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Candidates for MSU Board of Trustees discuss building trust and accountability


Amid ongoing tensions between the Michigan State University Board of Trustees and community members on campus, two seats on the board are up for grabs in the upcoming November election.

Running for those seats are some newcomers and one incumbent board member. Trustee Melanie Foster (R) is not running for reelection as the Michigan GOP opted to endorse other candidates instead of supporting her candidacy for a third term. The elected trustees will play a role in the future of the university, especially as President Samuel Stanley Jr. steps down in January.

WKAR asked each of the major party candidates to give us their pitch for why voters should elect them as a trustee. The candidates said they wanted to improve communication and transparency.

We also asked them to share their thoughts on the controversy surrounding the board and what they would do to rebuild trust. Here’s what they said.

Dennis Denno (D)

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Dennis Denno has served as a staffer in the Michigan legislature. He runs a political and media consulting firm Denno Research and serves as a civilian researcher for the Lansing Police Department cold case homicide unit. He unsuccessfully ran to serve as a trustee in 2010. His priorities include transparency, safety and a $15 minimum wage for MSU employees.

How do you pitch yourself as a candidate to voters?

I think my political background, my legislative background will serve me well because the Michigan State University Board of Trustees is basically the legislative branch of Michigan State University. My campaign platform is basically, one transparency. I think Michigan State needs to be a lot more transparent than what they're doing. That starts with releasing those (Larry) Nassar documents, the thousands of documents related to the Nassar situation. I think another problem is that the Michigan State University Board of Trustees does their business behind closed doors, and they're not subject to the Open Meetings Act. I think when people make decisions behind closed doors, it is not good for the university, and it is a really bad way to spend our public tax money. And another thing I really want to look at is safety on campus. Do our students, do our employees, do our guests on campus feel safe? And if they don't, where do they go, and are those concerns seriously dealt with?

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding former business college Dean Sanjay Gupta’s dismissal, the Board of Trustees investigation and President Stanley’s removal?           

All I know about Dean Gupta's dismissal is what I read in the papers, so I do not feel qualified to respond to that. As an outsider looking in, it appears that some board members have concerns with the OIE and the handling of sexual assault reporting on campus, which if true is a legitimate concern and worthy of an investigation.

If elected, what would you do as a trustee to build trust between the Board of Trustees and the broader university community?

Push for more transparency and be out in the MSU community listening to the MSU community.

Mike Balow (R)

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Mike Balow is a navy veteran. His oldest daughter attends Michigan State University and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against MSU for eliminating its swim and dive program. His priorities include making the Board of Trustees more open to the community, releasing documents related to the Larry Nassar scandal, affordability and reforming the response to sexual misconduct on campus.

How do you pitch yourself as a candidate to voters?

I'm seeking this office, it's my first elected office, because I really love MSU and its mission, its land grant mission. It's the university of the people of our state. And I have three children, the oldest of whom attends Michigan State. And I think that I can bring a lot of leadership experience into that board room, that will benefit MSU, whether it's financial, project management, running a budget, collaborating with my fellow trustees on getting things done, regardless of party, doing the right thing for the university. I can be a calming influence in that board room. And I'm also someone that demands accountability. I'm a parent, I think it's time to put a parent of a student in that board room, and have a voice for families who have thoughts and concerns that may not necessarily have been addressed over the last few years. I also believe in openness, transparency, and letting people contact me with their concerns. I've been on the other side of the table and been completely dissatisfied with reaching out to the Office of the President and certain trustees never got a call back, so I think that's a fail. I think that me being in there will will really be a good thing for people who have students that go to MSU.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Dean Gupta’s dismissal, the Board of Trustees investigation and President Stanley’s removal?

I think that the Board of Trustees is correct in asking hard questions, and investigating things when they feel there is a good reason. Remember, reports are that a majority of the board thought these two things needed investigating. Obviously, some have reached the conclusion that this is some sort of overreach by the board. I can say this: as a Michigan taxpayer, a voter, and a parent of a current MSU student, I would demand no less than accountability of the president and his staff. The board was criticized, and rightfully so, in September of 2019 when it failed to hire an independent investigation of how MSU suffered such a massive institutional failure in having an environment that a serial sexual predator could operate in for so long. MSU needs to be better than every other university when it comes to this. And now, there are reports that Dr. Stanley mishandled Title IX investigations. We need to know the truth. Let the sunlight in. We need to know the truth about the Dr. Gupta situation as well. What really happened? Reports seem to differ. I would also ask the following questions: why has the MSU administration filed a court brief in favor of Ohio State, which is trying to make it harder for victims of sexual assault to file a claim against the university? That literally just happened within the last 2 weeks. Why has MSU spent over $700,000 on lawyers to fight the Title IX case against its female swimmers and divers? MSU has appealed their 6th circuit loss to the Supreme Court, and is trying to take Title IX rights for female athletes back 50 years. Why is no one talking about this? There is a lot going on right now, and we all need to let the process play out to get to the truth. In this, I plan to be a voice for the MSU families, both parents and students. Nobody else seems to be speaking and advocating for them.

If elected, what would you do as a trustee to build trust between the Board of Trustees and the broader university community?

