Saturday, May 18, 2024

Recordings, texts show how student lost trust in embattled MSU trustees

April 16, 2024
Photo illustration by Morgan Womack
Photo illustration by Morgan Womack

At an October vigil, members of Michigan State University's Arab and Palestinian communities gathered to remember a former exchange scholar killed by an Israeli bombing of his Gaza apartment.

They were joined by then-Interim President Teresa Woodruff, Provost Thomas Jeitschko and trustee Dennis Denno.

Toward the end of the event, the emcee thanked the MSU administrators for coming — he didn't mention Denno.

Denno later texted one of the student organizers, Saba Saed.

"It's also frustrating when the prez and provost get recognized and not the trustee that was there. oh well," reads the text, which was reviewed by The State News.

In an interview, Saed recalled receiving that message and asking herself, "What the hell is wrong with this guy?"

"It was just so offensive," she said.

The exchange was one event in a months-long saga between Saed and the two board members she once believed supported her organizing: Denno and former board chair Rema Vassar.

They’ve since become embattled, facing scrutiny over an outside report detailing wide-ranging misconduct including interference in the university's administration, accepting gifts from donors and orchestrating a campaign of "attacks" against their rivals, among other things.

They've been censured, stripped of duties and referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for removal.

Now, as Whitmer's office weighs the request, the ousted trustees have cited their support of marginalized students as the primary reason they should keep their seats.

In a statement to The State News, Vassar said: "I am proud that I have broad support among students, and I intend to continue my strong advocacy on their behalf. It’s time to put the allegations against me and other Trustees behind us and move forward to support our amazing university."

But Saed said that in her experience pushing the board to support Arab students more fully, the trustees seem more concerned with being recognized as advocates than actually doing advocacy. 

"With Vassar and Denno I just realized, like, 'You guys have not done anything,'" she said. "No statements, nothing on (their) end, even when they've addressed things, they haven't addressed it in meetings or in their report."

Instead, they've tried to pit her against their rivals in MSU leadership, Saed said.

Saed's interactions with the trustees were addressed in the outside report about their misconduct, but not fully explored. 

The Washington D.C. law firm that conducted the investigation, Miller & Chevalier, reviewed recordings of meetings and text messages between Saed and the trustees, but only narrowly, looking for violations of board bylaws.

They included short quotes pulled from the records in their report but never publicized the totality of their contents.

The hours of secretly-made tapes and hundreds of text messages — which Saed has now shared with The State News and have been kept in their original format — tell a fuller story, one of her month-long wrestling with whether to trust the trustees.

Recordings show students asking Denno to publicly call for MSU to divest from Israel and align himself with the Arab and Palestinian students he's repeatedly claimed to advocate for. 

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He declined, telling them that if he does, he'll be "pigeonholed as the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli trustee" and become "completely ineffective."

He discouraged them from working with MSU's administration, saying the president "doesn't want you on campus."

The records also show Vassar fueling division with lies about the university losing its accreditation and the reason for a board meeting being moved online.

Saed was clear to say she speaks for herself. In fact, other prominent student organizers disagree with her assessment.

In February, after Saed talked to investigators, she said Vassar distanced herself and attempted to remove evidence of their interactions.

Saed suspects Vassar then used other students to find out if she truly had provided the evidence to investigators, she said. 

The student who Saed thinks may have contacted her per Vassar's request — Black student leader Missy Chola — has denied that theory, and said she acted alone. 

Chola said she is "tired of the narrative" that Vassar and Denno have manipulated students and that she continues to support the trustees.

'(Woodruff) doesn't want you on campus,' Denno told students

Saed met the trustees at a board meeting on Oct. 27, 2023. One recording reviewed by The State News is of a meeting Saed had with them five days later in which Vassar and Denno dissuaded students from speaking with members of administration about their concerns on campus and insisted the administration doesn’t care about them. 

Those comments came after Denno told students to publicly smear Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton — who had called for Vassar's resignation — and a student responded saying they were hesitant to do so.

"I'm not sure how to do that without facing potential backlash from the administration, especially when I and other students work so closely with the administration in different areas," the student, whom Saed did not disclose the name of, said.

Earlier in the meeting, Denno described Lipton as a "tool of the administration and a tool to begin with."

Lipton is a faculty member who chairs the Faculty Senate, an elected representative body that makes non-binding recommendations to the university on university affairs. He is not a member of the administration. 

Vassar replied to the student, "What do you think the backlash looks like?" Simultaneously, Denno said "What do you think they're gonna do to you?"

The student responded, "I feel like they're gonna be less open to collaboration, less open to discussion and stall things even more than they already are."

