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MSU didn't address warning that its leadership was ill-prepared for emergency. Then the campus shooting happened.

April 29, 2024
An overhead view of the first responders that arrived to MSU Union during the response of a shooting on Michigan State’s campus on the night Feb. 13, 2023.
An overhead view of the first responders that arrived to MSU Union during the response of a shooting on Michigan State’s campus on the night Feb. 13, 2023.

In December 2022, Michigan State University was given a warning.

There was no guidance in place for high-ranking members of university leadership to follow during emergencies. If a campus-wide crisis were to occur, an uninformed and unpredictable leadership response could follow, a crisis management firm told MSU.

The university never addressed the problem, so they were forced to confront it head-on when two months later an active shooter sent the campus into lockdown.

The chaotic leadership response that ensued disrupted the healing processes of victims and their families and interfered with MSU’s ability to respond to the crisis, according to outside reviews and previously unreleased documents obtained by The State News.

Members of MSU’s Board of Trustees — who were largely the center of the chaos — then tried to prevent details of their interference from being publicly released.

Experts in trauma psychology and crisis management say the board’s role in the shooting response is another example of its long history of interference. But it’s also what happens when a well-intentioned desire to help isn’t properly channeled, they say.

The board underwent its first bout of emergency protocol training on April 11, nearly a year and a half after it was first recommended

Identifying the problem

A specialized group of MSU spokespeople and communicators met in November 2022 for a tabletop exercise.

As the team responded to a hypothetical crisis scenario, crisis consulting firm Blue Moon Consulting Group, or BMCG, was analyzing how they operated.

The exercise was designed to see how MSU’s crisis communications team, a group trained to transmit necessary information during campus emergencies and university scandals, could be improved

But it highlighted a problem: as the scenario evolved, many members of the team weren’t quite sure when the university’s top leadership should get involved. And even then, it was unclear what they would do.

BMCG reported that “one of the biggest challenges” facing the crisis communications team was ambiguity around how university leadership or the board should respond to an issue. 

They warned that a lack of clear guidelines for MSU leadership to follow during a crisis, combined with potential shortcomings in the communications team’s response, could end in chaos.

“Without clear guidelines around expected actions or the discipline of a formalized process, it is unlikely that there will be predictability or consistency in leadership response,” the consultants wrote in a report issued a month after the exercise.

BMCG warned that boards and leadership would take on inappropriate roles if these flaws went unaddressed.

“This is how schools end up with leadership teams and boards—responsible for strategy and oversight respectively—writing press releases or crowding into the Emergency Operations Center,” BMCG wrote

MSU didn’t address concerns

BMCG recommended MSU make a formal plan to identify and evaluate incidents at the university leadership level in December 2022.

Emily Guerrant, university spokesperson and leader of the crisis communications team, said staffing changes prevented MSU from immediately implementing such emergency guidance or training.

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MSU had two new board members — Sandy Pierce and Dennis Denno — who still “needed to be onboarded,” she said. MSU had also yet to hire a board secretary, instead having other administrators running double duty to fill the role.

“When you're short staffed in a key position like that, there's just a lot of things maybe you're not getting to,” Guerrant said. “We were getting organized.”

Confusion led to lack of efficiency during shooting

That meant MSU leadership was unprepared when a gunman entered campus two months later, killing three and injuring five students.

MSU’s crisis communications team quickly stepped into gear the evening of Feb. 13, 2023, holding press conferences and relaying information to the community. Their response was “effective, timely and transparent,” according to a later review, also conducted by BMCG, that was never released to the public.

But a “lack of a sufficiently robust and crisp role for leadership” made the team’s task difficult, BMCG reported in their October 2023 shooting review.

The team had to manage several situations where university leadership inserted themselves into MSU’s emergency response — including “meetings where the full contingent of Deans joined the (emergency operations center), and Board members showing up or calling unexpectedly expecting to be briefed” during the shooting, according to the report.

Each incident required the “almost full” attention of Guerrant. As the leader of the crisis communications team, her absence had downstream effects on the rest of the group, BMCG reported.

Guerrant and other senior members of the crisis communications team stepped in and out of their crisis communication roles to interact with MSU’s board and administration during the shooting. That made it harder for the rest of the team to get approval to send out messaging during the shooting since it was unclear who was in charge of the group when leadership was unavailable, according to the report.

Guerrant declined to provide additional details of the interference and how it affected her work. But she insisted MSU administrators’ interference had no tangible effect on how the crisis communication team handled the shooting.

