MSU Trustee Candidates Lay Out Their Visions

Oct 22, 2020

WKAR invited the 10 candidates for MSU Board of Trustees to respond to a five-question survey.

Editor's Note: WKAR News received replies from six candidates: Brian Mosallam (D), Dr. Rema Vassar (D), Pat O’Keefe (R), Tonya Schuitmaker (R), Robin Laurain (Green Party) and Will Tyler White (Libertarian Party).

The other candidates are Brandon Hu (Green Party), Janet M. Sanger (U.S. Taxpayers Party), John Paul Sanger (U.S. Taxpayers Party) and Bridgette Abraham-Guzman (Natural Law Party).


1. There have been at least 1,500 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 connected to the MSU community so far this year. What should be the plan for ensuring a safe, orderly return to campus for students, staff and faculty? In your answer, please rank the following considerations by order of importance:

  • Containing the spread of the virus
  • Resuming in-person classes and athletics
  • Weighing the benefits of profit-making activities vs. maintaining public safety

Robin Laurain (Green)
Credit Courtesy / Robin Laurain/Facebook

LAURAIN:

1.) Containing the spread of the virus.

2.) Maintaining public safety before Weighing the benefits of profit-making activities.

3.) Resuming in-person classes and athletics only after #1 and #2 have been realized.

Brian Mosallam (D)
Credit Courtesy / votemosallam.org

MOSALLAM:

Our first priority should be the safety of our students, workers, guests, and the communities around MSU. While I would like to see in-person classes resume and have life return to normal, our priority must be the health and safety of everyone at MSU.

Pat O'Keefe (R)
Credit Courtesy / okeefeformsu.com

O’KEEFE:

Michigan State University had 6 months to figure out a safe back-to-school policy, including instituting proper safety protocols and securing enough PPE for all on campus programs and events. Students are not getting the full benefit of the bargain in terms of college experiences, yet they still have to pay the same tuition rate. While the current plan makes exemptions for athletes and graduate students, it is not enough. All students who are paying tuition should have had the option to return to campus this fall. The University should consider the best practices of all universities that are open and balance the health needs of all impacted.

Tonya Schuitmaker (R)
Credit Courtesy / Tonya Schuitmaker/Facebook

SCHUITMAKER:

The health of students and staff is the top priority and proper health protocols can go a long way to stop the spread. Hand washing, masks, social distancing, testing, and staying away from others if experiencing symptoms are effective methods. Life and learning cannot totally stop.

My preference is to proceed with activities that can be done safely.

Rema Vassar (D)
Credit Courtesy / Dr. Rema 4 MSU/Facebook

VASSAR:

COVID-19 has been traumatic for our students and our communities. I agree with MSU’s president’s difficult decision to put people first and keep our students home and safe. Trustees must protect the financial stability of the institution, and we cannot do that at the expense of our students. What is best for the health of our community is best for the health of our university. We should continue to look at safe ways to resume classes and athletics and bring us all together again.

Will Tyler White (Libertarian)
Credit Courtesy / willtylerwhite.org

WHITE:

Resuming in-person classes safely is the most important issue to address. That assumes the spread of the virus must be contained. Many classes should be resumed with at least a portion of online instruction to reduce in-person contacts. Some lab work and testing in class could be split into smaller groups to limit class size. It is important to keep room occupants below recommended levels and vacant long enough between classes for room air to be replaced. Increased ventilation and filtering for some buildings will be needed. Resuming athletic activities is problematic. The trade-off between revenue generation and maintaining public safety is apparent in the decisions made to limit the Big Ten football season. The compromise reached was probably as good an outcome as can be expected.

2. The pandemic has substantially impacted the university’s financial health. Fall enrollment at MSU is down nearly 900 students from this time last year. MSU is reporting a $54 million decline in revenue as compared to 2019. If elected, how will you work to achieve long-term financial solvency for MSU?

LAURAIN:

I would advocate for a recruiting campaign geared towards bringing in on-line students from all over the world. I would have Michigan State University lower tuition rates by 30% for all students and free net for all Michigan students. This incentive program would attract more students looking for a quality on-line experience at an excellent University.

