EAST LANSING, Mich. — Faculty at Michigan State University issued an emphatic vote of no confidence in the board of trustees Tuesday afternoon in the wake of a sex abuse scandal that rocked the school.
At an emergency meeting, the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly — 61 to 4 — that it lacked confidence in the trustees, with results greeted by loud applause. The public university has been in turmoil since scores of young women accused an MSU sports medicine doctor of molesting them.
The faculty cannot force board members out. But with a vote of no confidence, the impact is immediate and deep, said Sean McKinniss, who is co-writing a book on academic governance: a loss of legitimacy for both the board and the interim president whose appointment triggered the faculty vote.
“Unless you take a moral stand, you give tacit agreement by your silence,” Robert LaDuca, a professor of chemistry who is a faculty leader, said before the meeting. “The board has been leading from behind, in my opinion, in this whole process.” He compared the university to a corporation that has had a catastrophic failure and needs new leaders to move the organization forward, “rather than the entrenched and, to be honest, myopic leadership that got us into this crisis and damaged untold numbers of lives.
“Speaking for myself, I don’t see what moral credibility they have to lead this university forward.”
It is rare for faculty to vote no confidence in a board of trustees, according to two researchers who study and track such matters.
The scandal involving Larry Nassar, who had been an MSU doctor and team physician with USA Gymnastics, forced the ouster of longtime university president Lou Anna Simon last month, with public outrage intensifying as victims spoke out in court, many saying their complaints had been ignored.
Victims continue to come forward: Since mid-January, the Michigan State police department has gotten more than 60 criminal reports against Nassar. That brings the total as of Feb. 5 to more than 190 reports filed since September 2016, after the Indianapolis Star published an investigative report about Nassar.
The former university physician was sentenced to many decades in prison.
In January, MSU board members apologized to Nassar’s victims in an emotional meeting, with some choking out words through tears and one saying, “We failed you.”
John Engler, a former governor of Michigan and an alumnus of the university, was named interim president by the board last month. Engler said that as a longtime leader, he would move swiftly to correct problems at the school, and that as a father of three daughters he could empathize with the victims and their families. But the choice shocked many — including faculty leaders, whose opinions trustees had seemed to solicit the day before news of the selection became public through news reports.
At the meeting Tuesday, some faculty members objected to the idea that Engler’s selection was the reason for a vote of no confidence. Shawnee Vickery, a professor in the college of business, called a vote on that pretense “tone deaf and insensitive,” and proposed amending the agenda.
“The motion of no confidence should be because the board was ultimately responsible and accountable for what happened to these women and did not stop what happened to these women,” Vickery said of Nassar’s victims. “This should be about the women, not about anything else.”
During discussion before the vote of no confidence, Glenn Stutzky, a professor in the School of Social Work, said the Faculty Senate must do more to achieve change.
“The trust that has been broken cannot be repaired, cannot be recovered — they must be removed,” Stutzky said. “But before they resign, they must withdraw their contract with the new interim president before it becomes official this Friday.”
Other faculty, such as Vickery and John Verboncoeur, a professor in the College of Engineering, defended the interim president.
Randolph Pearson, a professor in the College of Human Medicine, wrote a letter asserting a vote of no confidence was the wrong approach. He argued the elected board, if deserving of censure, should receive it from voters, and that this was not a time for divisiveness, but a time to lead by example.
Pearson urged the Faculty Senate to instead adopt a resolution “expressing our commitment to lead our university to a place where our students feel safe and our patients also feel protected.” His suggestion was not taken up.
A small portion of faculty also appeared to be in favor of a walkout protest to demand more changes.
Outside in the hall, people had made signs that read “No Confidence” and “Trustees Not Trusted.”
June Youatt, the university’s provost, said she was not surprised by the vote.
“This vote today isn’t so much an outcome as a window into how the faculty and students of this campus have experienced this these past few weeks,” Youatt said. “The discussion that went on today about the hurt, the pain, the culture and our collective sense of responsibility — I hope they hear that.”
An MSU trustee, Dianne Byrum, said she understood “the anger and frustration among students, faculty and staff, whose trust and confidence in Michigan State University has been understandably shaken.
“For too long, Michigan State University has failed to be transparent, accountable and compassionate, and we need to change that,” Byrum said. “I am committed to doing my part to increase transparency, promote accountability and improve communication so this tragic situation never happens again.”
Trustee Brian Mosallam held a town hall meeting on campus earlier this month, and hundreds of people filled the room, including victims. Hundreds had to leave, unable to fit in the room. Many spoke out against Engler. Many said trustees should resign.
The Faculty Senate did not consider a vote of no confidence in the interim president. “Engler’s in this role through no fault of his own,” LaDuca said before the meeting. And he emphasized Engler’s politics — he’s a Republican — are not the issue and that the faculty would feel the same way if a former governor who is a Democrat had been tapped.
He said many faculty members were disappointed that trustees made a show of listening to people on campus when, apparently, they had already chosen an interim leader.
The way universities operate and the principle of shared governance isn’t obvious to most members of the public, McKinniss said. In higher education, faculty, students and staff are usually involved in either leadership selection or policymaking, he said, with a system built on collaboration and consultation. It’s less hierarchical than many organizations. “At a Fortune 500 company, no one expects that employees get to pick who the CEO would be, or have a say in it,” he said. At a college, if the community at large is not involved, “that can cause a problem, as we’re seeing now.
“And if they are involved and don’t like the choice, there’s still grounds for discontent,” he said.
Some other groups at Michigan State have expressed a lack of confidence in the board in recent days. The Council of Graduate Students, which represents all 11,000 graduate and professional students at MSU, passed a vote of no confidence with an overwhelming majority earlier this month. They called for the immediate removal of Engler and resignation of all the trustees.
MSU is so decentralized it can be challenging to give a coordinated response, said Terah Chambers, an associate professor in the school’s College of Education, but a new coalition of faculty, staff and students called Reclaim MSU is working to unify efforts and send a clear message about the change that is needed.
“The board of trustees has been operating with very little transparency,” Chambers said. “They have had a series of responses that are putting the protection of the university ahead of trying to change the culture here. That’s what we’re worried about.” The way Engler was selected, apparently without consideration of faculty, staff and student opinions, was one sign of that, she said. “That’s the culture that has gotten us where we are now. That’s what has people fed up.”
McKinniss and a law professor at Michigan State, Mae Kuykendall, co-author on a book about no-confidence votes at universities, said they are aware of only a handful of such votes targeting boards. Faculty are usually focused on the president in a leadership crisis, said McKinniss — who is tracking such cases — because the president is the visible leader, with a constant presence on campus. A vote against the board, he said, is “calling for an entirely clean slate of leadership.”
“We have marched, we have protested, we have written letters, we have raised our voices and delivered demands — and not a single board member has resigned,” Stutzky said at the meeting. “Not even the pain shared by the hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse and assault . . . under their watch, under their care, has convinced even one of them to step down.” He said if they truly had empathy, the moral force of the vote would move them to resign. But he does not think they will.
Stutzky said a recall campaign should be mounted, to force the trustees out. “This is our community, this is our university, and it is time to reclaim MSU.”
Schuster is a graduate student at MSU. Svrluga reported from Washington.
Read the letter from the Council of Graduate Students Vote of No Confidence here: