Brian Breslin, center, leads the Michigan State board of trustees. Some continue to question the board following the scandal involving Larry Nassar, a university physician and volunteer with USA Gymnastics who was sentenced to decades in prison for abusing girls and young women. (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and a trustee of Spelman College, writes about the role of Michigan State University’s board of trustees in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal. 

Richard Legon (Courtesy Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges)

Like many of you, I’ve been tracking the still unfolding story of sexual abuse on the campus of Michigan State University. While the resignation of the president in such difficult and tragic situations often marks the end of scandal and the start of rebuilding, I am afraid the fallout from this story may be far from over.

For the last several years, higher education has been rightly focused on issues of sexual abuse and harassment on campus, and yet we still see examples of institutional chief executive officers falling into the trap of either protecting their own reputations instead of the long-term standing of their institutions, or assuming they can manage such a high-profile set of issues on their own.

Clearly, leadership of our colleges and universities is an increasingly challenging job — it’s nonstop.  However, protection against sexual harassment and assault on our campuses must be Job One. It affects all of society when an institution of higher education fails its students, faculty and others — and the fallout of such failures sits squarely atop the desk of institutional leadership.

The recent resignation of the nationally renowned president of Michigan State is unfortunate, but I believe appropriate under the circumstances of the apparent yearslong awareness of allegations that a sexual predator operated on the MSU campus.

The departure of Baylor University’s president because of sexual scandals in the university’s athletic department, the recent decision by the University of Rochester’s president to leave his post because of  the investigation of a faculty member accused of harassment, and the Penn State crisis are just three other high-profile examples.

There are others — too many others — that suggest there are problems needing serious oversight and, often, a wholesale revision of internal policies.

While it may be arguable as to what each of these leaders knew or when each knew it in relation to the issues that resulted in their respective departures, those at the top must own the issues that are central to institutional safety and reputation.

Students may return, athletics programs may be restored, but the bad taste such events put in the mouths of the public contribute to the current decline in the public’s trust in higher education.

Is it any wonder that some ask if universities are worth the cost?

In the end, aren’t all of these issues ultimately tied to a failure in governance?

In the case of Michigan State, the publicly elected board members stood in support of the president until two members changed their positions and urged the president to leave.

Did the board members’ decision to discontinue their support represent personal reconsideration, or some form of external political pressure? We will probably not know. But their action shows that the issues that fall to a governing board must include the difficult and uncomfortable.

A governing board is ultimately accountable for meeting a public trust — beginning with publicly demonstrating concern for the survivors of sexual assault. The duty of care demands more than lip service for those who were abused, assaulted or attacked.

Boards must also be able to assure an uncertain public that board members recognize their accountability.

People need to hear from those charged with the ultimate authority that they understand when an institution’s credibility comes under question and that they will lead the effort to make things right.

Supporting a comprehensive investigation can demonstrate board accountability, as will a comprehensive audit of institution policies.

Boards must assert their leadership on issues that matter, and these issues matter.

While governing boards should be supportive of presidential leadership, they must also make clear their expectations of chief executive officers for transparency and trust on all issues, particularly those issues that relate to student safety, especially instances of sexual assault or harassment.

Chairs of governing boards should establish a sufficiently open relationship with institution chief executives to ensure that boards aren’t surprised by difficult issues.

Too many boards address only those issues that are placed in front of them by institutional administrators. Boards are appropriately dependent on chief executives and senior administrators to shape meeting agendas and frame strategic challenges and opportunities. But when do boards step up and make clear that, under their broad standards of accountability, it sometimes falls to them to identify what to discuss and what to decide?

Sometimes, it’s the issues that are out there but not spoken of that should be central to governing board conversation.

Of course, boards of public colleges and universities are somewhat constrained by state requirements of open meetings. But rather than using that as an excuse, let’s find alternative formats that will enable all boards to address the issues that really matter.

Board leadership has been debated for many years and recent comments about board responsibility, including some from my own association, have urged boards to recognize the scope of their accountability.

If high-profile management failures involving sexual assault — such as Michigan State and Baylor — don’t awaken boards to their ultimate responsibility, others may appropriately begin to question the way universities are run.