Vassar asked the student, "What are you getting right now? … What do you lose?"

Denno added, "I don't understand; you got a one-hour meeting with (Woodruff.) She can't wait to get rid of you; she wishes you weren't on campus."

Vassar's accreditation claims don't add up

Suspicions of the trustees started to mount at that meeting, where Saed said she felt Vassar may have been lying to her.

A recording of the meeting reviewed by The State News sees Vassar apparently addressing a complaint MSU's Faculty Senate had filed with the university's accreditor in October. That complaint cited allegations of misconduct trustee Brianna Scott made against Vassar the same month. 

But Vassar told the students in the meeting that the complaint — which included allegations that Vassar overstepped in her role as trustee and interfered with the operations of the administration — wasn’t a real threat to the university's accreditation.

She then claimed the university had already lost its accreditation "over the summer" because "the provost and Interim President Woodruff neglected to submit paperwork to the federal government."

Because of this, she told the students, the accreditation complaint about her alleged misconduct was trivial.

"So this idea that they're now waving, that there's a threat to our accreditation because the trustees have overstepped, is comical at best and a diversion at worst," Vassar said. 

"It's smoke and mirrors and lies and deceptions, and that'll all come out," Vassar said. "You should know, though, that this idea that we could lose our accreditation and all hell would break loose — well, we did, we're still here, and it had nothing to do with me or an overreach that doesn't exist."

No record of the university losing its accreditation in the summer of 2023 exists, and MSU spokesperson Mark Bullion confirmed the university did not lose its accreditation then. 

Vassar did not respond to requests for comment on her claims regarding accreditation. Moreover, she declined to comment on all of the recordings reviewed by The State News, which she criticized Miller & Chevalier for not providing to her or releasing in the report.

"I can't comment on secretly recorded conversations with students that have still never been provided to me," Vassar said in a statement. "Miller & Chevalier relied on these recordings while refusing to disclose them. This is more of the same: a complete rejection of the essential value of full disclosure and transparency."

As a result of the alleged loss of accreditation, Vassar told students, "People who were taking classes could not get financial aid, so the university gave them loans."

Saed replied that the alleged loss of accreditation explained why her roommate struggled to get financial aid over the summer.

Vassar responded, "You couldn’t get financial aid over the summer because we didn’t have accreditation based on them," referring to the provost and president. 

After the meeting, Saed told her roommate she had discovered why they struggled to get financial aid over the summer. 

But her roommate explained to her that the status of the university's accreditation had nothing to do with it, Saed said. 

At that point, Saed started to wonder if Vassar had been lying to her. 

"Throughout this entire time I had these two theories: she's actually wanting things for students and she's getting retaliated against, versus, she's doing it for her own agenda," Saed said.

Denno paid for students' bus tickets

Students invited the trustees to join them at a protest of the U.S. government's funding of the Israeli military. 

"If y'all want to be there, you're going to be welcomed with open arms," a student said. 

Denno said he would be out of state that day but that he would be willing to donate to help them travel to the protest after they asked him. 

Saed texted Denno after the meeting and asked if he was comfortable donating via Venmo. Denno told her he didn’t have a Venmo account but could meet her in person to give her cash. 

Saed responded affirmatively and told him the cost of a ticket was $145 with an $11 fee. She added that "even helping with one ticket is appreciated because we are trying to get as many students to go."

He gave her an envelope with $100 the next day, she said.

Fueling division with board meeting lies

Saed's trust in Vassar frayed further in December when she believed Vassar misled her about the reason for a virtual board meeting.

Days before the Dec. 15, 2023 board meeting, MSU announced it would be held on Zoom. Several student activist groups scrutinized the decision, arguing they should have been able to voice concerns in person.

Saed pushed the trustees to reverse the decision, writing emails to the board demanding a chance to make a face-to-face statement calling on the board to divest from Israel and weapons manufacturers.

Vassar and Denno agreed to join the Zoom meeting from campus in a room with students.

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Trustee Brianna Scott also responded to Saed, saying she would like to come to the meeting in person, but had been receiving threats and was concerned for her safety, Saed said. 

Scott first raised allegations of widespread misconduct against Vassar in October and has faced sharp criticism from Vassar’s supporters over her decision to do so.

The State News reviewed images of threats made against Scott. It is not publishing them as they contain harmful language and racial epithets against Black Americans. 

The threats were mailed to Scott on letterhead from the Wayne State University College of Education, where Vassar is a professor. Multiple of her colleagues in the college spoke at the October board meeting, supporting Vassar and admonishing Scott. 