Have an open door policy. I know firsthand from being on the other side of this, that it is extremely frustrating when a concern goes unacknowledged by the office of the president and the trustees. That is not acceptable. As a trustee, I pledge to be available to people, (outside of the public comment at meetings!), to try to help them with their issues, and put the right university resources on it. I will demand that the new president also foster this environment. We also, as a board, should be very communicative with the campus as a whole. There is no other way. The current MSU administration under president Stanley and chair Byrum has fallen way short of this standard.

Renee Knake Jefferson (D)

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Renee Knake Jefferson is a current member of the Board of Trustees. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed her to the board in Dec. 2019. She has served on the law school faculty at MSU and the University of Houston. In her time as a trustee, she reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents related to the Nassar scandal. Her priorities include Title IX reform, improving the climate on campus and affordability.

How do you pitch yourself as a candidate to voters?

My priority always is to focus on students, faculty and staff and their well-being as we think about what we need to move the entire Spartan community forward. And I'm running to be a champion of change for enhanced accountability, transparency and communication and board governance for increased diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging to improve campus safety and healing, especially for survivors of sexual violence and misconduct. Title Nine should be the floor but not the ceiling in all that we do. And I'm also running to make sure that tuition remains affordable in particular for in state students. Cost should never be a barrier to anyone pursuing higher education.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Dean Gupta’s dismissal, the Board of Trustees investigation and President Stanley’s removal?

The MSU Board of Trustees Code of Ethics and Conduct provides that only the Chairperson of the board may communicate with the media about board business. As a candidate on the ballot in the upcoming election, however, I recognize that it is important for the public to hear from me directly. It is clear that the board must improve communication. I hope that the students, staff, faculty, and the entire Spartan community, as well as the public, will judge me on my individual record as someone who is committed to academic freedom, accountability and transparency in governance, and campus safety and healing. The role of the board of Trustees is to engage in oversight of the university, and not to be involved in the day-to-day management of university affairs. I have faithfully honored and fulfilled my duties as a trustee since Governor Whitmer appointed me in 2019 and I will continue to do so. I am disappointed by President Stanley's decision to leave the university, but I will work together with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the entire Spartan community to find an interim and permanent president who will embrace and carry on the important work of implementing the MSU Strategic Plan 2030, which was approved unanimously by the board, and to move the university forward.

If elected, what would you do as a trustee to build trust between the Board of Trustees and the broader university community?

The Board must engage in clear, transparent, regular communication and, importantly, must listen to and learn from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the entire Spartan community.

Travis Menge (R)

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Travis Menge is an orthopedic surgeon who attended MSU as an undergraduate student. His priorities include building trust on campus, fiscal responsibility and making MSU a leader in STEM.

How do you pitch yourself as a candidate to voters?

As trustee, my top three priorities to help lead Michigan State would be to ensure the safety and well being of our students, faculty and staff. I want to improve transparency and accountability to help rebuild trust in our leadership among the MSU community. And I want to improve educational value through both reducing and controlling costs, as well as improving the quality of education. I think my background as a physician makes me uniquely qualified to help guide MSU through unexpected challenges, such as the Larry Nassar scandal and the COVID pandemic. A large portion of the annual budget is also related to health sciences, medical education and research. And as a taxpayer public-support institution, I think it's important that our tax dollars are not wasted, and are allocated in the best way possible. So my knowledge in these key areas in fiscal responsibility will help ensure our tax dollars are utilized appropriately and will minimize waste. I've spent my entire career helping patients by providing care that is transparent, honest, and always putting their best interests first. I will bring the same much needed leadership characteristics to the Board of Trustees to help build a bright and successful future for Michigan State for many years to come.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding Dean Gupta’s dismissal, the Board of Trustees investigation and President Stanley’s removal?

I follow the news closely and have been disappointed with the lack of transparency and limited information that has been made publicly available. I am very concerned about the allegations regarding the handling of the Title IX reporting process, and the deficiencies highlighted in the recent September audit by MSU's Audit, Risk and Compliance Office. There were reports of bipartisan concern with some of the actions of President Stanley, with the exception of Board Chairperson Dianne Byrum. She released a personal statement shortly after reports emerged that she talked with Stanley about the possibility of resigning, instead of working collectively with the board to release a joint statement. These recent actions, as well as past decisions regarding the Nassar investigation by Byrum have led me to question her abilities to successfully continue to lead the board as chairperson. While I cannot draw firm conclusion about the details of Stanley's resignation without knowing everything that has gone on behind the scenes, I believe the handling of this most recent situation highlights the need for improved transparency, accountability, and clear communication by our leadership.

If elected, what would you do as a trustee to build trust between the Board of Trustees and the broader university community?

I will bring leadership that is founded on transparency, accountability, honesty, and integrity. It is also important that we then create an independent ethics and compliance program. The current internal office is not well supported, is understaffed, and suffers from high turnover. This has led to unacceptably long response times and multiple deficiencies as highlighted in the recent September audit by MSU's Audit, Risk and Compliance Office. As leaders, we need to engage in open discussion with students, faculty, staff, and all members of the MSU community regarding the highlighted deficiencies from this audit. We then need to take the appropriate actions to immediately address the deficiencies and be proactive in our approach, instead of reactive.

These responses have been edited for clarity.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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