MSU trustees gather privately ahead of crucial meeting

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
A few signs were scattered around the crowd on Friday, April 20, 2018, as "Reclaim MSU" and some survivors of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar rally in front of the Administration Building for the resignations of Michigan State University trustees and Interim president John Engler.

Michigan State University trustees will gather Wednesday for a two-day retreat to discuss pivotal issues facing the state's largest public institution in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

But the retreat, an annual event, is closed to the public — which critics say sends the wrong message given the key decisions facing the board at a public meeting Friday. Among them: a $500 million settlement with Nassar's victims, tuition rates for 2018-19, the appointment of a chief legal officer and, potentially, the future of interim President John Engler.

Though MSU's trustees are subject to Michigan's Open Meetings Act, which requires deliberations of public bodies to occur in an open meeting, a 2016 ruling by the state Court of Appeals determined that university boards had discretion to determine which meetings were considered official. 

Macomb resident Lisa Lorincz, the mother of Nassar victim Kaylee Lorincz, said she would attend the retreat if it were public, but isn't surprised that it's not.

“Why would I expect them now to do anything that remotely is fair and transparent?” Lorincz said. “Of course they should open (the retreat). But ... I have given up any hope of them doing the right thing. As a matter of fact I expect them to do the wrong thing. It is sad and hard and depressing.”

The items trustees will discuss during the retreat include the search for a permanent president, a review of deans and vice presidents, legal issues, and policy changes directed at Nassar's ex-boss, William Strampel, according to documents obtained by The Detroit News.

Other issues will include a bond resolution to pay for the historic $500 million settlement, according to a source with knowledge of plans for the gathering, to be held at MSU's oldest building, Cowles House.

The retreat will include informal discussions about Engler, who has faced an onslaught of calls from lawmakers and community members for him to step down.

Amplifying the calls on Tuesday were more than 120 victims of Nassar who signed a statement that said Engler "has failed miserably" and for trustees to "do the right thing."

Two of MSU's trustees  — Brian Mosallam and Dianne Byrum — last week called for Engler to resign amid the controversy over his emailed comments criticizing one of Nassar's most prominent sexual assault victims. 

But Engler said then he wasn't leaving, and planned to  "continue to look ahead."

Mosallam said Tuesday that he will be talking informally with the other six trustees to get enough votes to call for Engler's firing during Friday's formal board meeting.

Five of the eight trustees, or a majority of a meeting quorum (four trustees out of seven, for example), would be needed to terminate Engler, according to MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant. 

"The situation is fluid," said Mosallam, who said it was a mistake to hire Engler nearly five months ago. "It's amazing that he has yet to apologize. An apology is powerful. It is an acknowledgment of failure. It is an act of contrition and an act of empathy. His lack of apology clearly shows he's lacking."

Trustees hired Engler in February after former President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned in the wake of the scandal surrounding Nassar, a former doctor who sexually assaulted young women for decades.

Less than four months later, dozens of influential leaders are calling for Engler to step down, eclipsing the outcry Simon faced shortly before stepping down in January.

Via email, Guerrant declined a request by The Detroit News to attend the retreat. She also said it wasn't a retreat, though a document of the agenda refers to Wednesday and Thursday's meetings as a "retreat."

"While I understand that has happened in past years, and sometimes in other places outside of East Lansing (Detroit, Grand Rapids, etc.), that’s not the case this year," Guerrant said. "The board will be meeting over the coming days in work sessions, as typical before any board meeting. No decisions are made, the board receives educational updates and also breaks into the sub-policy groups for chunks of time."

Guerrant did not respond to questions about why the meeting won't be open to the public.

Similar questions came up two years ago in a case involving the University of Michigan, and the state Court of Appeals ruled that the Michigan Constitution permits university boards to hold “informal” meetings that can be closed to the public. The 2016 decision cited a 1999 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that found university boards could meet in private to discuss presidential searches.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Trustee Joel Ferguson made a brief statement about the retreat, saying that trustees will be "working on putting all stuff together" and he was "confident we’ll get there."

“Whether the meeting is open or closed, I would be hopeful that they discuss concrete ways to ensure accountability, especially in light of the egregious and tragic situation involving Nassar,” said Shawnee Vickery, a professor and Demmer Legacy Fellow in MSU's business school. “I would think the victims and survivors would agree with me.”

Robert LaDuca, the incoming chair of the MSU Faculty Senate, said he while he will call out board members when they make poor decisions, he’s fine with trustees meeting for a closed-door meeting.

“The board is entitled to have a confidential meeting” said LaDuca, a MSU chemistry professor. “Any leader of any organization is entitled to have closed-door meetings for deliberations.”

The meeting will kick off Wednesday morning with an appearance by Teresa A. Sullivan, outgoing University of Virginia president and former University of Michigan provost, according to the retreat agenda. MSU hired her as a university adviser who will address Michigan State's looming presidential search.

Also on the agenda: Engler will address planning, MSU Provost June Youatt will discuss a review of deans and vice presidents, and Robert Young, the chief negotiator of the Nassar settlement, will address legal issues. Also to be discussed over the two days will be a construction update, budget/tuition/bond resolutions, committees and committee structure, and personnel actions.

The retreat will conclude at 5:30 p.m. Thursday with a trustee dinner. Joining the board members will be former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, who MSU hired, along with his law firm, to provide counsel on government affairs, including advice on the university’s response to congressional probes.