Dec. 16, 2022: Remarks to the MSU Board of Trustees

As you might have noticed, we have made some changes to our Board of Trustees agenda. Starting now at 9 a.m. will give students and the rest of us a little more of the rest we all need.

I am honored to preside at the first Board of Trustees meeting since my appointment as interim president a month and a half ago.   

And I am pleased to say that the board and I are working in good faith and in good coordination on the top priorities laid out by our bylaws, customs and the university’s strategic plans. 

As I said in my first community message, I am all in for MSU — and today I would like to provide an update on my activities and the good and noble work taking place across our entire university. 

Listening and learning 
I have spent much of the past several weeks listening and learning from our community, especially our students. They are, after all, the reason we are all here, and their success is of paramount importance and at the heart of our strategic plan.  

That is why one of my first acts as interim president was announcing a commission on the student experience. I am developing the formal charge for the group to elevate student voices on such topics as trust and transparency. Thank you again, Jo, for your clarion call, which we have heard and are putting into action. 

Of course, our commitment to supporting students would be hollow without a similarly substantive commitment to our faculty and staff. That is why I have also made it a priority to engage with them often, including through Academic Governance and leaders such as Karen Kelly-Blake and Stephanie Anthony. I thank you as individuals and as proxies for our 5,700 extraordinary faculty and academic staff for your excellence across our tripartite mission including creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all.

I have directly thanked faculty and staff at the colleges of Arts and Letters, Veterinary Medicine, Music and the Honors College over this last month. I have also been visiting our operating units, starting with the Title IX office, a revisit to our Center for Survivors, and the Landscape Services holiday lunch-and-learn. I look forward to visiting even more units and colleges in the months ahead.   

I’ve been stepping up my visits with MSU stakeholders here and around the great state of Michigan. I was very pleased to join Chairperson Byrum Monday to celebrate the efforts by the colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Natural Science and Veterinary Medicine and our statewide partners to secure state funding to upgrade our dairy and greenhouse facilities. As your representative of the state’s premier land-grant institution, it was an honor to gather with our partners across the agricultural community as well as with state legislators who helped secure the $53 million commitment to the future of agriculture across this state.  

Earlier in the month, I attended the annual Farm Bureau dinner in Grand Rapids with CANR Dean Kelly Millenbah and Trustee Scott. I also toured our Benton Harbor Extension facilities and enjoyed visiting an area farm and multi-generational farm family. We appreciate our partners across the state who elevate the work done on farms, in agribusiness and by migrant workers. 

Finally, I traveled to Detroit last week to meet students at Cass Tech and Renaissance high schools. It was a wonderful experience, and I am grateful to John Ambrose and Dave Weatherspoon for organizing the trip and so effectively facilitating student recruitment and enrollment at MSU.  

It's been quite a month!

I would be remiss if I also didn’t pause to thank interim provost-designee Thomas Jeitschko for agreeing to step into my former role as I carry on my new responsibilities. I am delighted to recommend your appointment later today and know you will be an outstanding leader. 

MSU highlights 
As I have engaged with our community, I have learned about so many examples of faculty, staff and student success. This morning I would just like to lift up a few to demonstrate how MSU is continuing to multiply its excellence and impact. 

We were delighted to learn that Macken Keefe, an Honors College and College of Social Science senior, was selected for the nationally competitive Mitchell Scholarship — the sixth in MSU’s history. I spoke with Macken at the Blanchard Public Service Policy Forum and again this week when visiting the Honors College. I asked him to stay in touch as he pursues graduate education at Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, Northern Ireland.   

I also want to mention that our controller, Greg Deppong, was selected as a fellow in the prestigious National Association of College and University Business Officers Fellows program. This program supports learning opportunities for those seeking a chief business officer position for their next role, so congratulations to Greg. And thank you to all of our extraordinary staff who enable this great university.

I also want to congratulate Professor of Practice Shawn Turner from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences on being named general manager of WKAR Public Media. I look forward to watching him lead WKAR into its second century of service. 

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the 11 MSU researchers who were recognized in the 2022 Highly Cited Researchers List compiled by Clarivate Analytics. These faculty members have demonstrated significant and broad influence in their fields over the past decade — and are truly each one-in-a-thousand among their peers.  

MSU’s research leadership was also recently seen in the NASA Artemis I lunar orbit mission, which returned to earth on Sunday. The capsule carried seeds as part of an MSU Brandizzi Lab experiment to develop plants that can thrive in the harsh conditions of space. What a wonderful extension of William J. Beal’s 143-year-old seed viability experiment, illustrating the continuing leadership of MSU’s plant science on this planet and beyond.  

