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MSU trustees face removal after censure vote over misconduct allegations

Michigan State University

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could change the makeup of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees by removing trustees Rema Vassar and Dennis Denno.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could change the makeup of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees, after the body took corrective action against three of its members over allegations of misconduct.

The board convened a late-notice special meeting Sunday night following the release of a report that found Trustees Rema Vassar and Dennis Denno overstepped their authority multiple times, creating a “fear of retaliation” among administrators and MSU staff.

Interim MSU President Teresa K. Woodruff (left) listens as Board President Rema Vassar speaks during Friday's public meeting.
Kevin Lavery
Interim MSU President Teresa K. Woodruff (left) listens as Board President Rema Vassar speaks during a previous public meeting.

Trustees voted 6-2 in two separate motions to censure Vassar and Denno and refer the matter to the governor’s office, who has the authority to remove them from office.

"As we have done in similar instances, we will take the time to carefully review this request upon official receipt of the formal communication from the board,” said Whitmer press secretary Stacey LaRouche in a statement.

The resolutions also removed the two trustees from their leadership positions, including Vassar's title as board chair, and suspended them from board activities outside of their roles as elected officials for the remainder of the year. Vassar and Denno voted against the measures.

“I believe that these actions are punitive and over the top,” Vassar said during the meeting, criticizing the report for being “incomplete.”

MSU Trustee Dennis Denno

The 66-page independent investigation authored by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Miller & Chevalier reviews several allegations made by Trustee Brianna Scott, who accused Vassar of bullying and other misconduct in a public letter last year.

Miller & Chevalier substantiated some of those claims, underscoring an incident when the former board chair and Denno encouraged students to campaign against former interim President Teresa Woodruff and Faculty Senate Chair Jack Lipton.

The report finds the Board “assumed an outsized role” at MSU amid ongoing fallout from the university’s handling of former sports doctor Larry Nassar’s sex abuse and subsequent Title IX complaints, resulting in rapid turnover in school leadership.

“This investigation acknowledges what we all know: that this board has suffered from dysfunction for some time, certainly preceding my tenure,” Vassar said.

Denno did not comment on the board’s action against him during the meeting, but referred to a statement released to the Lansing State Journal where he said he would not resign, refuting most of the claims in the report.

“I will accept a censure but contest any other form of punishment,” Denno wrote. “I have legal counsel reviewing a potential lawsuit should this board not do the right thing here as I have agreed to do."

The board also voted 7-1 to censure Trustee Scott for violating the university’s bylaws when she went to the media to release her ethics complaint that precipitated the investigation.

Trustee Brianna Scott fights back tears in her comments to the board. "People can't talk because they're afraid. And we say we want transparency.”
Trustee Brianna Scott (right) fights back tears in her comments to the board amid the ethics probe on Oct. 27. 2023.

Scott said it’s hurtful for her to face consequences for coming forward to report misconduct.

“But I do not regret it,” she added. “I believe ultimately what needed to be disclosed has been, and the university is in a better place and will continue to improve because of this investigation.”

Dan Kelly, the sole Republican among the trustees, succeeds Vassar as the board’s new chair. He is replaced by Trustee Kelly Tebay as the new vice chair.

The turmoil on the board came on the eve of new leadership at MSU. Kevin Guskiewicz started his term Monday as the school’s president, the fifth since 2018.

“Many of the activities described in the report are concerning, but I am assured that the Board is committed to following the good governance principles and practices they signed with me in December,” Guskiewicz said in a campus-wide email.

“That is what our university deserves, and what our community expects moving forward.”

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
Eli Newman is assistant news director and editor. He works with the WKAR news and digital content teams to facilitate the creation of meaningful and thought-provoking multimedia news content for WKAR Public Media.
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