MSU’s trustees and deans all either declined to comment on their roles during the shooting or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Interrupting the healing process

As victims of the shooting were treated for life-threatening injuries in Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital (now the University of Michigan Health-Sparrow Lansing), they had a number of unauthorized visitors, according to a recent report on board impropriety.

“Several Trustees visited Sparrow Hospital following the shooting and asked to enter areas reserved for families,” investigators for law firm Miller & Chevalier found.

But trustees weren’t the only ones making such visits after the shooting, according to emails obtained by The State News through a public records request.

The “President … Student Life staff, International Studies and Programs staff and a couple athletic coaches” visited the hospital as well, according to an email from Michael Zeig, chief of staff to the president.

It was enough to make Sparrow request that MSU personnel cease visiting the students.

“Sparrow Hospital, through their Chief Legal Counsel, has reached out and kindly requested that any future visits associated with MSU to the hospital to visit students or families should cease,” Zeig wrote to MSU’s vice presidents three days after the shooting. “The students are very sick and the hospital is trying to keep them safe and focused on healing.”

Any future requests to visit the hospital would have to be coordinated through and approved by Sparrow’s legal counsel, he added.

Sparrow declined to comment on its decision

“We prefer not to discuss our internal processes following the violence at MSU so we will defer comment for this story,” said John Foren, director of media relations for University of Michigan Health-Sparrow.

Board secretary Stefan Fletcher forwarded Zeig’s email to trustees an hour after it was sent, adding that the decision was made “in the best interests of the students and the families.”

Trustee Renee Knake Jefferson asked Zeig for more details on Sparrow’s request a month later, according to the emails.

“Could you provide additional context? I was not part of any visit; was this an issue related to visits by other trustees?” she asked.

“Sparrow's inquiry was not related to any individual visit but rather the totality of visits in the early days following February 13,” Zeig responded. “To limit visits while students were recovering and to ensure appropriate patient and family privacy, the below request was made of MSU.”

He added that several MSU staff had since visited the hospital with proper permission, including the university president and then-football coach Mel Tucker.

Disagreement over posthumous degrees

Interviewees told law firm Miller & Chevalier that then-board chair Rema Vassar “inserted herself in phone calls between the Administration and grieving families.”

Vassar also announced a posthumous degree for a student killed in the shooting “without consulting the Administration,” according to Miller & Chevalier.

“Interview accounts indicate that at the time Chair Vassar announced an award to one deceased student, the University was still in process of reviewing its policy on awarding posthumous degrees and was engaging with the families of deceased students to determine their wishes and ensure that any decision was consistently applied,” the firm reported.

Vassar has defended her actions, saying she was advocating for the victim’s families.

In a podcast appearance in October 2023, Vassar said one victim’s family did want a degree, but MSU didn’t want to give it to them.

Vassar, in a now-deleted episode of the "Black Money Matters" podcast, said MSU administrators told her, “We don’t want to diminish the value of our degree.”

So, when she announced at the victim’s televised funeral that “Your baby’s gonna get a degree,” a statement she said was met with applause, the university was forced to give in.

The administration was against giving an honorary degree to another student because they were a freshman that hadn’t declared a major, according to Vassar.

“I said, ‘Well, make one up,’” Vassar said on the podcast.

MSU was also reluctant to pay for another victim’s medical bills due to “legal obstacles,” Vassar said.

Guerrant, the university spokesperson, said she wasn’t personally involved in discussions on awarding the degrees and couldn’t attest to the details, but wasn’t aware of any legal obstacles.

But she said she understood there to be a “disconnect between what (Vassar) was wanting to do in her discussions with the family” and the discussions the university was having over the degrees.

Covering up findings of interference

In April 2023, two months after the shooting, MSU employed an outside audit to conduct an examination of its response to the tragedy and make recommendations

The firm that conducted the review, Security Risk and Management Consultants (SRMC), presented a draft of its findings to the board in a “preliminary review” meeting in September 2023, a month before it was released publicly.

The draft shown at that meeting reported that "Board of Trustees members desperately wanted to help (during the shooting) and became involved in the incident beyond their expertise and outside of their appropriate role."

That sentence was the first time evidence of trustees’ interference in the shooting threatened to come to light, and some trustees weren’t happy.

According to the later investigation into broad allegations of board misconduct, some board members questioned the crisis management firm’s findings that they overstepped their role during the shooting.

Denno in particular pushed back against the findings of misconduct, according to Miller & Chevalier.

