and serve our constituents.”

It was not, Vassar said, based on the report’s findings.

Vassar also said she’s “deeply touched” the Black Students’ Alliance and MSU’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came to her defense and promised she’d continue to support student engagement

“Rest assured: I’m not going away,” Vassar said in a statement

Stacey LaRouche, press secretary for Whitmer, said the governor’s office will “take the time to carefully review” the board’s referral.

The report’s findings

The Miller & Chevalier report found that Vassar violated board policies by:

  • accepting gifts from donors
  • interfering in negotiations of a NIL deal between MSU and the same donor
  • intervening in the release of the Nassar documents 
  • acting alone in negotiating the terms of a settlement with a former Broad College dean 
  • encouraging students to embarrass the interim president 
  • retaliating against Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton

The report also found that Denno violated board policies by:

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  • requesting details of trustee overstepping be revised in an outside firm’s review of MSU’s response to its Feb. 13, 2023, campus shooting
  • encouraging students to embarrass the interim president
  • retaliating against Lipton
  • becoming overly involved in MSU’s contracting process by recommending a consulting firm to analyze a university initiative, then revising the scope of their agreement at the consultant’s request

Denno, in a statement, said he refutes most of the allegations in the report

He wrote that his intentions have “always been to make MSU, the greater Lansing community and Michigan a better place,” which he does by asking questions

This is different from other trustees, he said, who “go along to get along.” According to Denno, other trustees have also asked him to stop asking questions

“That has rubbed people in the administration and on the board wrong, but I cannot apologize for asking questions,” Denno said in a statement. “I have a constitutional duty to protect taxpayer money, not to kowtow to bureaucrats in academia.”

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