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MSU Board of Trustees election winners discuss campus priorities

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Dennis Denno (L) and Renee Knake Jefferson (R).

In this year's midterm elections, voters elected two Democratic candidates to the Michigan State University Board of Trustees. The board will have six Democratic trustees and two Republicans next year.

The election follows a period of tension between the board and campus community members. Concerns surrounding Broad College of Business dean Sanjay Gupta's dismissal and MSU's Title IX certification process in 2021 provoked the board to launch independent investigations into these issues.

The controversy drew no-confidence votes from several campus organizations and led to former President Samuel Stanley Jr.'s resignation. Trustees will be responsible for picking MSU’s new president following Provost Teresa Woodruff’s appointment as interim president.

The winning candidates, Dennis Denno and incumbent trustee Renee Knake Jefferson, both joined WKAR politics reporter Arjun Thakkar, to discuss their victory and how they plan to rebuild trust with the community.

Interview Highlights

Denno on building trust and creating unity on campus

Something that gives me hope is that, well, you know, whether you liked him or not, the President's gone, you know, the chair of the board says she's not going to run for chair again. So there's going to be some fresh leadership, both in the president's office and on the MSU Board of Trustees. And I think that that's going to help.

Knake Jefferson on openly engaging with campus

For me, transparency is about telling the community what we're going to do, and then giving them a tool to measure and assess whether or not we've done it. And so I'll try to bring that same type of transparency to other aspects of our board governance.

Denno on who MSU's next president should be

I think there's three things I would like to see just starting off. One, I'd like to see someone who, who understands the Midwest. And two, I'd like to see someone who has the skill sets and the ability to manage a large complex organization like Michigan State University. And three, I think we need a president who is really going to sit down and listen to the community at Michigan State.

Knake Jefferson on what she wants from the next board chairperson

I will be, and I hope we all will be, looking for a leader of the board who is willing to listen and take seriously every perspective, find where there is consensus, and work to the best outcome that's in the best interest of Michigan State, of the whole university, through the wide range of perspectives that all of the trustees bring.

Interview Transcript

Melorie Begay: In this year's midterm elections, voters elected two Democratic candidates to the Michigan State University Board of Trustees. Their victory follows a period of tension on campus. The trustees will have challenges ahead of them. That includes picking MSU’s new permanent president. The winning candidates, Dennis Denno and incumbent trustee Renee Knake Jefferson, both joined WKAR’s Arjun Thakkar to discuss how they plan to rebuild trust with the community.

Arjun Thakkar: Well, congrats to both of you on winning this election. Why do you think voters chose both of you to represent MSU? I'll start with you, Mr. Denno.

Dennis Denno: You know, I think a lot of these education races are just based on top of the ticket, to be completely honest with you. When Democrats come out to vote, when Democrats vote straight ticket, you'll see all our education candidates win like what happened, you know, this year. And I think that's kind of what happened, not to take away anything from any of our great Democratic candidates who ran this year for education positions.

Thakkar: Trustee Jefferson?

Renee Knake Jefferson: I agree with that. I will also say that I answered a lot of emails with voters asking me very specific questions about my views on issues. So I do think it's the case that voters were really rolling up their sleeves and thinking hard about who they wanted to elect this year. And that's why we're here.

Thakkar: As you both know, in recent months, the campus community has expressed a lack of confidence in the board. Trustee Jefferson, how do you plan to rebuild that trust?

Knake Jefferson: Well, I think our top priority has to be communication. That's what I said at our last Board of Trustees meeting. And I will continue to say it over and over again, communication, both internally and externally. We need to be speaking with one voice. And we need to be speaking clearly so that the community understands what we're doing and why we're doing it. A real focus for me going forward is to work with our interim president, President Woodruff, to continue making this campus safe and welcoming to everyone. It's no secret that Title IX has been a priority for me since I joined the board. I believe it should be the floor, but not the ceiling in all that we do. And so I will continue to work with her and the campus community on that and other endeavors.

Thakkar: Mr. Denno, you weren't on the board when these tensions escalated. The perception on campus was that board members were not acting as a group. How would you work to build unity among your fellow trustees?

Denno: Yeah, that's a great question. I think Renee has a great point that, you know, first it starts off with communication. And I'd like to see the trustees do a stronger job with that. I'm already trying to reach out to student groups and different entities, different stakeholders on campus to kind of hear, hear their thoughts, hear their concerns and hear what's going on on campus. You know, I mean, something that gives me hope is that, well, you know, whether you liked him or not, the President's gone, you know, the chair of the board says she's not going to run for chair again. So there's going to be some fresh leadership, both in the president's office and on the MSU Board of Trustees. And I think that that's going to help.

Thakkar: When I spoke with both of you before the election, you shared some specific goals you wanted to implement as trustees. You both want to enhance transparency. What would you change to ensure the board openly engages with campus? Let's go to you first, Trustee Jefferson.

Knake Jefferson: Sure, I can give an example of one of the first things that I did when I joined the board. This was back in early 2020 after my appointment. I discovered that there had never been any formal policy in place for the review of the president. And so it was important to me that we adopt a policy, which I'm pleased to say the board unanimously did, that we made that policy publicly available. That's part of transparency. And then of course, the president's review, making that process and the results of it publicly available too. For me, transparency is about telling the community what we're going to do, and then giving them a tool to measure and assess whether or not we've done it. And so I'll try to bring that same type of transparency to other aspects of our board governance.

Thakkar: And are there any specific elements that you'd be able to share or care to share right now? For the future?

Knake Jefferson: Sure. Well, in terms of of other areas where I think we should have concrete transparency I think, really, in any action that the board takes, again, I think it's important for us to approach not just doing it, saying what we're going to do and explaining it, that's an important component of transparency, but then also giving a way for the public to measure and assess that. So sometimes it's making the information publicly available. Sometimes it's just doing a better job of explaining the the process for the decision making.

