Michigan State University (MSU) has been roiled by conflict between its board of trustees and its faculty, students, and president in recent weeks.
Faculty were outraged after the board hired an outside law firm to investigate the forced resignation of Eli Broad College of Business dean Sanjay Gupta for not reporting an allegation of sexual misconduct, arguing that the matter was not in the board’s purview. Angered by the Gupta dismissal and alleging that he botched a mandatory Title IX reporting process, board members offered university president Samuel Stanley Jr. an early retirement, further provoking the faculty. The faculty senate passed a vote of no confidence against the board on October 11th, matching one by the Associated Students of MSU. On October 13th, Stanley Jr. resigned, saying in a video message that he had “lost confidence” in the board and could no longer serve it. He is MSU’s third president in four years to leave early.
Experts on university governance found the situation perplexing.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Dr. Raquel Rall, an associate professor of education policy analysis and leadership at the University of California, Riverside. “Even if there was a mistake, I don’t see how they would say, ‘OK, we’re getting rid of a president.’ There must be something else that we’re not privy to.”
Rall thought that the influence of past scandals, including that of Larry Nassar, the MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who was accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of athletes, could be playing a role for the board.
“I think there's a heightened awareness that if they don't keep an eye on things or make sure that things are running the way they should, folks are going to be looking at the board more and more,” she said.
Dr. Demetri Morgan, an associate professor in the school of education at Loyola University Chicago, agreed.
“Now, all of a sudden, you want to be more active and more engaged when you haven't historically,” he said. “And so that's creating this tension because they're trying to redraw the boundaries of the role that they need to play.”
Morgan believes that politics are also playing a role. Unlike the vast majority of public university boards, MSU’s trustees are publicly elected. While this is meant to add accountability, Morgan says that elected boards are not necessarily immune from influence.
“Most public boards are what the research describes as co-opted entities, meaning that regardless of whether they're elected or selected or appointed, they tend to be in pretty close political alignment with the prevailing state ecosystem of governance,” said Morgan.
Exactly what political forces might be influencing the board is a complex question. Often referred to as a “purple state,” Michigan has a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and a Republican-controlled legislature. The state voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016 and for Joe Biden in 2020.
According to Morgan, this sort of environment has been the site of a particular conservative strategy around higher education, based on the trope that college indoctrinates students into radical activism.
“I think part of the playbook, especially in some of the purple states, [is that] they try to project confusion, chaos, and lawlessness [onto higher ed.],” said Morgan. “So, part of this feels like, ‘Let's just sow chaos.’”
To observers, the intensity of the negative reaction to the board’s moves by a presumptively liberal faculty and student body may create a contrast that is beneficial for conservatives seeking to increase their influence over colleges and universities.
“If it points to us being able to say, ‘Oh, the faculty and the students who are upset about this, they're leftists and they're always upset, and they just need a safe space...I would not be surprised if in the coming months we start to see some of those things, because that's what we've seen in other states,” said Morgan. “Right now, it seems unclear why they're doing it, and I think we'll look back and say, ‘They started this here, and now political dividends are being paid later on.’”
Rall believes that more clarity may come with the next elections, in which two seats on the board will be filled.
“November 8th, we can see how those seats may change,” she said. “If [the board’s decisions are] political, I think we'll see some changing of the chairs.”
For Morgan, additional clues will come from how the board handles the search for a new president.
“We’re going to see really quickly what direction they go,” he said. “If they say, ‘We’re really here to work in partnership. How do we make sure there’s tons of faculty and staff involvement? How do we make sure there’s open forums for the finalists?’ That will clarify very quickly whether this was just a confluence of bad events or if this was the first step in more co-optation from the trustees to move it in a different direction for political purposes.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.