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New MSU president ‘looking forward’ at goals, not ‘backwards’ at distrust, disarray

March 13, 2024
Michigan State University President Kevin Guskiewicz during an interview with The State News in his office at the Hannah Administration Building on March 12, 2024.
Michigan State University President Kevin Guskiewicz during an interview with The State News in his office at the Hannah Administration Building on March 12, 2024.

Kevin Guskiewicz spent Tuesday afternoon at Michigan State University’s College of Nursing, touring the facilities and talking to students and staff.

They told him that their simulation rooms — where students practice drawing blood or palpating abdomens — were aging and in need of repairs, said Guskiewicz, who began work as MSU’s president last week.

He quickly devised a plan: finance new simulation rooms by identifying interested donors or leveraging Michigan’s current nurse shortage to get state funding for the project.

The visit and ensuing discussions was one of the first stops in a months-long "listening and learning tour" Guskiewicz plans to complete as he begins his presidency. He hopes to do what he did at the nursing school at each of his 48 visits: hear directly from his constituents and conceive creative solutions for problems they’re facing, he said.

It’s the centerpiece of his vision for his first 100 days, which he laid out in a letter to MSU’s board last month. Guskiewicz shared a copy of the letter with The State News and sat down for an interview to discuss it.

The former neuroscientist and University of North Carolina chancellor is beginning his term at the cusp of years of distrust in and disarray at MSU.

The university was thrust into national scrutiny in 2016 when its years-long mishandling of serial sexual abuse by its doctor, Larry Nassar, began unraveling.

And, in more recent years, the institution has churned through numerous presidents, as the elected governing board has repeatedly interfered in the work of the administration, prompting a review of MSU’s accreditation and multiple outside investigations.

Guskiewicz refrained from discussing that thorny past, saying that he's only focused on what he’ll do to ensure MSU’s success during his tenure. 

"I want to look forward, not backwards," he said, writing in his letter that "There is a deep love for this place, coupled with some doubt and a need for healing. I am eager to help us move forward."

High hopes

"The status quo is unacceptable," Guskiewicz wrote in his letter to the board. This will be his "message to campus leaders" on the learning tour. 

The primary goal is to better inform himself of the strengths and weaknesses of each part of MSU, Guskiewicz said.

His secondary goal is finding a "signature initiative" that MSU can be known for statewide.

The initiative, whatever it turns out to be, should work within Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Grow Michigan Together initiative, he said, which seeks to improve the state’s economic competitiveness and preserve its shrinking population.

"I want to make sure MSU is at the forefront of driving the economy of the state," Guskiewicz said.

Having a big project to point to could help MSU lobby lawmakers to increase its state appropriation, he said, which for years has lagged behind other public universities in per-student funding.

"We will show there’s a great return on investment when the taxpayers invest more in this university," he said. "That’s my goal – show that we can be the university for Michigan."

The learning tour and associated initiative were part of Guskiewicz’s pitch to MSU’s board when he was interviewed for the presidency in November, he wrote in the letter. He believes it’s why he was hired.

"I have often said the best leaders are those who are the most curious, most bold, and most strategic," he wrote. "I believe you hired me to do just that."

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A new relationship with the board

Recent MSU presidents have struggled with interference and agitation from MSU’s elected board.

Samuel Stanley — who was appointed in 2019 and then said to be ushering in a new era at MSU post-Nassar — resigned in October 2022, saying he had lost faith in the board after repeated interference.

Teresa Woodruff took his place as Interim President before announcing in August that she wouldn’t seek a full-time appointment. 

A recent outside investigation found that members of MSU’s board regularly interfered in her work and instructed student leaders to "crucify" her in the press and at public meetings.

Avoiding similar issues has been a point of discussion between Guskiewicz and the board since before he was selected for the job. He said in writings to faculty leaders during the search that he would only accept the role if the board promised not to interfere in his work. 

Upon his appointment in December, the board did just that, signing pledges promising not the interfere in his administration.

And last week, in light of the outside report, the board voted to censure the trustees involved in overstepping with Woodruff and strip them of all official duties. 

The board also asked Whitmer to remove them from office altogether, a power only she has. She has not yet said what action she’ll take.

Guskiewicz said he believes the board has put all that behind them, and that they are committed to "developing a strong partnership" with him and his administration.

"I can’t speculate about what may have gone wrong in the past and why," Guskiewicz said. "There may have been challenges between certain board members and the administration, but I’m looking forward and excited about what’s in front of us."


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