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New MSU President Stanley On Nassar Aftermath

MSU President Stanley in WKAR Radio Studio
Amanda Pinckney
Samuel Stanley Jr. became president at Michigan State University on August 1.

Classes begin this week at Michigan State University, just a few weeks after the arrival of MSU’s new president. Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. talks with WKAR's Scott Pohl about a variety of subjects, including his observation of the Larry Nassar scandal from his previous job at Stony Brook University, why he wanted to come to East Lansing, big time college athletics, and more.

SCOTT POHL: I wanted to begin by asking you about your view from Stony Brook University of the whole Larry Nasser scandal and how it was playing out here. We had a president resigning and facing criminal charges, an interim president resigning, and an acting president appointed during a presidential search. While you were watching all of that unfold from afar, why did you ultimately decide that you wanted this job?

SAMUEL STANLEY JR.: It was obviously a very difficult time for Michigan State University and, I think, really a tragic situation that was taking place. But I think one of the things that I was interested in, of course, was how an institution recovers from this and what it takes to get better. I think I'd had ten amazing years at Stony Brook University. We've done some things that I'm very proud of. I had a great team, let me be clear about that. It certainly wasn’t a one-person job. We had a great team, but I think we did some amazing things.

When I looked at Michigan State University and I saw the potential and I saw what had been accomplished there and what could still be accomplished…I'm talking really about the scope and scale, I'm talking about the facilities, I'm talking about things like FRIB (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams) that really put you at the cutting edge. I thought it would be worth considering as an opportunity. I like challenges, I always have. My specialty in medicine was infectious diseases; we like to treat things and make them better. And again, this is not a one-person job. It involves working with a lot of people, but I was excited about the opportunity, honestly.

I realized that a lot of the core values were still intact at the university, and I thought there was some place we could go from.

POHL: You're 65 years old, so for people who might have a concern or a desire for some stability in the president's office, when they hear that you're 65, I feel compelled to ask if you have given thought to how much longer you want to work.

STANLEY: Oh, you know, I think honestly, I feel I'm in some of the best shape of my life. Those people who know me would know that I'm a terrible workout fiend. I work out twice a day usually, sometimes three times. So I feel as though mentally and physically, I'm doing great. And I think things like being at a university help keep people, I think, with a young outlook, and the chance to interact with students helps me, I think, stay young, if I if I can be so bold. And I think, again, the kind of challenge I think anytime you put yourself in a new situation and confront new things, I think it's good for you, and so I think all those things, I think, are going to keep me healthy. So, I reassure your audience to not be concerned, I'm doing great. I'm enjoying myself. And please don't worry about me.

POHL: You have a medical degree from Harvard and the Nassar scandal, of course, unfolded at a medical school here at MSU. Do you think your medical background was a factor in your hiring?

STANLEY: I don't think it came up, at least in the interviews. I do believe that there's some aspects of being a physician in approaching problems that are helpful sometimes, so the ability to make decisions is important. The ability to be data driven, I think, in what you do is important, but I don't think it really came. What happened again, as I said before, at MSU was a terrible tragedy, and my heart goes out to the survivors. It was, one can imagine, something really more awful in some sense. But also there was one component for me as a physician, the betrayal of trust, because one of the things that physician that we, you know, are, are given and granted by people is their trust that they trust us completely. They will confide in us important things that they might not tell other people because it's important for their health, and they trust us to be their advocate, to do their best for their care. So, when that betrayal took place, that definitely hit me. I felt that personally as well, again, nothing compared to what survivors feel. But that was something that I felt as well.

POHL: At Stony Brook or elsewhere in your career, have you ever faced anything like the Nasser case?

STANLEY: No, I don't think so. I haven't. We certainly have had Title IX issues at Stony Brook University. All universities do, but nothing, I think, of this scope and scale.

POHL: The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has three investigations at Stony Brook. What can you tell me about those investigations, and as an administrator, what would you say maybe you've learned from them?

