Tuesday, April 23, 2024

MSU Black Students' Alliance supports trustees Vassar and Denno, says firm's findings are 'demeaning'

March 26, 2024
Trustee Rema Vassar speaks at the Board of Trustees Meeting on Oct. 28, 2022.
Trustee Rema Vassar speaks at the Board of Trustees Meeting on Oct. 28, 2022. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

The Black Students' Alliance of MSU released a statement in support of trustees Rema Vassar and Dennis Denno after an investigation's findings led to Vassar's resignation as board chair and their referral to the governor for possible removal earlier this month. 

The investigation was launched in October 2023 after trustee Brianna Scott released a letter of wide-ranging allegations against Vassar. The firm conducting the investigation, Miller & Chevalier, found that Vassar and Denno violated conflict of interest policies, overstepped in university affairs and orchestrated attacks on colleagues, among other things.

The report recommended that Vassar and Denno be referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for removal.

Vassar resigned as chair days later, hours before a special board meeting where the Board of Trustees voted to refer Vassar and Denno to the governor for corrective action under a law in the state constitution which gives the governor the right to remove members of state university boards from office. 

Prior to the board's vote, the BSA and MSU NAACP created a petition to retain both trustees, which gained hundreds of signatures. Now, BSA's most recent statement, which was released on Monday via social media, is the organization's latest show of support for Vassar and Denno. 

“We come to you today to show our appreciation and support for Trustee Dr. Rema Vassar in the face of unrelenting and unprecedented attacks, but also to clear false discrepancies as our organization has been mentioned in the media in the light of the investigation conducted on the two trustees at hand,” the organization's statement reads.

The statement criticizes the firm's investigation, rebutting the finding that Vassar and Denno encouraged students to embarrass former Interim President Woodruff and Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton.

“As the Black Student Body, we are autonomous students and human beings with our own sets of beliefs and value systems,” the statement reads. “Which is why the false narrative and characterizations that have been utilized in the media and investigation from the university, stating that we are being used as 'puppets' and as 'an army' for trustees Vassar and Denno is demeaning and ultimately not true.”

This narrative “further perpetuates stereotypes and microaggresions that Black Students on campus experience throughout their acts of communal advocacy," according to the statement. 

Contrary to the investigation's findings, BSA says Vassar did not prompt any of the organization's advocacy work throughout the semester.

BSA's statement also calls for due process, as the organization was mentioned throughout the investigation but was never asked to do interviews to discuss its stance. 

Additionally, the organization listed several reasons why Vassar has its support:

  • Vassar met with BSA during the organization’s retreat where she spoke on Black love and the importance of “standing in our Blackness.”
  • Vassar informed the organization on how to best advocate for their community, while also advising student leaders.
  • Vassar has supported the community during times of need, giving students support after racially charged incidents, checking on their mental and physical well-being, all while being approachable and welcoming.
  • Vassar’s role as the first Black woman chair at a predominantly white institution is significant, as she embodies a strong, unapologetic, and confident Black woman who does not assimilate to white cultural roles despite her position.

“Despite the news articles, Dr. Rema Vassar has tried to do significantly positive endeavors for the MSU community, especially minorities,” the statement reads. “That includes advocating in support of bills that were aimed towards Black and Brown students, more camera installations and coverage, and for better DEIB sensitivity and accountability.”

The statement says Vassar was instrumental in advocating for groups in the Council of Racial and Ethnic Students to be included in the Multicultural Center planning, and that she is bridging the gap between Black students and MSU President Kevin Guskiewicz to discuss issues that Black students faces on campus.

BSA added that there are few leaders who are willing or able to put a spotlight on issues Black students face on campus. 

“The removal of Dr. Rema Vassar as Board of Trustees Chair is a clear example of what happens when people of color, in positions of power, move as advocates for students in ways that do not align with their University’s agenda,” the statement reads.

Because of this, BSA is requesting a meeting with Whitmer prior to her deliberation on the trustees' potential removal "so she can be fully informed on both Trustees' positive impact on the community."

“As a board, we ask all MSU stakeholders including Gov. Whitmer to center student voices above all, as it pertains to Trustee Vassar’s and Trustee Denno’s position on the board,” the statement reads. 

Spokespersons for Whitmer did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

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Though the organization said it is saddened by Vassar’s resignation as chair, it is also dedicated to maintaining a connection with the new chair, Dan Kelly. The statement requests a meeting with Kelly before the spring semester is over. 

"We are meeting with Kelly to give him more insight of what the Black community is facing and why it is pivotal for him to speak to organizations on campus," BSA President Ty'Rianna Leslie said. 

Kelly did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. 

The statement comes shortly after BSA wrote a letter to President Guskiewicz urging him to implement plans to address racism on campus.

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