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Faculty at Michigan State University are scheduled Tuesday afternoon to debate whether they have lost confidence in the university’s leadership in the wake of a sex abuse scandal.
At an emergency meeting, the Faculty Senate is expected to consider a no-confidence vote on the board of trustees. The public university has been in turmoil since scores of young women accused an MSU sports-medicine doctor of molesting them.
The faculty cannot force board members out. But if faculty issued a vote of no confidence, the impact would probably be immediate and deep, said Sean McKinniss, who is co-writing a book on academic governance: a loss of legitimacy for both the board and the interim president whose appointment triggered the faculty vote.
“Unless you take a moral stand, you give tacit agreement by your silence,” said Robert LaDuca, a professor of chemistry who is a faculty leader. “The board has been leading from behind, in my opinion, in this whole process.” He compared the university to a corporation that has had a catastrophic failure and needs new leaders to move the organization forward, “rather than the entrenched and, to be honest, myopic leadership that got us into this crisis and damaged untold numbers of lives.
“Speaking for myself, I don’t see what moral credibility they have to lead this university forward.”
It is rare for faculty to vote no confidence in a board of trustees, according to two researchers who study and track such matters.
The scandal involving Larry Nassar, who had been an MSU doctor and team physician with USA Gymnastics, forced the ouster of longtime university president Lou Anna Simon last month, with public outrage intensifying as victims spoke out in court, many saying their complaints had been ignored.
Victims continue to come forward: Since mid-January, the Michigan State police department has gotten more than 60 criminal reports against Nassar. That brings the total as of Feb. 5 to more than 190 filed since September 2016, after the Indianapolis Star published an investigative story about Nassar.
The former university physician was sentenced to many decades in prison for molesting children.
In January, MSU board members apologized to Nassar’s victims in an emotional meeting, with some choking out words through tears and one saying, “We failed you.”
John Engler, a former governor of Michigan and an alumnus of the university, was named interim president by the board last month. Engler said that as a longtime leader, he would move swiftly to correct problems at the school, and that as a father of three daughters he could empathize with the victims and their families. But the choice shocked many — including faculty leaders, whose opinions trustees had seemed to solicit the day before news of the selection became public through news reports.
The choice brought shouts of “Shame! Shame!” in the boardroom, as students protested. And a faculty leader announced that efforts to help victims had been hobbled “by a myopic and entrenched administrative structure that has placed political expediency and institutional branding” above the need to restore trust. Choosing a leader without academic experience would not promote healing on campus, faculty leaders said, at a time when it is desperately needed.
Trustee Brian Mosallam held a town hall meeting on campus earlier this month, and hundreds of people filled the room, including victims. Many spoke out against Engler. Many said trustees should resign.
LaDuca said the Faculty Senate will not consider a vote of no confidence in the interim president. “Engler’s in this role through no fault of his own.” And he emphasized Engler’s politics — he’s a Republican — are not the issue and that the faculty would feel the same way if a former governor who is a Democrat had been tapped.
He said many faculty members were disappointed that trustees made a show of listening to people on campus when, apparently, they had already chosen an interim leader.
The way universities operate and the principle of shared governance isn’t obvious to most members of the public, McKinniss said. In higher education, faculty, students and staff are usually involved in either leadership selection or policymaking, he said, with a system built on collaboration and consultation. It’s less hierarchical than many organizations. “At a Fortune 500 company, no one expects that employees get to pick who the CEO would be, or have a say in it,” he said. At a college, if the community at large is not involved, “that can cause a problem, as we’re seeing now.
“And if they are involved and don’t like the choice, there’s still grounds for discontent,” he said.
Some other groups at Michigan State have expressed a lack of confidence in the board in recent days. The president of the student body did not respond to a question about the board this week.
McKinniss and a law professor at Michigan State, Mae Kuykendall, co-author on a book about no-confidence votes at universities, said they are aware of only a handful of such votes targeting boards. Faculty are usually focused on the president in a leadership crisis, said McKinniss— who is tracking such cases — because the president is the visible leader, with a constant presence on campus. A vote against the board, he said, is “calling for an entirely clean slate of leadership.”