Michigan State president resisting trustees’ bid to oust him

At campus steeped in scandal, trustees fault Stanley over sexual misconduct reporting procedures, but faculty and students help him fight back

September 14, 2022
Michigan State University
Source: iStock

Michigan State University president Samuel Stanley has rejected a bid by trustees to oust him over his handling of sexual misconduct issues at the scandal-sensitive institution, and suggested the board had its own compliance issues.

Professor Stanley took office in 2019 after two previous MSU presidents were pushed out over their management of and response to the Larry Nassar assaults, one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals in higher education.

He now faces criticism from some MSU trustees over last month’s resignation of MSU’s business school dean, Sanjay Gupta, amid complaints over the dean’s own handling of sexual misconduct allegations; and over questions of general university compliance with new reporting requirements that arose from the Nassar case.

The trustee concerns first came to light in a Detroit Free Press report over the weekend attributed generally to board leadership, sparking a cascade of public support for Professor Stanley from both faculty and students.

After two days of rising protest on campus against the trustees, the MSU faculty senate invited an appearance by Professor Stanley, who took the moment to defend his handling of Professor Gupta’s case and his compliance with the post-Nassar state law requiring public universities to formally certify that their governing boards review sexual misconduct case reports.

He told the faculty that he signed all the necessary paperwork and added: “Some of our board members may not have actually complied with their part of the state requirement.”

One trustee at the faculty event, education researcher Rema Vassar, said the board had not directly asked Professor Stanley to leave, but acknowledged that it did offer him what she described as an opportunity to retire ahead of the 2024 expiration of his current contract.

The university’s student government body, Associated Students of MSU, accused the trustees of waging a secretive process against Professor Stanley that violated MSU leadership promises of rebuilding campus-wide trust after the Nassar affair.

Concern over academia’s handling of campus sexual misconduct is widespread in the US, where the 1972 federal law known as Title IX requires educational institutions to ensure an environment free of any sex-based discrimination. That mandate acquired a heavy layer of political attention during the Trump administration when it implemented rules – largely overturned this summer by the Biden administration – that gave alleged perpetrators expanded rights to defend themselves in institution-led investigative processes.

The Nassar case, by contrast, was clear-cut. As a team doctor for both MSU and the US Olympic gymnastics team, he allegedly sexually assaulted hundreds of athletes over two decades under the guise of medical care, was convicted in several of the cases, and sentenced in 2018 to hundreds of years in prison.

MSU’s president at the time, Lou Anna Simon, was forced out amid complaints that she had been repeatedly warned of concerns over Dr Nassar’s behaviour. Her interim successor, John Engler, a former Michigan governor, left under complaints that he made insensitive comments about Dr Nassar’s victims.

Professor Stanley is a biomedical researcher who specialises in studying emerging infectious diseases. He came to MSU after serving as president of Stony Brook University in New York.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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