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Acting MSU President Explains Approach To Job

In January, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, fresh off the resignation of Interim President John Engler, appointed Executive Vice President for Administrative Services Satish Udpa to serve as acting President. He’s serving in that role while a committee searches for a permanent president.

This week, Udpa came to the WKAR studios for a lengthy interview with reporter Scott Pohl.

SCOTT POHL: Tell me about your approach to addressing (Larry) Nassar (sexual assault) survivors.

SATISH UDPA: You know, one of the things that I wanted to pursue was to lower the temperature, if you will, on campus. You want to heal the campus, we want to right the ship, and my approach is to sort of empathize with the survivors and the experience that they went through. Without that, we're never going to be able to right the ship.

POHL: At the April 12th meeting (of the MSU Board of Trustees), some survivors criticized MSU for its seemingly supportive public appearance, while at the same time allowing the legal team to behave aggressively with Nassar survivors. There also has been criticism for failing to make the campus supportive and safe for sexual assault survivors as a whole. How do you respond to that criticism?

UDPA: Let me put it this way. We have added 30 people now for the prevention and response services that we provide here on campus. We have started a 24-hour round the clock service for dealing with survivors. We've also practically doubled the number of people in our investigative wing, if you will, the title IX investigating. We invested a whole bunch of resources into making this campus a lot safer, a lot more nurturing than we have ever been. So, when some of the people accuse us of not doing anything, I'd like to bring these facts to their attention.

Satish Udpa in WKAR Studios photo
Credit Scott Pohl / WKAR/MSU
Satish Udpa was appointed Acting President of Michigan State University in January.

POHL: John Engler hasn't yet been interviewed by the Michigan Attorney General's office. Are you joining the voices encouraging him to talk with them?

UDPA: Yes, definitely. We would like him to talk to the attorney general's office. We would like him to cooperate with those folks. We stand solidly behind the Attorney General in this particular case.

POHL: Your public apologies at trustees meetings get a lot of attention, but I'd like to hear from you more about what you're doing behind the scenes to address the fallout from the Nassar case.

UDPA: You know, I've met with some of the survivors, I've met with some of the parents, with the goal of trying to get a feel for what they went through. That empathy is critically important. In the past we have not shown that, so my goal is to sort of wear their shoes, if you will, and figure out where it hurts, because that's critically important.

POHL: Let's talk about the Healing Assistance Fund. The administration halted the fund over fraud allegations last year. That led survivors to criticize MSU for failing to pay for their treatment. Some are now saying that while the fund is being restored, it's taking too long. So what are your thoughts on the status of the fund?

UDPA: We are working very hard with the trustees to make sure that it gets restored. Part of the challenge that we have is that we don't want another situation where somebody takes advantage of us. So we're working very hard. I suspect that we'll have something in place very soon.

POHL: Will the fund be open to Wave Two survivors?

UDPA: Yes, to the best of my knowledge.

POHL: Did you have a role in the dismissal of Bob Young, who had been an Engler appointee to the job of General Counsel at MSU?

UDPA: Yes, I was involved in that decision.

POHL: And subsequently, can you tell me about filling that vacancy and the work that's being done by that office?

UDPA: Now we have an acting General Counsel. Brian Quinn was working in that office for a long time. I had confidence in his abilities and the chemistry between me and him. and I thought that was critically important if we are to move forward.

POHL: Regarding the presidential search here at MSU: first of all, do you agree with the decision to keep private the names of those people who are applying for the job?

UDPA: I do for several reasons, one of them being that in places where they've had an open search, they have not been able to get the best and the brightest. We are in a very critical phase of our lives. This university needs good leadership, and I want to support anything that ensures that we end up with good leadership, with a person with a good leadership skills. I don't want anything in our process to discourage people from applying.

POHL: How can you ameliorate the feelings of people who are critical of keeping it private, though?

UDPA: Well, let's wait and see, because everyone will have an opportunity to meet with the person once the person is appointed. I feel very confident that our search committee, which by the way has had an opportunity to meet with literally hundreds of people on campus, to get a sense of what it is that we are looking for. You know, that's something that has to be given. They have to receive credit for what they have done. I think the committee was very, very responsive. From what I gather, the input that was provided to them served them very well in figuring out what kind of person we should be looking for.

POHL: Are you interacting at all with the committee?

UDPA: No. I will probably find out who our next president is when everyone else finds out.

POHL: Do you anticipate that the goal of naming a new president this summer will be met?

UDPA: Yes, I do believe that the current plans are to have someone named by June, and I think they are on schedule.

POHL: What do you anticipate your role being in the transition?

UDPA: Both the Provost and I are committed to helping the new president settle down, get a sense of the place. We will do everything we can to make that person successful. That is paramount to us.

POHL: And what do you think you will do once that person is in place?

UDPA: I will go back to my old job.  I’ll revert back to the old position, which is the Executive Vice President for Administration. That's something that I've been doing for the past six years now, so I'll continue to do that.

POHL: Have you enjoyed serving in this position?

UDPA: You know, like every job, there are days when you feel very excited about things that you're doing. There are also days when you're frustrated. It's been a challenge, but one of the things that you realize when you get into this position is that you have a lot of support. There are a lot of capable people, a lot of people who are committed to making you look good, making sure that we have the best of advice and so forth, and that's a very gratifying part of the job. You get to work with some very, very dedicated people.

POHL: I think about the Acting Presidency of Walter Adams, another turbulent time, during the Vietnam War. Have you thought about Walter Adams and how he approached this job knowing he wasn't going to stay in it very long but had a role to play in calming things down?

UDPA: Yeah. Interestingly, when I first took on this job, within the first few days, I got a copy of a book written by Walter Adams, and I made it a point to go through that book, so I'm familiar with what he did. Those are very difficult shoes to fill, because he was a remarkable man, but I've tried my best to see what we can do to emulate his behavior.

POHL: Last question: is there anything specifically going on in the next few weeks that we should be aware of?

UDPA: You know, we almost always focus on problems, but there are so many exciting things going on on campus, and the research. We are investing in places that should keep this campus humming for the next 15, 20, 50 years. That's a very exciting aspect of working on this campus, so I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that the campus is humming, campus is doing a lot of things that it is supposed to do. This distraction has not stopped us from moving forward.

POHL: And commencements are in a few weeks.

UDPA: Commencements are in a few weeks, we'll have some 7,000 or 8,000 students walk across the plank and collect their degrees. It's exciting to see parents, it's exciting to see people go out into the world and, you know, trying to make a mark of their own. It's truly exciting time. Spring is around the corner for this campus.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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