SAMUEL: You know, I'd actually be hard pressed to tell you the details on those three. I think, you know, those of course take place when someone complains about the outcome of an investigation and has concerns about the outcome of that investigation, and so I don't remember, actually, the details of those. I think, if a school is doing things right, there's going to be reports and the more reports, I think, the better. The more you create a culture, essentially, where people are comfortable coming forward and making reports, that means you're going to have cases, and when you investigate cases, you're going to have outcomes.

Occasionally, people won't be happy with the outcomes, and then there's limited appeals processes, basically. So I think appeals to the Office of Civil Rights is completely appropriate and I think you know, again, what happens is it's just something we found that we did wrong, and we can learn from and we'll do that. So, I welcome those kinds of investigations, in some sense, a review of what's going on, so I don't take it necessarily as an indictment of our program, but I take it as the fact that we need to be paying attention to what we're doing and make sure that we're doing things right.

POHL: There was criticism of MSU’s decision to conduct the presidential search in private. The university says that the idea was that qualified candidates might not apply if the search was being conducted in public. If this search had been conducted in public, would you have applied?

STANLEY: I always struggle with hypotheticals. You know, this was definitely the search that I applied to, so under the conditions, it was it was a search I applied to, and I think that's probably the best approach.

POHL: How do you prove yourself to people like those in the group known as ReclaimMSU, who have doubts about any president who was chosen in private?

STANLEY: You know, I hope they’ll look at my record and ask whether I was qualified to do this position, to take on the job. I think there's, as I said before, some things we accomplished at Stony Brook University which were great. There's also some things that were controversial as well, but it's all out there. It's all in public. That's the beauty, I guess of looking at someone who's been a prior president. You know what their track record is, you can really evaluate it, so I'd ask them to do that.

Then, you know, I just have to earn trust. I don't expect people to give it to me on arrival. You know that that would be wonderful if that happened, but it's not going to. I have to earn it, and I hope it will be earned by what I say coincides with what I do, that my actions really reflect the words I have. And so that's what I'm looking forward to is the chance to earn people's trust.

POHL: You've been on campus a few weeks now. Have you met yet with any of the Nassar survivors?

STANLEY: I have not. I've been working with our RVSM group, the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct working group. That's been so helpful, I think, to Michigan State University and giving advice. It's made up of people who are experts in the area, who have roles at Michigan State but also have academic positions as well. And so, I've been working with them to set up a series of meetings. I think those would take place in September, there will be more than one. We will meet with survivors of Nassar,we’ll meet with survivors of sexual violence or misconduct in Michigan State University as well, and probably do something online as well for people who may not feel comfortable coming in person. So those are I think what we're looking to schedule at this point in time.

I really am interested in talking with them (Nassar survivors), and really interested in learning and listening from them. - MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr.

Again, it's going to be important for me. I really am interested in talking with them, and really interested in learning and listening from them. That's probably the most important, is listening, understanding what issues remain, what their expectations are of the university, and what we can do to try and help, and so it'll be very important. It's a series of meetings for me.

POHL: You've appointed two advisors, Rebecca Campbell, who chairs the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct expert advisory group, and MSU police Lt. Andrea Munford, to work on sexual misconduct issues here. Tell me about those plans.

STANLEY: I thought it was very important that we have voices when we're making decisions at the university that reflect some of the concerns from survivors on campus, Nassar survivors, and so on, that community. They’re important choices. Rebecca brings significant expertise in this area. Really, she’s, you know, an academic expert, federally funded to do research in this area. And Andrea has, you know, great credibility, essentially, with the community because of the work she did in apprehending Larry Nassar. I wanted to find a way to get their voice at my ear, and so that's why I appointed them. I think they're going to make a difference to us as we move forward.


POHL: I want to talk about college athletics with you. You've served on the NCAA Board of Directors and the Board of Governors since 2016. What are your general thoughts about running an athletic department at a Big Ten University?