Possibly the most exciting science news in a long time came just this week, with the ignition of nuclear fusion at a government laboratory in California. Nuclear fusion promises abundant, sustainable and clean energy for the world, but that will only come after a great amount of additional research and engineering.

So, I am very proud that Michigan State is leveraging its nuclear physics leadership by heading up one of four national initiatives to develop new mathematical and computational tools to model fusion physics. Congratulations and thank you to Andrew Christlieb on this $15 million grant and to all of our research community for the daily ways in which you are working to make our world better.

On campus, we are working toward our sustainability goals outlined in the 2030 strategic plan through a variety of means such as the 40 electric vehicles added to our fleet this year and the associated charging infrastructure upgrades. And for the second time, MSU this year earned a gold rating for sustainability achievements through the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. 

A great, global university needs institutional resources to communicate in multiple languages, and I am very happy to note the opening of MSU’s new Translation Center. It offers services in more than 20 languages under the leadership of Director Tony Grubbs, with staffing from the departments of Linguistics, Languages and Cultures and Romance and Classical Studies. 

There is so much more to celebrate about our Spartan community, including the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s top 25 ranking in the Princeton Review for the fifth year in a row. But I’ll just provide two more highlights.

First, congratulations to the College of Arts and Letters; the Department of African American and African Studies; and its inaugural chairperson, Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, on the Ascension event celebrating the department’s new space in North Kedzie Hall, its new bachelor’s degree and the new students who have joined with our new faculty. New leadership, new space, new programs, new students — ingredients for exciting new learning and doing in this area of study.

Second, I was so pleased to help celebrate the MSU Federal Credit Union’s recent $5.5 million gift to support our arts strategy on my recent visit to Detroit. I believe the arts are the spirit of an institution, which is why I am grateful to MSUFCU for helping us to enrich the student experience with opportunities for creative expression and engagement with cultural experiences. 

Art can also help heal, as the university demonstrated with the “Finding Our Voice” exhibition co-curated by RVSM survivors and allies at the MSU Museum in 2019. Relationship violence and sexual misconduct prevention has been a major focus for the university, and I appreciate the board’s partnership in leading efforts to continually improve what we do and how we do it. 

Shortly, we will issue a news release announcing that the university has completed 95 actions from a 2019 letter of findings and resolution agreement between MSU, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These agreements stemmed from federal investigations into the handling of high-profile cases from 2018.   

Some of the more notable actions outlined in the agreement that have been completed include: 

  • Updating the RVSM and Title IX policy, including clear definitions of prohibited conduct;  
  • Hiring Cozen O’Connor for independent reviews of Title IX-related grievance process and final determinations of Title IX-related matters for three academic years; and 
  • Implementing a training program for MSU Health Care staff on topics such as the university’s RVSM and Title IX policy, university reporting protocol and resources to support survivors. 

As I wrote in a recent op-ed for the Lansing State Journal, I am committed to building trust with our university communities around our RVSM prevention work. And I want to thank MSU’s people for continuing the important work of building a culture of support.   

As I also noted in my op-ed, a recent report in USA Today noted that MSU receives more RVSM-related reports than any other school it surveyed from 2014-2020. Last year alone, we handled 1,774 reports. We also launched more formal investigations and held more students accountable through expulsions for sexual misconduct in that study’s time period. 

Those facts speak to how we are changing our culture as well as our policies and priorities to support those reporting sexual assault and to prevent it from happening. Think about our new programs, mandatory reporting policies and the RVSM strategic plan. USA Today called MSU “a model for how to address sexual misconduct,” dedicating 42 full-time equivalent positions to Title IX cases and survivor advocacy.  

I am pleased with our work, but not satisfied, knowing how much more there is to do.   

The recent internal audit of the Title IX office and the Board of Trustees report offered new recommendations that we are pursuing, including using a contractor to address timeliness issues.   

We will continue our momentum using what we learn from our RVSM Expert Advisory Workgroup and this year’s Know More @MSU campus surveys. We are looking forward to sharing information from that survey next month. 

We are going above and beyond simple legal compliance in the support and equity services we provide across campus. In fact, MSU is making its mark in how we respond to incidents of RVSM through resources such as the Center for Survivors, Safe Place and the Sexual Assault Nurse Education program — and how we approach prevention and education through the Prevention, Outreach and Education Department. 