MOSALLAM:

As a Financial Advisor and owner of a wealth management firm I believe that is a major asset during these critical financial times. My experience in understanding the organization at MSU during this critical juncture is also an asset. We need to refinance all of MSU’s debt (interest rates are at an all-time low), halt the approval of any new construction/renovations and travel, and review the top-heavy administration. We also need to eliminate the overlap of legal, HR, IT and other administrative functions done in each department. These functions can be centralized to create efficiencies. We need to eliminate all consultants and renegotiate the cash-back benefits each department receives when using MSU credit cards.

O’KEEFE:

Not unlike budgeting for governmental agencies that use zero based budgeting, there are no set asides or reserves for rainy day funds. Most businesses facing the challenges of COVID-19 have had to figure out how to do more with less, often resulting in 10-20% salary cuts in leadership salaries and overhead reductions. In many ways, Universities are no different than the big multi-billion-dollar business that have made these sacrifices. However, there is no one on the Board who has the experience and financial acumen to make those tough decisions. They are ill equipped to understand the tools and strategies to face such challenges.

SCHUITMAKER:

MSU and other universities achieve long-term financial health by providing value to students and their families. MSU needs to demonstrate that the skills, knowledge and values gained from attending MSU, along with the connections and reputation of a degree, are worth the investment. I will push for MSU to provide a rewarding experience that enhances the prospects of a student being successful.

The Administration must also be fiscally responsible with tuition, taxpayer, and donor dollars.

VASSAR:

I would look to reduce the budget through adjustments, where possible. Essential services should be maintained, and I would look at delaying the implementation of new spending programs or capital improvements. As a state university, it is reasonable to explore how the State of Michigan can be part of the solution. I would seek new sources of revenue from the state and federal government.

WHITE:

In my opinion, the Board of Trustees should be meeting more often to get ahead of the coming financial issues. The university has already taken steps to freeze salaries and delayed some construction projects, which is a good first step. Doing a cost/benefit analysis will take time, and projections are only so good, but there will be more cost reductions needed. The transition to more online classes is necessary too, so it is important to figure out how to make that means of education appropriate and cost effective.

3. Michigan State University is still emerging from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, the most serious crisis in this institution’s history. As a trustee, how will you manage the response, considering these objectives:

  • Ensuring a robust Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence program
  • Maintaining full compliance with the Clery Act
  • Guaranteeing an unobstructed victims’ reporting process
  • Actively seeking prosecution against suspected offenders
  • Protecting the viability of MSU Counseling and Mental Health Services Fund

LAURAIN:

- Ensuring a robust Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence (SARV) program:

I would establish a citizen oversight committee that I personally would be involved in which included students, parents, and faculty. It would be a requirement that all Freshman and Transfer students attend this program which would be offered by the University.

Maintaining full compliance with the Clery Act: It would be an expectation that all staff and Trustees understand the requirements of the Clery Act. A document would be required to be signed stating that the employee and Trustee understand the requirements of reporting and if they do not immediate suspension would happen and a full investigation into the situation would occur.

Guaranteeing an unobstructed victims’ reporting process: Zero tolerance for sexual abuse at MSU will be the new expectation. All staff will understand that they are mandated reporters and policies and procedures will be implemented so that the same standard is used with every reported incident by the survivor. The Trustees will be notified within 24 hours of a reported sexual assault.

Actively seeking prosecution against suspected offenders: I would advocate that the East Lansing Police Department or prosecuting attorney’s office appoint an officer to work with the SARV program and be part of the citizen’s oversight committee. Every sexual assault case would be reported to the Prosecuter’s (sic) office.

Protecting the viability of MSU Counseling and Mental Health Services Fund:

Frequent audits would be expected to assure that all claims are legitimate. I would seek out grants, endowments, and donations to add to the fund if needed.

MOSALLAM:

I was one of the few in leadership who was very critical of MSU’s response to the Nassar scandal. In May 2018 I issued a plan of reform. Many of my initiatives have been adopted, including a policy of requiring all Title IX reports be read by the Board, the creation of an Audit, Risk and Compliance (ARC) Committee and the hiring of a Chief Compliance Officer who reports to the ARC. My plan also called for the general counsel’s office to be separate from the Title IX office and the Ombudsperson becoming more of an advocate for those voices that are not heard.

