Howes: Michigan State taps outsider to help change insular culture

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Samuel Stanley Jr., surrounded by faculty, trustees, and members of the search committee, speaks to the audience after a special session of the Michigan State University board of trustees voted to elect Stanley as the university's 21st president Tuesday.

East Lansing — Michigan State University's trustees are breaking with nearly 30 years of insular tradition by hiring a new president with no connection to the school or the state.

It's about time. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who takes office Aug. 1, did his undergrad at the University of Chicago and earned his medical degree at Harvard. He headed research at Washington University in St. Louis, served on the NCAA Division 1 board of directors and spent the past decade as president of Stony Brook University on Long Island.

In short, he's an outsider with a perspective shaped far from East Lansing — and that's just what Michigan State needs now. Not another president like M. Peter McPherson who did his undergrad here, returning after decades away. Not another president promoted from provost like Lou Anna Simon, who basically spent her entire career in East Lansing, culminating in the staggering Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal and her ignominious resignation.

Read more: MSU's new leader an administrator, physician, researcher

The trustees' biggest accomplishment over the past several years is proving repeatedly their chronic inability to understand the sweeping implications of the cascading, criminal embarrassment that is Nassar and the university's handling of it. The appointment of Stanley as MSU's 21st president suggests they might be starting to get it — notwithstanding the closed presidential search sure to draw continuing criticism.

"The pool of candidates we looked at all were external," Board Chair Dianne Byrum said at a news conference limited to just 15 minutes of questions. She refused to disclose the number of finalists. She declined to characterize whether any of the finalists had previous ties to the university or the state, a deliberate omission that belies State's claim of transparency.

She deflected questions related to the Nassar scandal and the new president, saying it's time to open a new chapter for Michigan State. And she reiterated the university would not waive attorney-client privilege in response to document requests in ongoing investigations by Attorney General Dana Nessel.

All of which suggests the board's new trustees — Nancy Schlichting, Kelly Tebay and Brianna T. Scott  — and the new president have a lot of work to do to change an insular culture demonstrated to be far more interested in protecting the institution, its athletic programs and its people than its students and its reputation.

"Having someone with an outside perspective is so important," said former Gov. Jim Blanchard, who attended the board meeting called Tuesday to elect Stanley. "We've been inbred in recent years. That can lead to parochialism. Based on resume and record," Stanley is "a fabulous choice. Absolutely, we need a fresh perspective."

Read more: MSU's next president garners praise but faces tough task

Understatement of the year, that. Michigan State's management breakdowns, harshly exposed by the Nassar scandal and the school's scandalous treatment of his victims, mirror a separate, further-reaching breakdown of governance in the board room. Their priorities, their instincts, their politicized response to Simon's resignation and the interregnum of John Engler and his firing — all of it signals dysfunction that will greet Stanley when he arrives on campus later this summer.

Did the university under Engler impose new processes that should make another Nassar impossible? Yes, according to official spin, proving that doing what's necessary is not the same as doing what's sufficient. Based on the criteria some members of the presidential search committee shared, empathy and transparency — the two leadership qualities most lacking from the trustees and the Simon administration — topped the list.

"I know there are challenges ahead," Stanley said in response to questions. "I want to work for change as part of you, working with you. The fundamentals need to be fixed. I don't have the ability to change the culture at Michigan State University by myself."

No, he doesn't. And MSU constituencies who think a new president should be a miracle worker need to take a good look in the mirror. The insular, parochial, butt-covering, big-happy-Green family that helped make Nassar possible is not just the product of whoever's sitting in the president's office atop the Hannah Administration Building.

Wise to the partisanship that simmers inside the boardroom (and in too many constituencies), Stanley sidestepped questions of his political inclinations. He may be new to Michigan, but in about 15 minutes, he demonstrated more political savvy than the last several occupants of the president's office.

He'll need it. MSU is a storied, capable university in need of canny, empathetic leadership from its president and smarter, more accountable governance from its trustees. Stanley's appointment is an opportunity to change State's arc of decline — and it should not be wasted.

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