Feb. 14, 2020 Remarks to the MSU Board of Trustees

Good morning. I want to thank our speakers from the audience today. 

Bias incident

Last week, I thought it was important to send an email message to both the Michigan State campus and alumni communities about the display at the Wharton Center gift shop. I will monitor progress at the Wharton very closely as management there institutes bias training and takes steps to ensure awareness and accountability. I can report to you that staff training began this week.

To the African American community at Michigan State, particularly students for whom this incident has reinforced their anxiety, fear or sense of isolation or marginalization:

As I said in the letter, I hear you — as did every leader of this university. I am also aware that intentions and words are insufficient. So, I want to mention actions we’re taking to bring this academic community to a point where all can feel safe, respected and welcome.

This incident only underscored the need for urgency in addressing our diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and formulating a campus-wide plan to address the gaps we find. This is something all of us need to be part of, and something we all have ample opportunity to engage with.

The university’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategic planning effort, led by Migrant Student Services Director Luis Garcia and Honors College Dean Cynthia Jackson-Elmoore, is now underway. Their task is to inventory DEI efforts across campus, detect gaps and identify opportunities as they draft a plan we hope will help bring Michigan State into a position of national leadership.

A separate multicultural center feasibility planning committee, meanwhile, is currently seeking architectural and engineering proposals for that study. A facility of this sort has been called for by students for many years, and I heard them as well. It began as a student-initiated project, and it will remain a student-focused project. I’m glad to be able to direct the university’s attention and resources toward this. And I look forward to a recommendation from the planning committee to the Board, which is scheduled for December.

Chief diversity officer search

And we are starting a search for a new chief diversity officer. Paulette Granberry Russell, my senior adviser for diversity and director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, intends to transition from her position. After 22 years of Paulette’s tireless service to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at MSU, we have a strong foundation, and it is essential now that we maintain that momentum and build on it.

I have appointed a committee chaired by the College of Arts and Letters Dean Chris Long and Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Melissa Woo to conduct a national search, supported by executive search firm Isaacson, Miller. The chief diversity officer will be broadly responsible for fostering an inclusive, equitable, safe and culturally responsive and supportive environment at MSU.

And I want to note that our leadership searches and planning initiatives are being conducted with the participation of student representatives on the committees, so those voices are heard from the outset. We’re making these initiatives and searches as inclusive and transparent as possible, and you will be able to follow their progress online.

DEI training requirement

In my letter last week, I said that the responsibility of creating a truly inclusive campus shouldn’t fall on one person but should be a shared priority for all. All of us need to confront the personal attitudes that make it difficult to move forward. I think it’s clear that a chief component of our efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be education involving the entire campus.

And so, as with our education and training programs targeting relationship violence and sexual misconduct, every member of the MSU campus community WILL participate in ongoing education or professional development on the equally essential matter of diversity, equity and inclusion and that includes faculty, staff and students. This is another action that has been sought by student leaders and faculty members. I’m looking forward to working with them and with others across the university because this will truly require a community effort.

And it isn’t just about the Wharton incident but is foundational to the integrity of everything that we do at MSU. We need to raise the bar and approach this with an attitude of excellence and to fulfill every aspect of our mission as a public land-grant university.

I expect to be able to provide more details in the coming weeks and months. Anything this important — and encompassing — requires careful consideration but also urgency. More conversations and further planning will be necessary, but we won’t be slowed by the challenges we face. I am resolved this will happen and, to set the tone from the top, for this I expect to be held to account. I think having a program in place by fall of 2020 is a reasonable expectation, knowing it will likely need to be adjusted and improved as time goes on.

Incidentally, you might have seen the College of Nursing and Dean Rasch get a well-deserved shout-out from the governor in her State of the State address a couple of weeks ago. Gov. Whitmer has asked the college to help lead an initiative called “Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies.” That initiative will address racial health care disparities throughout the state, including featuring implicit bias training in the curriculum.

That is a great example of how the knowledge we develop at Michigan State benefits not only our students but the individuals and communities we serve, across the state and around the world. And it’s a perfect example of the Michigan State mission as envisioned by the founders of MSU when the university was created 165 years ago this week. So, let us acknowledge Founders Day, which was Wednesday, Feb. 12.

Campus sustainability

I appreciate the interest of some of our speakers in sustainability and renewable energy. In my view, the sustainability of our environment goes hand in hand with the well-being of our campus community and the society we serve.

I want to draw your attention to an item on today’s agenda as a case in point. It’s a plan to develop a new 20-megawatt solar energy farm on the south side of campus. This development will contribute substantially to MSU’s sustainable energy portfolio. At its peak capacity, it could supply a third of the campus peak electrical demand. MSU already has North America’s largest solar carport, contributing to an increase of on-site renewable energy generation by more than ten percent.

Saluting Spartans who have passed

I want to turn to some other items worth noting today. First is to acknowledge the passing of two individuals who played important roles at Michigan State and in the lives of many Spartans.

We learned that John DiBiaggio, who was MSU’s 17th president from 1985 to 1992, died  Feb. 1. He is remembered here as a passionate advocate for access to higher education, inclusion and service.

And former trustee, head football coach and athletic director George Perles passed away Jan. 7. He also was dedicated to service and to our university. I think it’s fair to say that, for many, he personified what it means to be a Spartan.

I want to convey the university’s condolences and gratitude to the families of Dr. DiBiaggio and Coach Perles, and I’m sure our trustees will have more to add this morning.

New rankings and exemplary students

We learned this week of another impressive ranking for our research programs. The Nature Index is a database of 82 of the world’s top science journals. It ranks MSU faculty fifth in the country in the increase of peer-reviewed natural sciences articles they published or co-authored over three years. This speaks extremely well for the high-quality scholarship and productivity of MSU researchers.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazingly engaged and accomplished students in the past few weeks, and I want to tell you about some of them.

I spoke to about 1,200 top MSU applicants and parents Jan. 31 for the Alumni Distinguished Scholarship competition. It confirmed for me that the caliber of students who are seeking to attend MSU is truly impressive.

And while I was out West to visit with alumni groups last month, I sat in on interviews for one of our more unique scholarship programs, the Starr Charitable Foundation Scholarship. This program is earmarked by its donors for outstanding high school seniors living in Wyoming and the Upper Peninsula, and I can tell you there are some very worthy students seeking scholarships.

Not only are MSU students bright, but also engaged in the community and world around them. It was a pleasure to help extend recognition to 124 MSU undergraduate and graduate students for their volunteerism last month. Each volunteered 100 or more hours of community-engaged learning or service over a year. Together they totaled more than 23,000 hours of service with 300 community partners, which represents more than half a million dollars of benefits contributed to the community. It was truly inspirational and a reminder of what we do, and why, as educators and Spartans.

New football head coach

Finally, we had a successful process and a very good outcome in our search for a new head coach for MSU football. Once again, I extend a warm Spartan welcome — a welcome back — to Coach Mel Tucker and his family. I’m excited by his energy, enthusiasm and his dynamic and motivational approach to working with student-athletes. They are students first, and I appreciate that our entire Athletic Department never loses sight of that.

I’d also like to acknowledge Coach Mark Dantonio and thank him for his 13 very successful years at Michigan State University including taking this football program to the level of a national leader. Coach Dantonio set a high bar for Coach Tucker, but I know it’s one he’s ready to meet.

And with that, I conclude my report to the board.