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MSU board refers trustees Vassar and Denno to governor to consider removal, censures trustee Scott

March 3, 2024
The Board of Trustees during a meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
The Board of Trustees during a meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.

Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees voted to refer board chair Rema Vassar and trustee Dennis Denno to the governor to consider their removal at a special meeting late Sunday evening, hours after Vassar announced her resignation from her position as board chair. 

They also voted to strip both Denno and Vassar of their duties on the board. 

Vassar was removed as liaison to the MSU and Henry Ford Health steering committee and was suspended from all other current and future appointments of this board. Denno was removed as chair of Academic affairs. 

The votes regarding corrective action for Vassar and Denno were separate, but both passed in a split 6-2 vote. Trustees Dianne Byrum, Renee Knake-Jefferson, Dan Kelly, Sandy Pierce, Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay voted to approve both motions, with Denno and Vassar against them.

The motion also officially accepted Vassar’s resignation. Kelly will now be board chair and Tebay vice-chair.

The decision comes after the release of a 63-page investigation into allegations of board impropriety on Wednesday. 

It found that Vassar and Denno violated board bylaws and code of ethics by interfering in university investigations and affairs and using students to orchestrate “attacks” on colleagues, among other things.

“Despite my good intentions, I have had many missteps as we all do,” Vassar said. “I'm committed to doing what's necessary to improve my performance. And I know we all want to do better as a board in the future."

The board also voted to censure trustee Brianna Scott for publicizing the allegations against Vassar that prompted the investigation, an action which the report recommended. 

All trustees voted in favor of Scott's censure, with the exception of Vassar, who voted against. 

Scott said she was disappointed that she was being censured for “showcas(ing) dysfunction and some improprieties” in the board, and that she didn't "know what type of precedent we're setting."

“It's hurtful to me that my legacy will be that I was censured as a trustee for doing what I felt had to be done under the circumstances,” she said. 

Trustee Dianne Byrum commended Scott for bringing the allegations to the public’s attention. 

“I know that coming forward was a very courageous act, to put your accusations on paper in a letter,” she said. “And the findings have resulted in the action today, and I know that that was at a lot of a personal cost to you and I want to let you know that I appreciate it.”

Another resolution proposed professional development for the Board of Trustees given the report’s finding that trustees violated board bylaws and the code of ethics. 

It passed with the support of all trustees, except Vassar, who abstained. 

Vassar and Denno’s actions have “created fissures that have weakened the governance structure of the University and encouraged and created openings for members of the MSU community to also circumvent the Administration and reporting protocols, by leveraging individual Board members to act on their behalf,” according to the report.

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

Stacey LaRouche, press secretary for Whitmer, said Wednesday the report’s findings are “concerning.”

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“The board needs to give this report a thorough review to ensure the university can move forward and grow,” LaRouche wrote in a text to The State News. “We will continue to monitor this situation closely."

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.

Vassar, in a statement provided on behalf of her attorneys from Miller Law, said she does not agree that any board guidelines were violated.

“While she has not had an opportunity to examine the extensive Report of the Miller & Chevalier law firm in detail, Dr. Vassar is pleased that the investigation concluded that the most serious charges, including those raised by Trustee Brianna Scott, were unfounded,” Vassar’s lawyer, Kevin O’Shea, said.

Additionally, Missy Chola — a student leader who wrote a letter to the Higher Learning Commission condemning Lipton — refuted the board’s findings that Vassar encouraged her to do so as part of a campaign orchestrated by her and Denno to denounce Lipton.

Instead, she told The State News that she wrote the letter independently as a “Black student leader fighting for marginalized communities on our campus.”

The report also found that Denno violated board policies by:

  • requesting details of trustee overstepping be revised in an outside firm’s review of MSU’s response to it’s 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 wrote. “I have a constitutional duty to protect taxpayer money, not to kowtow to bureaucrats in academia.”

Another resolution proposed professional development for the board of trustees given the report’s finding that trustees violated board bylaws and the code of ethics. 

It passed with the support of all trustees, except Vassar, who abstained.

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