“I have all confidence that Trustee Vassar is going to lead us extraordinarily into this next phase as we go into some very important decision-making with the new presidential search and other things coming up.”
– Trustee Brianna T. Scott
On Sunday, October 22, Michigan State University (MSU) Trustee Brianna Scott presented a seven-page letter to the board calling for the removal of Dr. Rema Vassar, the first Black woman to chair the Board of Trustees at MSU. In the letter, Scott accused Vassar of “bullying colleagues” and described her leadership moves as fracturing and contentious. To be clear, Dr. Vassar has denied all allegations and has welcomed a review of her conduct.
These strong allegations have ignited macro and microaggressions directed at Dr. Vassar, including several statements from MSU Faculty Senate chair Jack Lipton. Lipton stated plainly that Chair Vassar was to blame for the “chaos” and “outburst” at the October 27 Board meeting, going on to call her supporters disrespectful and conflating a demonstration of community voice and agency with “Trustee Scott’s charges of intimidation and bullying in action.” Lipton indicated Chair Vassar “elected to let the mob rule the room.”
Besides the blatantly erroneous allegations against Dr. Vassar, there are several issues at play here. First, what Lipton and many others are deciding to ignore, yet again, is the fact that all behavior is communicative. That students and community members would exercise their voice and agency should be lauded, because it aligns with the institution's mission “to advance knowledge and transform lives.”
Further, to refer to any member of the MSU community as a “mob” is deeply disturbing. What does Lipton’s behavior communicate? Could it be fear, while MSU community members were fearless? We should all take note of the MSU community’s continued bravery. If further traumatizing and silencing the voices of survivors—Palestinian and Black students—is Lipton’s position, then perhaps Lipton should look internally.
This idea of “clear unified leadership” from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should be interrogated, as well, given the complexity of challenges and past and present issues at MSU. Expecting clarity and unity from the MSU Board is historically unrealistic, because it greased Dr. Vassar’s election to the board. MSU, like so many institutions across the nation emphasized, via countless statements, committees or task force formations, a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, anti-bias, etc. to address the experiences of Black students.
It should also be noted that Gov. Whitmer, who appointed Chair Vassar to the MISTEM Advisory Council, prematurely commented on the allegations, followed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who both, no doubt, have countless other pressing important Michigan issues on their agenda. Stabenow, who at one point, wanted “five minutes with Larry Nassar,” somehow overlooked the survivors (and parents) who attended the Oct. 22 meeting, begging again for the Board to see and hear them.
If Gov. Whitmer can use her power to remove Vassar and become involved in MSU issues, then who should be removed for MSU’s low graduation rate of Black students? For the decrease in faculty of color by 20% since 2022? For disparities in the recruitment and admission of Black students to MSU? For the highest academic probation rates among students of color at MSU? Why is MSU’s first Black woman board chair the first to be publicly threatened and humiliated?
The article, No Country for Us: A Qualitative Exploration of Black Women Faculty’s Experiences Navigating Isolating Spaces in the Academy, illuminates several factors Black women faculty members experience within the academy. It exposes how their realities are undergirded by a “lack of awareness, understanding, or even acknowledgement of color.” It states, “Black women, specifically, are often met with scrutiny from their peers who question their credibility in macro and micro aggressive ways.”
Complex issues require complex leadership. Perhaps Dr. Vassar’s mere presence, like the women in No Country for Us, reveals the leadership shortcomings within an institution unable to recognize and seize opportunities for transformative change. A change MSU proclaimed it wanted by way of her “extraordinary” leadership. Change that looks like transparency that would protect survivors, not sexual abusers. MSU leadership is missing an opportunity to set the stage for higher education institutions across the country, as they are not alone in (mis)handling sexual abusers.
Dr. Vassar’s efforts should be seen as a framework for transformative leadership and taking action that has a positive effect on all members of the MSU community. As MSU chisels a path forward, leadership should examine what they truly mean by inclusion, otherwise there will continue to be “no country” for anyone. The recent allegations against Dr. Vassar present yet another example of how a lack of awareness, understanding, or an acknowledgement of color permeate faculty, staff, administration, and most importantly, student experiences as well.
Finally, Dr. Vassar is collegial and has worked to affirm students, which was demonstrated at the same meeting in which Lipton was made uncomfortable and Scott was brought to tears. The same cannot be said for other trustees or interim president Teresa Woodruff who hinted at difficulty working with Vassar and ignored students demands for change. “Nobody else on this board has individually reached out to me and told me to be proud of my Blackness–except for Vassar,” proclaimed a member of MSUs Black Student Alliance. The same holds true for the MSU NAACP chapter who have publicly thanked Chair Vassar for her support and emphasized her unwavering commitment to the Black MSU community.
In any case, Dr. Vassar remains unbossed and unbowed.
Dr. Clyde Barnett II is a senior research associate at Wayne State University.
Dr. Adriel A. Hilton is an associate professor of Education at Southern University at New Orleans.