Howes: MSU presidential search complicated by politics, culture

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
MIchigan State got what it bargained for in Interim President John Engler, right -- a blunt Republican mistrusted by some of the school's most important constituencies.

Michigan State University's search for a new president is underway.

It won't be easy. Trustee Mitch Lyons got it right last week when he said, “Nobody in their right mind is walking into this hot mess right now.” And the mess keeps getting hotter.

Credit Interim President John Engler. His once-formidable political acumen of the 1990s clearly does not comprehend the power of “optics," of poorly chosen words turbo-charged by social media, of Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of women and girls that was long known to officials in positions to do something about it ... but didn't.

Credit the former governor’s instinct to recruit help from Republican worthies like Robert Young, State’s new general counsel, and Kathleen Wilbur as top lobbyist. The moves naturally sow distrust among constituencies fully aware of just how partisan the governance of Michigan’s largest university really is and likely will continue to be.

Credit the trustees themselves. They seldom miss an opportunity to remind whoever’s paying attention how ill-suited they are to oversee a nearly $1.4 billion institution, to accept responsibility for their obvious mistakes, to transcend party politics, or to select a new president to replace Lou Anna K. Simon.

And that includes a presidential search committee headed by — you guessed it — a Republican, Melanie Foster, and a Democrat, Dianne Byrum. Can State’s trustees do anything meaningful that doesn’t project a distinct whiff of partisan politics? The evidence suggests the answer is no.

Worse, the people who presided over one of the biggest sexual-abuse scandals in recent memory, who routinely deferred to Simon's spoon-fed explanations and comparatively incurious management style, are the ones picking a new president. Instill confidence it doesn't.

Altogether, they're making the Nassar scandal bigger, more expensive and arguably more revealing than it already is. Finding the right person to clean it up, to root out the back-scratching and butt-covering culture deeply embedded in the university's management, will be tricky.

Nor would the job be particularly attractive. Not because the presidency of MSU isn’t a desirable job in the pantheon of major state universities; it is. But because the successful candidate would be working for trustees who’ve demonstrated little aptitude for crisis management and even less for good governance.

Who’d want the headache? Probably few who'd be willing, or able, to summon the fortitude to school their own trustees on the difference between meddling in management and exercising their responsibility for oversight as envisioned by the state constitution.

Only in East Lansing could trustees who voted unanimously to name a former Republican governor their interim president be shocked, shocked that Engler then sets about recruiting fellow Republicans to fill senior administrative posts. Or that his hard-nosed politics and blunt style, legendary in Michigan, would get him in trouble with Nassar's victims and their families.

State's trustees own the "hot mess" of Lyons' description. It's their job to ask management hard questions, to help assess risks to the university's reputation and financial position, to set high standards for senior staff and succession — no different really than directors of a publicly traded corporation.

Except they deflect responsibility at almost every turn. They stick by Simon until they don't, then heap blame on her. They choose Republican Engler interim president, then two Democrats on the board vote to fire him after emails emerge of him disparaging Rachael Denhollander, who first spoke publicly about Nassar's sexual abuse.

The message to State's next president is clear:  the trustees you'd be working for would have your back only when it benefits them. Not when mistakes are made, when scandals break, when ol' "Team MSU" suddenly is imperiled by public pressure, legal jeopardy or both.

Overcoming that perception, rooted in recent history, will not be easy for State's executive search firm or the trustees leading the search committee. Any candidate worth considering should take time to study the handling of the Nassar scandal and what its aftermath says about the school's governance culture.

One thing it says: partisanship lurks just beneath the boardroom table. And everyone knows it — from students and parents, alumni and faculty, to trustees and the folks unconcerned that Michigan is the only state in the nation that elects trustees for its flagship universities by statewide, at-large, partisan ballots.

"We need to move forward if we are going to institute real reform,” Brian Mosallam, one of two MSU trustees (both Democrats) who voted to oust Engler last week, told The Detroit News. "If we are going to hire a new president, one thing that makes that job unattractive is a fractured board."

Exactly right. How the same people can repair that fracture and overhaul the culture is the triumph of hope over experience and evidence. Not going to happen.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.