The Title IX office and the Chief Compliance Officer must have a dotted reporting line to the Board, bypassing the President. The Compliance and Risk Office needs to be separated. My plan also calls for increasing mental health funding and for programs such as SAP and SARV. Two years ago I called for an ongoing monitorship, which would include compliance of the Clery Act, which MSU is now doing.

I proposed all of this almost 2 ½ years ago and I continue to push for reforms at MSU. I am quite confident, given my institutional knowledge, that I know what needs to be fixed.

O’KEEFE:

The Clery Act requires that the University disclose safety methods, investigations, and prosecution of all sexual assaults and crimes on campus. Many of the Board who prioritized safety on campus, thought the Clery Act was just a numerical reporting, if they even knew it existed. This is an outrage and one of the reasons I am running. As the father of a daughter who was a Big Ten scholarship athlete, all campuses should be safe for all students. To not understand the governance and oversight for this basic student right is a dereliction of duty for both the Administration and Board, sufficient independence and objective controls in reporting is required.

SCHUITMAKER:

I took action in the State Senate to pass legislation to protect victims of sexual abuse, remove protections for universities, and lengthen the statute of limitations. The Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board recognized me with the Champion of Justice Award in 2018 for my work on behalf of victims and students at Michigan State University. Additionally, I was involved in spearheading the First Lady’s Campus Sexual Assault Summit. My work on sexual assault issues includes leadership on the Sexual Assault Kit Tracking Commission, the expansion of capabilities for law enforcement to solve cold cases, and linking higher education tax dollars to plans to protect young people on campus. My history is to find out the truth, demand accountability, and make changes to improve the future.

VASSAR:

With the exception of the last objective, these are reactive goals, offering responses to misconduct and assault. As an educator charged to lead within a university, I would focus on prevention and proactively and assertively work with leadership to educate all Spartans about abuse and trauma, consent, and safety. While we must hold offenders accountable, as an institution of higher learning, we must also seek to protect the community and stop abuse through education. I would also push for more resources for victims, survivors, and their families to help the healing process.

WHITE:

In response to the federal Department of Education’s audit of MSU’s compliance with the Clery Act, MSU strengthened and expanded the Clery Compliance Committee, the Clery Compliance Steering Committee and the Title IX Coordinated Response Team. The Board of Trustees must ensure that the actions required from the audit are followed by the Clery committees to enhance coordination and response to crime reports. The complexity of the Clery Act needs to be addressed with a more streamlined reporting system. Improved policies and procedures need to be in place, so crimes are prosecuted whenever circumstances demand it. The very important MSU Counseling and Mental Health Services Fund should be increased and protected from any future cuts.

4. Our nation is experiencing civil unrest at a level unseen in decades. MSU is actively building a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program. If elected, what will you do to protect all voices on campus, including outside persons or groups requesting a free speech forum?

LAURAIN:

Be seen, be present, and listen. I will involve myself in the program and encourage people to come to me with any issues that they may experience. I will then work tirelessly to find solutions to the problem. I may not have the answer at the time it is presented to me, but I promise to not stop until I find the answer.

MOSALLAM:

As a public institution we must allow all voices to have the opportunity to speak, but those voices have a responsibility to be peaceful and not incite violence. In the past four years I have heard a lot of rhetoric that I find outrageous, offensive, and unnecessary, but I support the right of all Americans to express their opinions. I also think it is critical that we encourage free thinking but dog whistling and hate speeches which could put student’s safety at risk pose a serious problem. We have to be very mindful of this.

O’KEEFE:

Free speech is a basic right provided by the Constitution and critical thinking, a basic foundation for education, requires understanding arguments and opinions from both sides of the lens, progressive and conservative. My opponents in this race are tone deaf to the pleas of the James Madison students at MSU and numerous instances nationally. The latest victim of bullying is Stephanie Martinez who was kicked off of the student council at Loyola Marymount for conservative views. The University should stop denying this doesn’t happen and promote civil discourse on a variety of topics. Inclusion means everyone, not just those that agree with you.