Thakkar: Mr. Denno, you said you want to be out and listen to the MSU community. Can you elaborate on how you plan to do that?

Denno: I mean, sure, I've already reached out to Senate faculty and asked to meet with them. I’ve reached out to student leadership and asked to meet with them. I’ve already met with other stakeholders. I mean, it's been a week since I got elected. So, you know, I agree with what Renee is saying. I commend her for what she's trying to do. And you know, I also think it's important that as trustees, we listen to our MSU community.

Thakkar: Does the board have any shortcomings that you hope to address in the new year? Trustee Jefferson, I'll ask you first.

Knake Jefferson: Well, I've already identified the key that I think and that's how we communicate, both internally with other stakeholders in the MSU community, but then also publicly. So we definitely have room for improvement there and I would like to see us work on that.

Thakkar: Mr. Denno?

Denno: I mean, the shortcomings of the board. You know, again, I think what Renee said she hit the nail on the head that one, is communication. Two, it’s, you know, again, I'm an outsider looking in. But I just think it's, you know, maybe working together better, listening to each other a little more. I mean, there was obviously a breakdown in communication, which is what I, not to put words in Renee’s mouth but I think that's kind of what she's saying. And kind of trying to work that together as a group and as a team, right.

Thakkar: You both have called for the unsealing of documents related to the Larry Nasser sex abuse scandal that the board has previously declined to keep private, citing attorney-client privilege. What is your plan to make that happen? Let's go to you first, Mr. Denno.

Denno: So. I would support that, I would support making a motion to release those documents, either to the public or to the Attorney General's office. And I think again, that's part of making Michigan State University more transparent.

Thakkar: Trustee Jefferson?

Knake Jefferson: So I've spoken about this before, I've addressed it at a Board of Trustees meeting, after I couldn't. But my appointment actually surrounds this, because another trustee resigned over disagreement within the board about whether or not to turn over the documents. When I joined I wasn't going to be able to change that outcome. And so instead, I reviewed the documents myself, not as a replacement. At the end of that review, I still said that they should be made publicly available. But that's an example of how I try to find a third way. You know, we’re a board of eight, eight individuals, we won't always agree and there may not be a majority in agreement, but I try to still find a way to further those goals of transparency and accountability that I want to bring to governance. And so my position in terms of the release of the documents hasn't changed.

Thakkar: Interim President Teresa Woodruff is the fifth person to lead MSU in the last four years. The board of trustees will be responsible for appointing permanent successor. Trustee Jefferson, how do you plan to attract candidates with such high turnover in the past?

Knake Jefferson: Well, I think a big component is the stability and agility, as she describes it, that interim President Woodruff is already bringing to the role. The fact that we really do have continuity of leadership, and that she was integral to the creation of the strategic plan, for example, something that the board also worked on. And so that, to me, should be a signal to anyone who is considering applying for the permanent presidency, that there has been continuity in leadership, that we are on the right trajectory, and that we are a wonderful university to step into a leadership role and move forward with.

Thakkar: Mr. Denno, what are you looking for in the next president?

Denno: You know I think there's three things I would like to see just starting off. One, I'd like to see someone who, who understands the Midwest. And two, I'd like to see someone who has the skill sets and the ability to manage a large complex organization like Michigan State University. And three, I think we need a president who is really going to sit down and listen to the community at Michigan State.

Thakkar: And can you elaborate on what you mean by understand the Midwest?

Denno: I mean, you know, some some people said and maybe this isn't fair, that President Stanley was an East Coast elitist, right. And so I don't know if that's fair or not. But I mean, I kind of think the Midwest is a special place, and we kind of have our own quirks and norms compared to other parts of the country. I think it's the best part of the country to live in. But I think that's kind of important that someone kind of understands the way we work and the way we think and the way we act.

Thakkar: We've talked about campus leadership. Now let's consider board leadership. Trustee Dianne Byrum has said she won't be running to be chairperson next year. What qualities should the next chair of the board have to lead the trustees? First, Trustee Jefferson.

Knake Jefferson: I think an important quality for leading the board is the ability to listen to everyone, consider all of the voices on the board. Every single member of the board has been brought to the board now in the same way, right. All of us now, now, finally, I too will join those who have been elected to the board. And that's really key. Everyone's voice needs to be heard. It's important, I think, for us to, for the board to do that collectively, and to have a leader who's willing to listen. And then to be able to draw from that where there might be agreement and where there might be disagreement. But to me disagreement can be healthy, it can help reach a better decision to consider all sides of an issue. And so I will be, and I hope we all will be, looking for a leader of the board who is willing to listen and take seriously every perspective, find where there is consensus, and work to the best outcome that's in the best interest of Michigan State, of the whole university, through the wide range of perspectives that all of the trustees bring.

Thakkar: Mr. Denno?

Denno: I think you need a consensus builder. Someone who can get consensus on the on the board, someone who's not going to demand that every vote is 8-0, someone who's not going to demand that there's absolutely no objection to what the Board of Trustees does, someone who can work with the president's office without forgetting that the MSU Board of Trustees is also an independent body that's supposed to oversee the president and oversee the university. So there's a kind of that balance of working with the president, but at times realizing that we are independent, and we might have a problem with the president, we might have a problem with what's going on on campus. And there's nothing wrong with the MSU Board of Trustees, actually looking into that and investigating it. Excuse me. That's actually in the Michigan Constitution that we have the right to do that.

Thakkar: Dennis Denno and Renee Knake Jefferson will begin their eight-year terms in January. Thank you for joining me, Mr. Denno.

Denno: Oh, thank you.

Thakkar: And thank you, Trustee Jefferson.

Knake Jefferson: Thank you.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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