According to Saed, when she told Vassar about Scott's explanation, Vassar said it wasn't true. 

Saed said Vassar told her the university administration was holding the meeting virtually because it was "scared" of the students and that it wanted to protect Vassar's critics, namely Lipton.

Student activism wasn't a part of the discussions about how to conduct the December meeting, according to three people with knowledge of the deliberations.

There were concerns — discussed by the board and members of MSU's administration — about holding a meeting after the threats were made against Scott, the people said.

Multiple board members were also already planning to attend the December meeting virtually as they would be traveling out of state, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Vassar and Denno. 

That all led the board to decide a virtual meeting was best, the people said.

Meeting to discuss divestment led to loss of confidence

A recording of a Jan. 25 meeting reviewed by The State News shows Saed and other students asking Denno if he would be committed to publicly calling for divestment from Israel and weapons manufacturers. 

Denno told the students he would try to convince other trustees to consider pulling investments in all foreign nations but couldn't call for divestment from Israel specifically. 

"If I am the pro-Palestinian trustee, the anti-Israeli trustee, I'm going to be completely shut out from stuff, and you know that, right?" Denno said. "So, I mean, I'm your biggest advocate on campus. I'm the only one willing to meet with you, OK? And I'm just being totally upfront and honest with you, and I hope — I don't want this to get misconstrued outside this room."

"I mean, I'm willing to fight for you, I'm willing to do what I can do, OK? If I am pigeonholed as the Arab-American, pro-Palestinian — I'm done, and you know that, you all know that. I'm being completely honest with you … the whole weight of the whole Zionist movement is going to be on my head, and I don't want that, I don't need that and it's going to make me completely ineffective."

Saed told Denno she understood his hesitancy but pushed him on the point. 

"For the Arab community, being public about your support for Palestine is what is, like — I understand all of that, and I'm not trying to push you into it," Saed said. "But anyone that brings up Palestine is going to be retaliated against, period, end of story, and that comes with the struggle of it."

Saed continued, "So I think that in a position of power, where you do bring that up, and then you also highlight the backlash, that spreads awareness, and that is something that you want. (That) is something that's going to be significant to the Arab community, and (it shows) that 'I am one with you, you get criticism, I get criticism on it.' That speaks volumes for support."

Students told Denno that if he doesn't publicly call for divestment from Israel and instead calls for divestment from all foreign governments, it would "dilute" their movement.

"It does dilute this need for the university to have a strong moral compass because at the end of the day, this is an institution and it does not care for people," an unidentified student said. "It is the people within it that can bring back care."

Denno replied, "I agree this university doesn't care about people. I agree this administration doesn't care about people. I hope that changes with the new president, and it’s going to be a slow change."

"And so now I'm frustrated because I said I'm willing to figure out a way to try to get us to not invest in foreign bonds, and now you said that's watering down what you're ultimately trying to do," Denno said.

Ultimately, Denno concluded, "I'm going to talk to trustees about not investing in foreign bond money in foreign countries, but if you're telling me that's just gonna water down your overall movement, why am I doing this?"

Saed argues that the meeting shows evidence of Denno being unwilling to push for the university to divest from Israel, something she and other Arab students have called for since December.

Vassar told Saed divestment was in Woodruff's hands

Earlier in that meeting, students asked Denno if there was a possibility for him to add a discussion of MSU's investment in aid to Israel to the agenda for the next board meeting. 

Denno said it takes three trustees to add something to the agenda, and he didn't know "where the other two come from if (he) was willing to support something like that." Students then asked if Vassar could be one of the other two, to which Denno said, "She could."

Then, Denno asked the students what Vassar told them when they asked her about divestment from Israel. 

Saed responded, "(Vassar) said it's up to the president." Two other students added that Vassar's assertion is incorrect. 

Denno responded to the students, "Eh, she didn't say that. Did she say that?"

Text message records show Saed texted Vassar on Jan. 2 asking, "Who would be in charge of divestment in the university,?" to which Vassar replied, "President."

The board policy governing investments says the role of the president is to "provide broad administrative oversight of the University's investment activities." The board committee on budget and finance — which Vassar served on at the time — can make direct recommendations to the board at large on the administration of endowment funds.

Saed recalled thinking Vassar was unfairly placing the responsibility of responding to students' calls for divestment on Woodruff.

"It's so very convenient that the blame is being shifted to somebody that … Vassar in general, just seems to dislike so much," Saed said. 

The students then asked Denno about other trustees who were on the committee at the time: Renee Knake-Jefferson, Sandy Pierce and Kelly Tebay. 

"Good luck with those three," Denno said. 