SCHUITMAKER:

Each individual needs to be treated with respect and dignity. MSU’s responsibility is to provide opportunities for each student to discover their God-given talents, pursue a fulfilling career, learn to love learning, and be a blessing for their family and community. Free speech must be protected and of course, the violent riots and looting can never be tolerated.

VASSAR:

My absolute first priority is building meaningful relationships with diverse communities of students. This is what I’ve done everywhere I’ve worked--as a teacher, as a principal, a counselor, a college professor. Listening to students and centering their voices in our every decision must be a priority.

Freedom of speech should facilitate critical thinking. Diversity of thought is our greatest global strength. Thwarting the exchange of ideas is anti-intellectualism and antithetical to MSU’s values as a land grant institution.

WHITE:

As a center of learning, the university by its nature is a free speech forum. All voices should be protected by the same protocol. If an event is considered a public safety threat though, the university has an obligation to consider whether it is feasible. MSU President Stanley was right to recognize the important role the university has in addressing this issue. In August, he asked the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee to create a smaller Task Force on Racial Equality. It will examine and address urgent and immediate issues critical to racial and ethnic communities on the MSU campus. The University should evaluate and follow their recommendations.

5. What do you personally feel is the most pressing issue facing Michigan State University, and what’s your plan to address it?

LAURAIN:

Michigan State needs an umbrella of safety protecting the students and faculty. Spartans need to be protected from sexual predators, the diseases of COVID, racism, discrimination, and failure to thrive. Students cannot learn in an unsafe, toxic, or dangerous environment. In my first 90 days in office, I would start getting involved with the SARV, DEI, and Healing Assistance Programs. I would develop relationships with the student and faculty that would lead to a Campus-wide safety committee that would tackle these issues. All Spartans would have a seat at the decision-making table.

MOSALLAM:

I want to see MSU become the national model of how to keep students, workers, and

guests safe and regain the public’s trust. We must ensure that a Nassar scandal never happens again. We must hold everyone responsible for what happened, and we can protect students through more transparency and accountability. MSU will not regain the public’s trust until all documents related to the Nassar scandal are released. I support releasing those documents once our legal and insurance claims are settled. Financial stewardship and DEI are also very critical components in moving this University forward, especially given the unprecedented financial times and the social justice movement. Students of color and those from marginalized communities do not feel safe nor heard on campus. This must be addressed.

O’KEEFE:

I am running on a S.A.F.E. platform: Safety, Affordability, Free Speech, and Educating Michigan Students First. I believe higher education is in a crisis and I am a crisis manager. I have extensive experience in defining the problem, gathering the facts, collaboratively developing a solution and executing successfully in the face of competing interests. As a professional with a demonstrated and acknowledged expertise in the marketplace for financial and accounting matters, I bring a level of expertise not currently found on the Board. Affordability is a big issue facing students who comprise 70% of University revenue. I would bring a fiscal conservancy, reprioritization of Michigan taxpayer funds, innovative financing tools like Income Sharing Agreements, which will make the University have some skin in the game for the cost of higher education, to the benefit of the Michigan taxpayer and MSU students.

SCHUITMAKER:

The highest responsibility of MSU is to pave the way for graduates to have a healthy future, which includes ensuring higher education is affordable and that students are learning the skills and values to prepare them for success. Holding tuition costs down is crucial so a Michigan State education is accessible. That requires being fiscally responsible, focusing resources on priorities, practicing strong oversight and accountability, and demonstrating value to attract students and contributions.

VASSAR:

There are many issues, however, equity, access, and inclusion are of paramount concern for multiple reasons. In order to realize these three, we must lower tuition or provide aid so that anyone in Michigan can choose to be a Spartan. More aid to families making $70,000 or less will help us recruit students who have everything it takes to get an MSU degree except the money. The crises caused by Covid-19 has shown us business as usual is over. I am uniquely prepared to meet current challenges with a background in education, leadership, and experience fighting for marginalized students everywhere.

WHITE:

Running the university safely under the pandemic is the biggest challenge right now. The Board should meet more often with the provost and facilities team to get a handle on how to address the problems that entails. There will be significant financial and physical challenges to maintain the quality of education and level of service that students and faculty expect. The Board of Trustees needs to be focused on the immediate and short-term budget adjustments that need to be made, with an eye towards future, long-term goals.