Friday, April 12, 2024

MSU trustee Dennis Denno refutes review’s misconduct findings, threatens litigation

March 3, 2024
<p>Candidate for the MSU Board of Trustees Dennis Denno speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party Spring Endorsement Convention in Detroit on April 9, 2022.</p>

Candidate for the MSU Board of Trustees Dennis Denno speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party Spring Endorsement Convention in Detroit on April 9, 2022.

Photo by Sheldon Krause | The State News

Trustee Dennis Denno rebuked an outside firm’s findings that he and chair Rema Vassar violated board bylaws and the code of ethics in a statement released this afternoon. 

The letter responded to and explained many of law firm Miller & Chevalier’s findings, including his meeting with students to encourage them to “embarrass and unsettle Interim President Woodruff,” influencing the outside review of MSU’s response to the campus mass shooting and orchestrating personal attacks against Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton. 

Denno 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.”

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.

The review recommended Denno and Vassar 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 the letter of allegations against Vassar, which triggered the investigation. 

Denno said he will “accept a censure but contest any other form of punishment.” 

“What has been proposed is overly punitive in nature. I do not believe the board has legal grounds or ability to impose such extreme restrictions, which would limit my ability to represent this great school, speak for my Arab-American community and the survivor community, and I have legal counsel reviewing a potential lawsuit should this board not do the right thing here as I have agreed to do,” Denno wrote.

The firm, which released its 63-page investigation into allegations of board impropriety Wednesday, found that Denno violated the board’s code of ethics by trying to influence the reported findings of an outside firm’s review of the university’s response to the Feb. 13, 2023 shooting.

During a preliminary review between the firm that conducted the shooting review and the trustees, Denno pushed back on a finding that trustees were overly involved in the shooting in a manner others described as “aggressive” and “bullying,” the review reported. 

Denno defended his behavior in the letter, saying he asked “basic questions about the incomplete investigation and findings,” but the firm “had no answers.”

“I asked how they could say that the board interfered when they never talked to a single board member,” Denno wrote. “They had no answers. My questions were an attempt to better protect our students going forward.”

He also questioned the tactics of a separate outside review that concluded late last year, which attempted to determine who at MSU may have leaked the identity of Brenda Tracy, the woman ex-MSU football coach Mel Tucker was found to have sexually harassed. 

Denno was the only trustee who refused to give up his phone to investigators for review.

“No trustee knew of her name, yet over 20 administrators did, and none were asked to give up their phones,” Denno wrote, saying investigators should have also interviewed employees in multiple departments. 

A draft statement from Tracy originally accused “someone associated with” the board of leaking her identity.

The Miller & Chevalier investigation found Denno and Vassar encouraged unnamed student groups to “embarrass” and “scare” university administrators in order to get them to listen to their demands.

During a meeting with the students, Vassar and Denno gave the students inaccurate, confidential information about university affairs — including that MSU lost its accreditation the summer prior due to Woodruff’s and Provost Thomas Jeitschko’s neglect — for students to “hold onto like a trump card” to embarrass the administration, according to the report. 

“(The administrators) do not like being embarrassed,” Denno told students, according to transcribed audio from the meeting included in the report. “The Provost and Interim President are looking for their next jobs; they just don’t want to be embarrassed. They want to come out with no scandals.”

Support student media! Please consider donating to The State News and help fund the future of journalism.

But Denno said his words were taken out of context.

“My intent was to help a group of Arab-American students who felt marginalized by the administration and unsafe on campus,” Denno wrote. “Our Arab American, African American, Muslim American, Asian American, female and survivor community have consistently said they do not feel safe on campus and that they have no voice. I will always stand up to racism and try to assist those who are marginalized and victimized.”

Vassar and Denno were the only trustees “who have consistently tried to assist these groups, and for that I will not apologize,” Denno wrote.

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

Discussion

Share and discuss “MSU trustee Dennis Denno refutes review’s misconduct findings, threatens litigation” on social media.