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Allegations against MSU board chair Rema Vassar prompts internal review

MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar looks down while speaking into a dozen microphones on a podium
Michelle Jokisch Polo
MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar.

Updated Oct. 23 at 8:12 p.m. ET

Michigan State University's legal office has initiated an ethics review of its Board of Trustees, following allegations made against Chair Rema Vassar by one of her colleagues.

Last week, MSU Trustee Brianna Scott asked for the board leader's resignation, recalling several incidents of inappropriate conduct in a letter addressed to her colleagues, first shared to the State News.

Scott wrote that Vassar has interfered outside of her authority as board chair on multiple occasions.

MSU Trustee Dan Kelly, chair of the board's audit, risk and compliance committee announced Monday the university's general counsel's office initiated an investigation into the matter.

“Until the established process plays out, I sincerely hope that my colleagues on the Board can set aside their current distractions and return to our unanimously agreed-upon priorities of a successful presidential search, improvements to our Title IX obligations and responsibilities, and maintaining the wellbeing and safety of our entire Spartan community," Kelly wrote.

Following the university's legal review, Kelly said recommendations would be shared with the full Board.

"All too often, Board Member comments or frustrations do not reflect the consensus of the Board of Trustees on most of the University’s pressing issues and concerns," Kelly wrote. "I am confident the Board’s love of this university and commitment to public service will outweigh any distractions."

Trustee Dianne Byrum previously expressed her support for Vassar’s resignation, according to the State News.

"I acknowledge the courage of Trustee Scott and I support her letter," Byrum said.

However, Trustee Dennis Denno dismissed the allegations.

“I support Chair Rema Vassar and I’m disappointed some trustees are grandstanding with false accusations due to a personal grievance,” he said in a statement to WKAR reporters.

MSU faculty, Whitmer call for action

A leading representative for MSU's faculty and academic staff wants to see administrative changes.

MSU Faculty Senate Chair Jack Lipton is professor and chair of the Department of Translational Neuroscience.

"Some members of the board seem to be functioning as de facto presidents, as opposed to trustees and working on day-to-day management instead of oversight, and working on being vindictive, rather than being collaborative," said MSU Faculty Senate Chair Jack Lipton.

Lipton calls Scott's efforts necessary, though her actions in sharing her letter with the public may have violated the Board of Trustee's code of ethics and conduct.

"I really applaud her for her bravery for coming forward and exposing some of the pathology on this board," Lipton said.

The Faculty Senate is expected to meet with MSU’s trustees ahead of the Board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Friday.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement the allegations regarding MSU's Board of Trustees are deeply concerning.

“If accurate, it would be a huge breach of the public’s trust. This university has been rocked by scandal after scandal with no clear unified leadership or direction and tragically no accountability either,” Whitmer wrote.

In her statement, Whitmer asks the school to investigate thoroughly and take appropriate action.

Scott’s allegations

Scott claims that Vassar attempted to negotiate a settlement with the school’s former business dean Sanjay Gupta without consulting the rest of the board. Gupta was ousted as dean last year, after he was accused of failing to report an incident of sexual harassment at the university.

“The interim president communicated to the BOT that this interfered with the ability of the University to effectively engage in settlement negotiations,” Scott wrote.

Scott also alleges that Vassar attempted to keep information from being released on an independent review of MSU’s response to the February mass shooting that occurred at the school. According to the report prepared by Security Risk Management Consultants, Board of Trustees members took on an unusually active role during the incident emergency, going beyond their typical governance responsibilities and expectations.

“When the BOT received a preliminary overview of the findings from SRMC before they were released to the public, Dr. Vassar inappropriately suggested to the firm consultants during their briefing to the BOT that they might consider revising the finding that she and the three other trustees who were involved had acted outside of their authority,” Scott wrote in the letter.

Scott also accuses Vassar of bullying and intimidating MSU’s interim president Teresa Woodruff. She claims Vassar has admonished Woodruff about speaking independently with other Trustees and has adviser that she was only to speak with Vassar.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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