Meanwhile, we are searching for a new vice president for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance. The search is being led by VP and Chief Diversity Officer Jabbar Bennett and campus police Deputy Chief Andrea Munford, who is also one of the special advisors to the president on RVSM issues. My thanks to Dr. Bennett and Deputy Chief Munford for all their efforts. 

Each and every decision we make as leaders is consequential to the lives of individuals on this campus. While we may sometimes hear more vocally the concerns for those in positions of power, I hear and am watchful for those who may feel they have no power, who may feel they have no position, who feel they have no possibility of speaking. We create a culture of care by being true to the voiceless who are present in our policies, in our training and in our actions. 

The ability to calculate the absence of harm, the lives lived without fear through action — this change that we seek is difficult, but I know that as I shake the hands of our 5,000 graduating students this afternoon and tomorrow, there are those among those hands who would not have completed their degree but for the saving grace of a policy or an administrator who applied the work of our RVSM policies in a way that warded off the harm that is ever-present in our world. This is the work of this campus that shines out on the shortest of days. 

Swim and Dive
I’d like to address the situation around the MSU swim and dive teams. Earlier this week, we learned that the U.S. Supreme Court will not hear the university’s case challenging a new formula for how Title IX compliance is calculated.

To be clear, MSU does not oppose the principles represented by Title IX. Indeed, this case is about Title IX, it is not against Title IX. 

To ensure Title IX compliance, universities have long relied on the standard established by federal guidance and practice, as well as settled legal precedent.

The Sixth Circuit Court ruling created a new compliance standard that we view as at odds with Title IX. It essentially requires a perfect numerical alignment between a university’s undergraduate enrollment by gender and athletics participation by gender.

Athletics participation and enrollment are both extremely fluid, not only from year to year but from semester to semester. A frequent need to adjust roster sizes could prompt universities to achieve compliance by cutting teams or individual student-athletes — men and women alike. It could have extremely negative consistency and continuity impacts on existing teams and student-athletes. Moreover, it creates a different standard for compliance for universities under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit.

MSU challenged this new standard because it undermines the interests that Title IX was intended to serve. Even now, with this standard set to apply to us in the pending trial court, we are not opposing Title IX.

Based on today’s enrollment, team composition and proportion of males and females, we are largely in compliance with this new standard. 

The administration has had several meetings with advocates and supporters over the past month on this topic, but I wanted to take this opportunity to correct misperceptions of why we are still in court on this topic.

Meanwhile, I have been doing my due diligence on this subject over the past month — and understand the decision to eliminate the programs in 2020 was a financial and facilities issue.

The decision was precipitous, and, for the student-athletes, their lives were disrupted. I know the ways in which the decision was made and how their pursuit of their collegiate athletic goals were curtailed felt and feels very unfair. 

I have worked to gather detailed information on the recurring funding gap and the facility issue, the latter of which remains the biggest issue for MSU. It is not that we don’t want a pool — it is how we fund that infrastructure investment in light of other needs in athletics and on campus. I have engaged with students, faculty, the board, Athletics and student-athletes, and I regret to say that a funding source has not yet been identified. 

Our work around swim and dive comes with decision points that cannot and will not be accepted or acceptable to all, and we know that. We strive every day to gather the best data, hear many perspectives and integrate that thinking into an outcome that enables success. I am grateful to everyone who has shared their perspective and passion on this subject with me.  

Now, I know we will talk about this later, but I want to thank Trustee Foster for her many years of dedication and service to MSU. It has been a pleasure working with you, and I am confident you will find ways to continue your long support for this, your alma mater. 

I’d also like to congratulate the newly elected trustee who will be joining the board next month, Dennis Denno, and Trustee Knake Jefferson, who last month was elected to a full term. 

And I want to extend my gratitude to trustees Byrum and Kelly for their service to the board as chair and vice chair. I look forward to working with the new board, which will be constituted in early January.  

While I am on the subject of elections, just a shout-out to all the students who made the effort to vote and to all those in our university community who encouraged or supported them, including through the MSUvote initiative.  

Today marks the end of the fall semester and the beginning of commencement weekend, which is always a busy and exciting time. I look forward to joining many of you at graduation events today and tomorrow to affirm the accomplishments of some 5,000 fall graduates. A big thank-you to everyone — faculty, staff, leadership — for everything you do to support our students in their educational journeys. 

It has been an eventful year of challenges and accomplishments for Spartans, and a consequential month. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together next year.   

I will deliver a more comprehensive view of MSU and our vision for it in a state-of-the-university address Jan. 18 at the Wharton Center. I hope everyone can join us for the event, whether in person or over livestream. 

And now let us move to the next item on today’s agenda.