MSU board candidates face issues of trust, choice of next president
The race for the Michigan State University Board of Trustees will add two new trustees to help guide the state's largest public university make critical decisions in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.
The response to Nassar's crimes prompted the resignation of university leaders, including former president Lou Anna Simon and the former athletic director. The university's response also led some to call for the resignation of the entire Board of Trustees, while others unsuccessfully called for the ouster of Interim President John Engler, a Republican former governor.
But the leading trustee candidates all seem to agree that keeping tuition affordable, selecting the correct next president and restoring trust in MSU's leadership — after Nassar sexually assaulted women while an MSU physician — are the key issues.
Four major-party candidates are vying for two spots on the eight-member board: Democrats Brianna Scott of Muskegon and Kelly Tebay of Pittsfield Township will take on Republican business executives Dave Dutch of Traverse City and Mike Miller of Okemos. The board is split between four Democrats and four Republicans.
Nominees from the Libertarian, U.S. Taxpayers, Green and Natural Law parties are also running.
The winners of the closely watched race will replace board Chairman Brian Breslin and Trustee Mitch Lyons, both Republicans, who are not seeking re-election.
"MSU is at the most critical juncture since its inception in 1855," Miller said. "This is no place for anyone who is not ready to lead and address difficult problems."
Many say Nassar and MSU culture change are the primary drivers of the race.
The candidates have different reasons for running.
Tebay said a recent graduate, who's not far removed from the university, should sit on the board. She earned her international relations undergraduate degree from MSU in 2008 and law enforcement, intelligence and analysis master's degree in 2011, and now works in development for United Way for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit.
The Democrat's bid for a trustee seat is also personal. Tebay said she was sexually assaulted on campus.
“It’s frustrating for me to see in the 10 years since I have been gone from Michigan State that not much has been changing in preventing sexual assault on campus … (and) the culture problems go beyond sexual assault. It is very clear there is a disconnect and a distrust,” Tebay said.
She said the university failed to show compassion to the victims of Nassar and admit mistakes were made at the height of the scandal. She hopes to change the distrust in the board by making it more accountable, accessible and transparent. She wants to make the board's committee meetings open to the public. They are now closed.
The board needs to be focused on getting the right person into the president's office, Tebay said.
"We need someone who understands what position we're in right now, and what it takes to really bring the community back together and make sure we're all fighting this fight together to make Michigan State better," she said.
She also hopes to make tuition more affordable. She said she graduated with $40,000 in debt and is still paying $400 a month in student loan debt.
"That also goes against the mission of Michigan State, which is a land grant university," Tebay said. "It was created so that any student in the state who wanted to go to school could afford to do it and get a great education, and not go broke doing it. Those are really important things we need to try and get back to."
Miller said he decided to run for trustee because he has been an East Lansing resident his entire life and a supporter of the university. He retired from running the orthopedic business he started in Holt.
It was also personal for him, too. His daughter, who doesn't want to be identified with the Nassar crisis, was a competitive gymnast and recruited to play volleyball at MSU and was treated by Nassar. Miller said he knew all of her friends, who were also treated by Nassar.
"That was part of the driver," said Miller, who graduated in 1971 from MSU with a labor and industrial relations degree. "I know these kids. We have to take care of them and we have to make sure it doesn't happen again. We have to take Michigan State from this tragic state to its rich future."
Like other candidates, he said that selecting the right candidate for the next MSU president is crucial.
"The need for the right leader who will restore the trust in and reputation of MSU cannot be overstated," said Miller, 70. "One of my top priorities is to work tirelessly to ensure MSU’s next president will be a person that all Spartans, taxpayers and stakeholders will be proud to follow as its leader."
Restoring trust in the leadership of MSU is also paramount, he said, and the board must set student safety as its first priority.
"A culture of cronyism and a lack of transparency has eroded the trust that must exist between MSU’s leadership and the Spartan community," Miller said. "The board must create a culture of transparency, along with the promise that no official or employee will be permitted to stand apart from that culture."
Enacting fiscal responsibility and controlling tuition is also key, he said.
"As with all successful businesses that face the same concerns regarding salaries, benefits, capital costs and so forth, higher education must learn to increase efficiency so end users receive higher quality at a better price," Miller said.
Scott, a lawyer based in Muskegon and the other Democratic nominee, said she is running because so many people in the MSU community supported her through graduation after she got pregnant at age 20 during her junior year. Many also encouraged her to go on to law school at Wayne State University, she said, something she might not have done without their nudging.
"They cared so much about me and my future, I felt I owed something back to the community," Scott said. "And with everything MSU is going through with Nassar, I thought that this would be opportunity for me to do something."
She emphasized her 18 years practicing law, including three years as a prosecutor in Muskegon County. Plus, she noted that she is the only African-American woman running and would represent a new point of view on the board.
"I want to advocate for people who come from our lower- and middle-income families," she said. "I have unique perspective."
Scott, 43, said the top issue is selecting the right leader to be president.
"That is the most important priority, to make sure they lead us forward," she said. "Another issue is changes need to be made to create the type of culture that will restore trust and faith in those who have lost it. The university also has to make the campus safer."
College affordability is also critical, Scott said, because tuition hikes are putting college out of reach.
"We are eventually going to be out-pricing students in Michigan, and if they go they are going to be accruing so much debt," Scott said. "We have to make college more affordable."
Dutch said he is running because he's been on boards and understands billion-dollar budgets and organizations.
Now semi-retired at age 53 after being a business executive, Dutch was born and raised in East Lansing. His family has worked at and attended the university for decades, with his father working for 52 years as a personnel administrator. His parents met there, and seven of his 10 siblings attended MSU.
Dutch earned his masters of business administration from Michigan State after serving in the Naval Academy. He also served on the Broad College of Business board for seven years.
"I am saddened and angered by what has happened over the last year, and I think our board needs to be revamped with more traditional board skill sets, like big business and big cultural transformations," Dutch said. "I care and have the skill set."
The No. 1 issue is hiring the next president, he said.
"We need someone who has integrity, is a great communicator and an inclusive leader," Dutch said. "There needs to be a lot of transparency." The candidate "listens to all constituents; speaks truth and is comfortable leading us into the future."
The next president should have experience in higher education and big business, he said. "The entire board does not have that kind of experience," Dutch said, "and the university has a $1.3 billion-plus budget, thousands of employees, students and alumni.
Dutch agreed that the university needs to hold the line on tuition.
"We, as a university, need to make tuition more affordable," he said. "It has gone up higher than inflation."
He said MSU should combine entrepreneurism with its extension programs and monetize it.
“Every major university does a better job than Michigan State has done historically in monetizing intellectual property, patents, incubators and startups,” he said. “We are starting to get some of that … but (MSU needs to be) funding agricultural research and getting patents and leveraging this unique history and knowledge and research we have in agriculture and farming with entrepreneurism, and start making money off of it."
Other universities will also elect candidates. Among them:
- At the University of Michigan, Republican Regents Andrew Richner of Grosse Pointe Park and Andrea Fischer Newman from Ann Arbor face Democrats Jordan Acker, an attorney, and Paul Brown, a UM adjunct professor.
- At Wayne State University, Republican Governors David Nicholson of Grosse Pointe and Diane Dunaskiss of Lake Orion face Democrats Anil Kumar of Bloomfield Hills and Bryan Barnhill of Detroit.
- For the Michigan Board of Education, Republican board member Richard Zeile of Dearborn and accountant Tami Carlone face Democratic challengers Judy Pritchett, former Center Line superintendent, and Tiffany Tilley, a Southfield Democratic activist.