Monday, May 20, 2024

MSU trustee Denno asked administrators for array of favors

April 10, 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.

Changing students' roommate assignments. Joining campus cops at the gun range. Increased oversight of advancement employees allegedly undermining him. Information on every cold case homicide on campus.

These are among the favors Michigan State University trustee Dennis Denno asked of senior administrators in the first months after he was elected to the position.

The behavior was cited in a recent outside investigation into board misconduct as an example of how the now-embattled board member overstepped his authority.

The report, conducted by law firm Miller & Chevalier and released publicly in February, revealed dramatic examples of Denno and trustee Rema Vassar’s misconduct, from encouraging students to embarrass the interim president to interfering in the university’s legal affairs.

But investigators admitted the probe only covered their most flagrant behavior, and only hinted at the trustees’ day-to-day misconduct. 

“The most significant examples (of trustee misconduct) are discussed in this report, but document review raised additional examples beyond those raised by the specific allegations, signaling a potentially larger issue than reported to Miller & Chevalier,” the report said.

A glimmer of that “larger issue” is revealed by emails between Denno and senior MSU administrators, obtained by The State News through public records requests.

The emails show an administration quick to run the trustee’s errands, often with no questions asked.

This State News review covers only a small portion of Denno’s allegedly daily interference. MSU’s public records office asked for $1,244 to see all of his emails with the university’s vice presidents during his first 10 months on the board.

President Kevin Guskiewicz — who was appointed in December and began work last month — said he believes the behavior won’t continue under his administration.

“My expectation is that requests and questions board members may have will be coordinated directly through me and my chief of staff,” Guskiewicz said in a statement.

Discussions of interference were central to MSU’s courting of Guskiewicz, a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Guskiewicz said he would only take the job at MSU if the board promised to stop interfering in the administration. The board members did that upon his appointment, signing pledges saying they would no longer engage in the behavior.

In his statement, Guskiewicz appeared to admonish Denno’s requests.

“It’s my expectation that we work together in appropriate ways to strengthen MSU,” he wrote. “It’s also my expectation that everyone at the university is treated with respect — administrators, staff, faculty, students, trustees, alumni and community members.”

Denno, through a spokesperson, declined to answer a list of detailed questions for this story. 

Following the outside report, Denno and Vassar were censured and stripped of official duties by the rest of the board.

They were also referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for removal from the board altogether, a power only she has. She’s yet to say what she will do.

Denno says students’ unfavorable roommate assignment issue “makes me look bad” 

In May 2023, Denno requested the university’s housing services department put two students in a room together last summer, on behalf of a concerned personal friend.

He did so in an email, subject line “room assignment--important,” sent to Vice President for Student Life & Engagement Vennie Gore and board secretary Stefan Fletcher.

“MSU students (redacted) and (redacted) are attempting to room together and it would be a priority for them and me to be housed together,” Denno wrote. “I look forward to your positive response.”

Gore responded eight minutes later, promising he’d look into it.

The next morning, Gore assured Denno: “I talked with the staff this am and it has been taken care off (sic).”

It didn’t end there.

A week and a half later, Denno received a follow-up request from his friend, asking for further confirmation that the students were indeed placed together due to troubles logging into MSU’s online housing portal, according to the emails. 

Denno forwarded it to Gore, who quickly assured him that Christopher Stone-Sewalish, the associate director for administration at Residence Education and Housing Services, would talk to the family directly.

Stone-Sewalish responded a day later, telling Denno his staff confirmed with the students, writing “they’re all set.”

A month later, in July, Denno again wrote again to Gore, Stone-Sewalish and Fletcher about the roommate issue.

“My understanding is that (redacted) did not get the roommate assignment that he requested, this is after everyone said this was taken care of,” Denno wrote. “I find this frustrating and it kinda makes me look bad. Could someone please take care of this ASAP?”

Two hours later, Stone-Sewalish once again assured Denno the students were set to room together.

“I have personally verified he's with (redacted)” Stone-Sewalish wrote. “I would be more than happy to provide any assurances to the student on behalf of housing.”

“Thank u!” Denno replied.