A student replied, "Which is, again, why we're meeting with you and not with some of the other people on that committee…"

After Saed gave evidence to investigators, Vassar appeared to distance herself

Around this time, Saed said she believes Vassar started using students to find out if Saed provided the evidence to investigators that was ultimately used against her. 

Text messages reviewed by The State News show that Saed and her friend — who had also been in meetings with the trustees — received a group text message from another student on Feb. 10, asking if they should have any reason not to trust Vassar. 

This message came four days after Vassar conducted her third and final interview with investigators on Feb. 6. That interview would have been the only interview where Vassar could have been questioned about Saed’s evidence, according to Saed's timeline of when she gave evidence to investigators. 

Saed said she started giving evidence to investigators on Jan. 25. That's between Vassar's second and third interviews with investigators on Jan. 9 and Feb. 6, respectively, according to Vassar's response to the report. 

According to the report, Vassar and Denno were both questioned by investigators about comments they made in the recordings and texts provided by Saed. 

On Feb. 12, two days after Saed received the message from a student asking if they should trust Vassar, Saed received a text message notification from Vassar. 

That notification came at 1:39 a.m. and showed that Vassar had removed heart and like reactions from three messages Saed had sent her weeks prior, images reviewed by The State News show. 

One of the messages Vassar removed a heart from read "I'll record it," which Saed said was in reference to a conversation she was scheduled to have with a member of MSU leadership.  

Saed said she believes that was Vassar trying to cover her tracks and delete any further evidence that could have been used against her.

"Why would you remove (the reactions) based on what I said?" Saed told The State News. "You'd remove it based on the investigation."

Saed also argued that Vassar placing a heart on a message where Saed said she planned to record a conversation with another member of MSU leadership invalidates Vassar's discontent with the investigators relying on "clandestine recordings" of her. 

Vassar did not address questions from The State News on why she removed the reactions from the text messages.

In Vassar's response, she raised concerns about the investigators relying on the evidence provided by Saed.

"Miller & Chevalier also refused to disclose the identities of the individuals making allegations about Dr. Vassar, including those attributing specific statements to her," the response said. "As a result, there is no way to verify the truthfulness of their accounts. Miller & Chevalier apparently intends that their identities and the veracity of their statements will remain unknown forever."

Vassar also questioned the legality and ethics of recording conversations without all parties' knowledge.

"Miller & Chevalier, a Washington D.C.-based law firm, is apparently unaware that the Michigan Supreme Court has not ruled on the legality of recording conversations without the consent of all parties under Michigan’s anti-eavesdropping statute," the response said. "The issue was apparently never considered. Moreover, the firm never considered whether making the covert recordings was a violation of MSU ethical guidelines, including the Spartan Code of Honor Academic Pledge."

When asked by the Detroit Free Press why she thought students recorded conversations with her, Vassar said, "I give them the strategies that I would give anyone else."

She added that activists are trained to record conversations. 

Vassar did not directly address questions from The State News about whether she plans to take any legal action relating to students recording conversations without her consent. 

Despite her disapproval of the investigation not addressing the "covert recordings" of her, Vassar placed — and later removed — a heart on the message in which Saed said she planned to record her conversation with a member of MSU leadership.  

Vassar also did not directly address questions on if she used students to find out if Saed had given evidence to investigators.

"I would recommend you speak to the students (Saed) is referencing," she said. 

The student who Saed thought may have contacted her per Vassar's request was Missy Chola, the liaison for MSU's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Chola said her reaching out to Saed wasn't because Vassar had asked her to. Instead, she said it was to make sure she could trust those they were collaborating with.

"That was me being a student leader, actually taking charge, and making sure I know what I'm doing, too," Chola said. "At the end of the day, loyalty is very important, but it's still important to make sure that you're fighting for the right things and you're fighting for the right people and that you are fighting for the right intentions."

Chola continued, "I fight for the Black community, and I took that initiative to just make sure that I was still fighting for the right things, and that doesn't mean that I ever once had a thought that I was fighting for the wrong things by fighting for Dr. Vassar. It's just important to make sure, as you keep going, to stay updated and stay in the know of what's happening to people you work with."

Chola previously raised concerns with Miller & Chevalier's report, saying it used evidence that involved her without ever contacting her.

Specifically, the report found that Vassar and Denno encouraged Chola to file a complaint with MSU’s accreditor as part of a campaign to denounce Lipton. 

But Chola said that finding was false, and that instead, she wrote the letter independently, as a "Black student leader fighting for marginalized communities on our campus."

Senior Reporter Alex Walters contributed reporting

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