Monday, December 5, 2022

‘Aggressive and Unparalleled’: Fight Escalates Between Michigan State’s Leaders and Trustees

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Michigan State University’s leadership crisis escalated further this week, with the president and the provost taking direct aim at the Board of Trustees for deciding to conduct an external investigation into the forced resignation of a dean.

In a fiery letter sent to the trustees on Wednesday, the provost, Teresa K. Woodruff, condemned the board’s legal team for contacting a handful of faculty members, who had previously helped the university’s internal investigation into the dean, for interviews to aid the board’s external investigation. Woodruff said the requests for interviews should cease, a point also made by President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. and the Faculty Senate, which sent their own letters to the board.

“These aggressive and unparalleled actions are causing harm to individuals and creating a chilling effect over work that is difficult,” Woodruff wrote in her letter, which was addressed to the full board. She added: “It is my assessment that you are working in a manner that does not comport with ordinary fact-finding, and I therefore ask you to halt the manner of your investigation.”

Michigan State’s top leaders and faculty members have been at odds with the board for the past several weeks, since Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Eli Broad College of Business, was forced to resign. Gupta stepped away from his position in August after an investigation by Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity found that he had failed to report allegations of sexual harassment by a subordinate to the university’s Title IX office. University officials have said the resignation was “the result of poor administrative oversight, including a failure to adhere to our mandatory reporting guidelines.”

At the end of August, the board, which is publicly elected, announced it was opening a separate investigation into Michigan State’s decision to force Gupta to resign, as reported by the Detroit Free Press. Then, in September, some Michigan State trustees attempted to oust Stanley, who has been president since 2019. In response, many on campus expressed outrage, including nearly 100 prominent faculty members who showed their “wholehearted support” for Stanley in a public letter.

Internal disagreements within the board also surfaced; after news broke that Stanley had been given an ultimatum to resign or be fired, Dianne Byrum, the board’s chair, criticized fellow trustees for sowing confusion about Stanley’s future and expressed her support for the president.

A key factor prompting board members to call for Stanley’s resignation is a new state law that requires Michigan State’s president and a trustee to certify annually that they have reviewed any sexual-misconduct reports involving university employees in the past year. Board members have accused Stanley of falsely certifying that the 2021 reports had been reviewed appropriately; Stanley has refuted that claim.

By the end of September, the board said in a statement it was working with two outside law firms “to investigate the 2021 Title IX certification process, provide guidance to the board in reviewing Title IX reports, identify shortfalls in the process, and make recommendations to improve the process.” The statement did not specifically mention an investigation into Gupta’s resignation.

Byrum did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

‘Grave Concern’

A university audit released last week — which had been requested by the board — found shortcomings in the process for certifying the Title IX reports. Stanley then recertified the 2021 reports and signed off on the 2022 reports as well.

Woodruff insisted in her letter on Wednesday that the board’s main reason for beginning its own investigation — questioning “whether Dr. Gupta failed to comply with mandatory reporting obligations” — was a matter that was “not in dispute. Dr. Gupta failed to comply with mandatory reporting obligations.”

As for “disputes concerning the voluntary or involuntary nature of Dr. Gupta’s resignation,” Woodruff wrote, that “is a personnel matter on which you were fully briefed, and the seven individuals targeted by your law firm would have limited knowledge on the matter.”

The provost then accused the board of declining “direct engagement with me on these matters, asking me to leave a Zoom meeting wherein any questions you had could be addressed in a legitimate and timely manner.”

In his letter, addressed to Byrum, Stanley stressed that the investigation into Gupta that Michigan State had already conducted must “not be influenced or impacted” by the board’s external investigation. He also reminded the board of Michigan State’s non-retaliation policy, stating in the letter that university employees “should not feel pressured or intimidated for fear of retaliation from the board as part of this review process.”

Stanley wrote that though he doesn’t “believe this external review is needed,” the university is cooperating with the law firm. But Michigan State faculty members “will not be compelled” to assist the law firm’s investigation, he said. Legal counsel will be provided by the university to those who choose to participate, he wrote.

The president and the provost echoed sentiments that the Faculty Senate expressed in a letter sent to the board on Tuesday. The faculty letter spoke of “grave concern” and said the board’s investigation was “a continued encroachment into academic-management matters outside the purview of the board.” The letter was signed on behalf of the Faculty Senate by its chair and vice chair, Karen Kelly-Blake and Stephanie Anthony.

According to the letter, the Faculty Senate plans to propose a vote of no confidence in the trustees in two weeks, unless the board changes course.

“We ask that you cease the investigation,” the faculty letter says. “We ask that you engage with professional development and board training. We ask that you do the work that is in your purview. We ask that you concede that academic and administrative management of Michigan State University resides in the Offices of the President and the Provost.”

Woodruff closed her letter by emphasizing how the board’s investigation, the latest in a series of longstanding controversies between the university and the board, is continuing to divide the Michigan State community.

“Staff are led to question whether the work they are doing is worth it; whether their work on behalf of the university is supported by board members as university leaders; what other cases/individuals will be given ‘special treatment’ by the Board of Trustees; who is next to get a letter from the Board of Trustees’ legal counsel,” the provost wrote. “The protections of an orderly workplace must be restored.”

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