Dec. 18, 2020: Remarks to the Board of Trustees

Good morning. I want to start by thanking all those we heard from in the public comments part of our agenda.

End of the semester
Today is the last day of exams week for the fall 2020 semester. More than 2,600 students earned undergraduate and graduate degrees, under very difficult circumstances. We’re celebrating graduates with special webcasts today and tomorrow on MSU’s commencement website, and I encourage you to attend.

We have three highly accomplished alumni as speakers. Marta Tienda, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, addresses doctoral degree recipients. Todd Penegor, president and CEO of Wendy’s, speaks at the master’s degree ceremony. And former Spartan standout and NBA champion Draymond Green will address baccalaureate degree recipients.

We’re looking forward to honoring graduates in person later when we can safely do so.

I also have some good news to share today about MSU’s graduation rates.

Progress in graduation rates
MSU’s 6-year graduation rate rose more than half a percentage point, to 81.3%, this year. We’ve seen increases every year the last six years, and that’s a significant accomplishment.

Among groups this year, we’ve seen the rate for African American/Black students increase 2 percentage points. It rose 3 percentage points for Hispanic/Latinx students; it’s up 7 percentage points for Asian students; it rose 11 points for Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students; and it increased 14 percentage points for American Indian & Alaska Native students. It also rose 2 percentage points for international students.

We’re very happy to see all these increases, but we know we have more work to do. The provost and her team have been working hard to support students and close achievement gaps among under-represented groups.

We also announced we will reinstate our two-year campus residency requirement to further enhance MSU’s student support. The requirement has been waived since the 1980s but will restart with next fall’s first-year entering class.

The research we’ve done and the evidence we’ve collected is absolutely clear: Students living on campus their first two years have significantly higher graduation rates than those living on campus only one year. For all students, it’s about 2.4 percentage points, but for some student groups, the difference is much greater, particularly in minoritized student groups.

We are proud of all our students at MSU — our graduates and those who are working toward their degrees, and student success is a critical part of our work going forward.

Notable scholars
I want to offer congratulations now to two very successful students who earned highly competitive scholarships. 

Honors College senior Brent Strong, a College of Natural Science physiology major, is MSU’s 20th Marshall Scholar. That scholarship supports up to 3 years of study in the United Kingdom.

Maysa Sitar is an Honors College senior in the College of Social Science and just the fifth Spartan to be named a Mitchell Scholar. The Mitchell Scholarship goes to 12 undergraduates nationwide and funds a year of study in Ireland. 

I also want to take note, and we’ll talk about them later, of the 29 graduating seniors this semester who recorded cumulative 4.0 GPAs at MSU — that’s a remarkable achievement.

Influential faculty and MSU honors
I’m also very proud of MSU’s talented faculty, several of whom were honored recently by their peers. Nine were recognized as being among the most highly cited researchers in the world in 2020. And four faculty members were named fellows by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I want to congratulate all of them, and you can read about them online at MSU Today.

And MSU economist Lisa Cook was selected to serve on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. She’s helping review agencies with the transition’s Federal Reserve, Banking and Securities Regulators group.

Another honor to mention is for the university itself: MSU was recognized for the third year for entrepreneurship education by the Princeton Review. MSU rose to No. 14 among the top 25 programs in the U.S. Princeton Review also ranks MSU among the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges and universities.

These recognitions are well earned, and MSU is also continuing our work to become a leader in prevention and response to relationship violence and sexual misconduct. We recently opened our Sexual Assault Healthcare Program, a free, first-response resource for survivors of sexual assault.

It’s the first such on-campus program in the nation. It was recommended by our RVSM Expert Advisory Workgroup, as we work to comprehensively address sexual assault at MSU.

Spring semester
Looking to spring semester, we’re continuing to monitor the pandemic and work with the state to keep our community safe. I continue to be so grateful for the university community’s response to the need to continue adapting to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Remarkably, through the amazing efforts of our amazing students, faculty and staff, we have been able to carry on MSU’s mission and our vital research, scholarship, innovation and creative work in the midst of the outbreak.

The vaccine advances are so encouraging. My eldest daughter, who works on the front lines of COVID-19, received her first dose of the vaccine yesterday. So, I can definitely see light at the end of the tunnel.

But as we think about spring, we must maintain the key actions to prevent transmission: mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings while awaiting the completion of the most ambitious vaccination program in U.S. history.

We are implementing additional safety measures for spring semester. Undergraduates returning to campus for any reason are being asked to get a flu vaccine, although we are allowing exceptions. Everyone who can should get a flu shot this season, to reduce morbidity and mortality from the flu, to avoid dual infections, which can be quite dangerous, and to prevent the overwhelming of our health systems.

Students returning to East Lansing are also being told to quarantine and continue to monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms. And undergraduates who will be on campus for any reason will be required to participate in our COVID-19 early detection testing program. This will include testing upon their return to campus and at regular intervals afterward.

We’re encouraging faculty, staff and off-campus students to participate in the screening program, too.

Serving society
MSU experts are using new grant funding to help expand testing for the novel coronavirus in wastewater in Detroit and around the state, which can provide communities warning about the presence of COVID-19.

I’m also pleased to note the College of Human Medicine’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was selected to serve on the state’s Protect Michigan Commission to support educational efforts around COVID-19 vaccination. Hers will be a trusted voice to help guide this critical public health program.

And I want to give a shout-out to the more than 40 College of Nursing fall graduates who will soon be joining the front lines of health care, as our nurse and physician graduates did last spring.

These and other Spartans are continuing to step up to serve at a critical time, and I can’t think of better examples of what it means to be a Spartan.

Departing staff and trustees
I want to mention a longtime Spartan leader who has wrapped up his career at MSU. Jim Cotter, who most recently was director of the Varsity S Club in the Athletics Department, led the Office of Admissions as part of his 36-year career at MSU. Jim has the title of executive director of admissions emeritus for his years of distinguished service, and I offer my thanks for his work wish him the best.

Finally, as we end the year, we are also saying goodbye to two trustees who are finishing their tenure on the board: Brian Mosallam and Joel Ferguson. The board resolutions will provide a much fuller accounting of their impressive resumes and significant accomplishments, so I will keep my comments brief.

Both trustees were extraordinarily helpful to me since I arrived at MSU, and their service and commitment to the university has been absolutely clear.

I came to know Brian as a proud Spartan who is committed to service to his alma mater. He was a highly accomplished athlete at MSU and I was surprised to learn not that he graduated cum laude in engineering arts, but he played on the offensive line for the Spartans.

On the Board, he focused on student welfare and was a staunch advocate for all the MSU community. Both students and faculty have praised him for his responsiveness to their issues. I know he always stood up for what he thought was right, and, as he’s said, always acted in a way that would make his mother and father proud. 

Joel Ferguson is MSU’s longest-serving trustee and, as I’ve learned, a powerful and influential presence in Michigan’s business, civic and political communities. Even before I officially started, Joel was instrumental in introducing me to many civic leaders in Michigan, and helped me greatly in understanding key issues in the community. 

His knowledge and experience made him a go-to person for me in understanding how Michigan State works, and I greatly appreciate his mentorship.

Trustees Mosallam and Ferguson, you both bleed green and I thank you for your support and your service to MSU. I know you will continue to show your extraordinary devotion to Michigan State University, and I look forward to working with you both in the future.

This ends my remarks and I’ll conclude by wishing everyone who is with us today, and throughout the Spartan community, a safe and happy holiday season.