“While some Interviewees agreed with the substance of Trustee Denno’s questions during the Preliminary Review, several Trustees consistently described the manner in which Trustee Denno asked the questions as inappropriate, with some describing his conduct as ‘aggressive’ and ‘bullying,’” according to the later report.

Denno “asked for the consultants to change the (shooting review) in many ways,” an interviewee told the firm. 

And they did. In the published version of the shooting report, SRMC instead included a softened version of its original finding of misconduct.

The report said trustees "wanted to help but became involved in the incident beyond the customary role and expectations of a governance board during an emergency."

Vassar later defended Denno’s request that SRMC change its findings, saying, “It was appropriate to engage the firm on the contents of their report — particularly as the specific request was for recommendations around our roles during crises."

Along with softening the wording of the finding, the final report also included a brief section on how to decide to organize university leadership during emergencies — guidance that wasn't included in the draft version.

Interference or a well-intentioned desire to help?

Jason Russell, an MSU alumnus and former secret service agent who conducted a security assessment for Oxford High School after its 2021 shooting, said school governing boards typically don’t take a hands-on approach during crises.

Oxford’s school board received periodic updates during the shooting and its aftermath, but they “weren't actively involved on a daily basis,” he said.

Russell, who is also president of the Grand Rapids-based crisis management firm Security Environment Consultants, said it was inappropriate for MSU’s board to request constant updates from the university's communications team and ask to enter family-only areas in Sparrow hospital.

“The rules should really be to provide any additional support and basically stay in the background,” he said. “Let the people and university professionals that hopefully have been trained in how to respond to a crisis handle those situations.”

Miller & Chevalier reported that trustees’ actions during the shooting “were perceived and reported to Miller & Chevalier as being disruptive or overstepping” — accusations that have been leveled at the board many times before.

Former MSU president Samuel Stanley resigned over tensions with the board. His replacement, then-interim president Teresa Woodruff, said working with the board had been “challenging.” Current president Kevin Guskiewicz had the board pledge not to interfere in his administration.

Trustees Vassar and Denno in particular interfered in the university’s negotiations, legal affairs and investigations and encouraged students to embarrass the then-interim president, according to Miller & Chevalier’s report on board impropriety. The governor is currently considering their removal from the board.

Russell said that the board’s actions during the shooting at times illustrated its historically-outsized role in university affairs. But other actions could be passed off as simply “overly empathetic,” he said.

“It's hard to know because they've had so many bad things happen,” Russell said.

Miller & Chevalier noted it “has no reason to question that all Trustees reacted from a place of concern and desire to help” during the shooting.

Charles Figley, a professor at Tulane University who has studied disaster mental health and trauma psychology, said there are many factors at play during a mass crisis.

“This is extraordinarily difficult,” Figley said. “You're working with egos, as well as temperament, and a sense of obligation, and a joy of providing service.”

People in such situations deserve “leeway and latitude,” he said. “They are human beings and they are acting like human beings, which screw up from time to time.”

Not having explicit guidance on how to best channel those feelings contributes to chaos, he said.

“If you have ambiguity with regard to what your responsibility and role is, then there are absolutely going to be problems,” Figley said.

Training

Miller & Chevalier attributed trustees’ behavior during the shooting to the board’s lack of emergency guidance.

“Understandably, the Board sought to provide assistance in the wake of the events of February 13, 2023, and, absent specific guidance, some actions taken by Trustees purportedly interfered with the Administration’s ability to respond effectively to the crisis,” the report said.

The university is still taking steps to fix the lack of guidance for leadership.

MSU’s vice presidents underwent emergency protocol training on Dec. 9, 2023. It was conducted by crisis management group Front Right Strategies, cost $3,233.61 and lasted three hours, according to a public records request.

Trustees received training from the same group this month, nearly a year and a half it was first recommended by BMCG.

The training focused on what the board’s role during a crisis should be, Guerrant said.

The training covered “what the board needs to know or should know and how to engage, versus what the university’s taking care of,” she said. “It’s really about how we collectively work together.”

Guerrant said it wasn’t a “one and done” event, and that she expects more training will be held in the future.

She’s also implementing new policies on how the crisis communication team should communicate with university leadership during a crisis.

Dana Whyte, spokesperson for MSU Department of Police and Public Safety, said the department updates its emergency protocols “with lessons learned from previous incidents,” but has yet to develop individualized guidance for university leadership.

MSU DPPS will review its current policies with university leadership and continue training “to further refine their roles during an emergency and to begin developing guidance for each individual role,” Whyte said.

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