STANLEY: Well, it's exciting for me first of all, because again, the scope and scale is significantly different. Stony Brook had division one athletics, and I had the chance to be a conference chair as well as on the NCAA Board of Directors and Board of Governors, so I think I'm familiar with the issues  in college athletics, but actually then to involve in living those and working with a program that's really in the upper echelon programs across the country is going to be for me exciting, but also challenging in some ways too.

I think it's really important that our program be student-centric and student-focused. - MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. on college athletics

I had a meeting with the athletics (department). I went to their kickoff, and Bill Beekman, who's the Athletic Director, you know, said the right things, and I believe we're doing the right things. The things he said was we're focused on the student athlete, we're focused on their health and well being. Of course, we want to have success and we want to win, but we're focused on that, and part of those outcomes is making sure that they are getting their degrees and graduating. He talked a lot about graduation rates at that meeting. So yes, we talked about championships. We also talked about graduation rates. I think it's really important that our program be student-centric and student-focused. That was my focus at Stony Brook and that was my focus on the NCAA, with the student athletes really the goal here.

We know that only a small proportion, even at a great school like Michigan State University, are going to be professional athletes going forward. So, that degree is incredibly important, and I see athletics as a couple things. I see it as a chance for student athletes, some of whom may come from different and difficult backgrounds, to achieve a college education, to get it funded, and get a degree. At the same time, it also is name recognition from Michigan State. There's a lot of people around the country who know Michigan State University from athletics. My hope is that they'll know us from athletics, and then they'll learn about us, in addition, about our academics and our research. So, when I go out and wear MSU, and you know, say go green, go white, I'm going to be very proud, but also it's going to be a chance for me to not talk not only about athletics, but about what we're doing at Michigan State. I welcome those kind of opportunities.

POHL: Lots of presidents want to have a great say in who is the football coach, who is the Athletic Director, who are the coaches in the major sports. You arrive at MSU with an Athletic Director, Bill Beekman, who's under contract through 2023. The football coach and the men's basketball coach are all under multi-year contracts. You're not likely to have a lot of influence on who is in those jobs for some time. How do you feel about approaching the athletic department when you haven't chosen the people who are in these top positions?

STANLEY: I think it's probably not specific to athletics. I mean,  that issue of who the people are in the chief areas. I think when you come into a new situation, and I came into Stony Brook ten years ago, it's really about evaluating each individual and understanding kind of what I think their job is, what they think their job is, and then coming together with the metrics about what we think they should be doing in terms of performance. That's what I'm doing probably for every position at the university right now.

I think it's clear to me that there's people who've done great jobs, an amazing basketball coach, for example, won national championships, been in the Final Four. So, you know, that's easy, but I think it's less important to me about whether I picked them or not and more about what are they doing in their current positions, and how can I best evaluate them? And if I feel they're coming up short, then how do I help them get to where I think they need to be? If we can't do that, then you know, how do I help them find something new to do?

POHL: I understand your contract calls for full compliance with NCAA investigations. I want to make sure I understand what that means. Is that unusual? Why did you agree to that?

STANLEY: This is not unusual, and it's actually something that the NCAA has put forward to boards, because there were some issues about schools not cooperating NCAA investigations. So the NCAA sent basically a request out to universities and schools throughout the country, saying that we want in contracts, if possible, language that says there will be cooperation with them so it's not unique to me.


POHL: Your wife, Ellen Li, is a gastroenterologist and a research scientist. Sometimes, when the university is trying to lure a top level professor or an administrator, a position is found for his or her spouse. Has MSU made any commitment to your wife?

STANLEY: There's no formal commitment. Ellen is an outstanding biomedical researcher, and I would say one of the best scientists that I've met, passionate about what she does as a physician scientist. She's really done some amazing things. She did very basic research early on in her career, and then she transitioned to more clinical research, so research that, you know, is immediately applicable to people's lives. That's what she's been doing over the past decade.