Gun range, cold cases and parking problem

In a Feb. 6, 2023 email, Denno asked MSU’s then-chief of police Marlon Lynch for two things: a chance to join his officers at a gun range and a list of all cold case homicides on campus.

Denno said he first made the request at a meeting in late November 2022. That’s after he was elected but before he was sworn in to the board.

His email — sent months later — appears to be a reminder.

“When we met on Monday, Nov. 28 I requested a list of the cold case homicides on campus and I also requested to go to the range,” Denno wrote. “Please let me know when those issues can be taken care of, thanks.”

Lynch replied to Denno’s request, saying that there are no cold case homicides.

It’s unclear why Denno was seeking that information. He and the MSU Police declined to answer questions about it.

Denno is a part-time civilian investigator for Lansing Police Department’s cold case homicide unit, according to his professional bio.

It’s also unclear if Denno ever actually went to the gun range with MSU police.

They scheduled a session for March 7, 2023, according to the emails. Denno and MSU Police declined to answer questions about if that outing ultimately occurred, weeks after a campus shooting.

In another email, with the subject line “MSU parking situation,” Denno brings Lynch’s attention to a university parking attendant.

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“Thank you for the call today,”  Denno wrote in the email to Lynch. “Attached is the photo of the person I mentioned.”

The attachment is a photo taken from the driver’s seat of a vehicle. An MSU parking attendant stands against the hood of the car. MSU’s FOIA office redacted the person’s face.

MSU Police and Denno declined to answer questions about what exactly the “parking situation” was, and what Denno hoped Lynch would do about it.

Denno would later give Lynch tickets to a Detroit Tigers baseball game, which he was attending with fellow trustees Dan Kelly, Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay, according to emails between them.

Denno said he received the tickets from Wayne County executive Warren Evans.

“Evans' peeps gave me tix to the county suite,” Denno wrote. “​​The tix are free but unfortunately there will be no food in the suite.”

Lynch responded, saying he planned to attend and would be bringing a guest.

Clashes with advancement

Emails also show Denno clashed with MSU’s advancement employees, who oversee donor relations.

In a March 2023 exchange, Denno chided vice president for advancement Kim Tobin over a rumor about the then-ongoing search for MSU’s next president.

Denno — who chaired the presidential search committee — said he met a couple at an event in New York who asked him how the search was coming along.

“They stated that they heard that due to issues on campus with the trustees and having so many presidents there were concerns that MSU would not have a very qualified pool of applicants,” Denno wrote.

At the time, MSU had been through five presidents in as many years, each facing various scandals relating to the university’s handling of sexual violence or alleged misconduct by the board.

Denno reportedly assuaged their concerns by boasting the school’s achievements. But the question jarred him. 

“I asked where they heard this from and they said that SOMEONE IN ADVANCEMENT told them that,” Denno wrote to Tobin. “I cannot begin to tell you how alarming this is, that someone in MSU Advancement has negative comments about the future of MSU and could be undermining the search process. I assume that I will never hear of this again.”

Tobin responded the next morning, thanking him “for attending so many functions since becoming a Trustee,” according to the emails.

“I know our team of 300+ in Advancement are proud of the same things you mentioned,” Tobin replied. “We are committed to the success of the institution and work hard to advance it facilitating millions of dollars a year to the institution.”

Tobin said it’s “impossible to manage every conversation or interaction” within the large department, but promised to “remind our team how impactful they are as connectors to the external world.”

Denno responded an hour later, reiterating his demand.

“Kim, it needs to be made clear to MSU'S 300+ Advancement employees that their actions and comments cannot undermine the Board of Trustees nor the presidential search process,” he wrote. “Please let me know fi (sic) you cannot impart and enforce that message.”

In another email to Tobin from a month before, Denno described a supposedly confrontational exchange with a fellow guest in the advancement department’s hockey suite at Munn Ice Arena.

“I had the misfortune of meeting your guest,” Denno wrote in the email. “I introduced myself as an alum and trustee and he told me and said he’s known you from Colorado State for at least 20 years.”

There is then a large redacted portion, followed by “I look forward to your response.”

Tobin’s reply is similarly heavily redacted, making it unclear what she said in response.

It ends with, “Again, my apologies.”

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