Attempt to oust President Samuel Stanley thrusts Michigan State back into turmoil

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Dive Brief:

  • Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley remained in his position Wednesday, outlasting a rumored deadline from trustees to step down or risk being fired.
  • Stanley’s contract with the university is under discussion, but there is no ultimatum or time element on the table, according to Dan Olsen, a Michigan State spokesperson.  The board did offer Stanley an early retirement, according to Trustee Rema Vassar, but no decision has been made, according to a statement from the board’s vice chair, Daniel Kelly. Previous reports that Stanley was given until Tuesday to resign are inaccurate, Olsen said.
  • Stanley defended his handling of Title IX enforcement during a special meeting of Michigan State’s faculty senate Tuesday night. He also raised concerns that some trustees failed to complete necessary Title IX certifications in 2021.

Dive Insight:

If Stanley were ousted, he would be the third Michigan State president pushed out in less than five years amid questions about how the institution addresses sexual misconduct.

Former president Lou Anna Simon resigned in 2018, shortly after former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting dozens of gymnasts and athletes. Simon was sharply criticized for the way she handled the situation and even faced criminal charges for lying to investigators about the case. An appeals court dismissed those charges.

John Engler, a former Michigan governor, served as interim president following Simon but resigned after less than a year under pressure for comments he made about Nassar’s victims.

Stanley came to Michigan State in May 2019 after serving as president of Stony Brook University for a decade. But sources told the Detroit Free Press trustees lost faith in him over how he handled internal investigations and reporting requirements related to the university’s equity and sexual misconduct offices. 

The concerns are being investigated as part of an ongoing external probe, centered on the ousting of Sanjay Gupta, who was dean of the university’s business school. In August, Gupta resigned at the behest of Provost Teresa Woodruff after the university said he failed to meet mandatory reporting guidelines.

Stanley defended that decision at the faculty senate meeting Tuesday night.

“Culture change is difficult. So I was not completely surprised that the provost’s decision to hold the dean of the College of Business accountable for failures of leadership related to Title IX was controversial with some members of campus,” Stanley said. “But I was very surprised when the board announced that it was hiring outside legal counsel to review this decision.”

Shortly after Gupta resigned, the board released a statement acknowledging the provost has the right to fire a dean and that the president has oversight. In the same statement, it announced it had hired outside counsel to review the administration’s decision. The results of the review have yet to be announced publicly.

Stanley also questioned whether all trustees had completed their mandatory Title IX certification in 2021. An internal audit raised questions about trustees’ Title IX compliance and identified room for improvement, he said.

The talks surrounding Stanley’s employment divided the board. Two trustees — the board’s chair, Dianne Byrum, and another trustee, Melanie Foster — spoke out against their fellow board members’ proposed plan.

“I take strong exception to the conduct by several MSU Board of Trustees who have sought to undermine and second guess President Stanley under the mistaken belief they are somehow better qualified to run the university,” Byrum said in a statement. “They clearly are not as evidenced by the outpouring of concern, bewilderment and outrage their recent actions have generated.”

Foster called for Stanley to be able to finish his contract with Michigan State, which runs through 2024. He is eligible for a year of salary, about $960,000, if he resigns. But if Michigan State fires him for cause, the university does not owe him any additional money. 

Faculty senate leaders lambasted the board’s handling of the situation, saying such an abrupt leadership change could destabilize a university that’s still in recovery from recent events. 

“Despite the institutional trauma Michigan State University has endured in recent years, the Board of Trustees is apparently debating — behind closed doors — forcing out a third president,” said Karen Kelly-Blake and Stephanie Anthony, chair and vice chair of the Michigan State Faculty Senate, in a statement. “They should know better.”

The leadership struggle is gaining attention outside of Michigan. On Monday, the president of the Association of American Universities, Barbara Snyder, released a statement calling the reports of trustee interference appalling.

“In this time of deep ideological polarization in our nation, few institutions face more difficult pressures than our leading state universities,” Snyder said. “Micromanagement and partisan politics have no place on a healthy university board.”

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