She has a lot of things she's working on at Stony Brook, so she when I talked about this, she said 'I absolutely support you're doing it, but I want to let you know that I have things I need to finish at Stony Brook,' and I said, absolutely, that's fine. She's six months to a year away from joining me. Part of it'll depend on what's happening there, so we've made no firm time commitment, but she's already visited multiple times. She's already met with scientists here to talk about the kind of work they're doing, and I would say if there's things that excite her and she wants to work on then she'll be willing and hopefully welcome to join Michigan State University's faculty. Her pedigree is, you know, impeccable. You'd be getting a great person.

Obviously, I'm biased, but I think her CV speaks for itself, and so we'll just see how things happen in that realm. I think right now, she needs to really wrap up what's going on at Stony Brook, but she'll be up for a number of football games, and she's a huge basketball fan, all five feet of her, and she'll be very interested in the basketball season coming forward.


POHL: You taught a class at Stony Brook while you were president. Do you plan to do the same here?

STANLEY: I do, I do, and I'll have to start thinking about that, already creating it for probably the spring semester. That's what I did traditionally at Stony Brook, and it usually had to do with infectious diseases. What really changed for me was how I taught the class, and that gets to how we think about education nowadays. It used to be I just lectured. I gave a series of lectures and people sat there passively and took notes, and then we had a quiz at the end, and then take home as part of that as well. I changed it so now the students teach the course. I provide them with some resources to look up, I provide them with a series of questions that they need to answer to present to their classmates, but then they give the presentation. So, I review them ahead of time before they give them to make sure they're factually correct, but I let them pick out the things they want to emphasize in the material and how they want to teach it.

Most of the time, they give PowerPoints; occasionally, they have been more, you know, creative and done skits or things like that, so there have been different ways in which they presented. It's been great for me. It's not that much less work, because it's important to you make sure they're on the right track and so on, but what's really enjoyable is I learned things because they find stuff in the literature that I hadn't known. Things have changed a little bit since I was actually practicing infectious diseases and 14 years or something since I saw people clinically. So, it's been really rewarding for me. So I want to do that.

Obviously, it's a chance to get to know the students, we meet in a different setting. Occasionally I've gotten to know some and actually ended up doing some recommendations for a few of them because I've been impressed by what they were able to do in the classroom.


POHL: Recent presidents here have not lived on campus. You're bucking that trend. Why?

STANLEY: I think it was very important to be accessible. At Stony Brook University there was a house about two miles away from the campus, and I enjoyed living there. It was a very nice place, but I was never averse to the idea of living on campus. I think in the situation with what Michigan State has been going through and concernabout the accessibility of the administration, it made sense for me to live on campus. So, I'm excited about doing it. I’m living on campus now, and when Cowles House is remodeled, I'll get into Cowles house and live there too, so I'm excited about it.

POHL: Your neighbors must be surprised to see you in the hallway.

STANLEY: You know, I think so. I think one time someone said to me, ‘oh, are you a graduate student? What are you studying?’ I was so flattered. Really, you think I'm a graduate student? Which, you know, is completely not impossible. Obviously, graduate students, people pursue education every day, so there's nothing, you know, ridiculous about the question at all, but I think many people don't recognize me. I think the only thing they know is there's somebody who has a reserved parking space. That's probably the one perk that I do have there.


POHL: I have a final question for you on behalf of our listeners and WKAR-TV viewers: what's your thinking on university funding of public radio and television stations?

STANLEY: I think public radio is incredibly important. I think it's unfortunate that it's not been funded better by the federal government. It was originally. I mean, I think it really serves as a critical function. And I think, at Stony Brook University, we were engaged with a local radio station, primarily through our School of Journalism, and I think these things are very important. And I think again, you know, whether it's the school paper or your outlet, freedom of press is important, and I expect to get just as many tough questions from you as I would from any of the media outlets.

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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