Dianne Byrum elected chair of MSU board; Kelly chosen as vice chair

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Dianne Byrum gives her remarks after being elected chair of the Michigan State Board of Trustees Wednesday.

The Michigan State University Board of Trustees on Wednesday elected Trustee Dianne Byrum as chair — a move that some victims of Larry Nassar characterized as disappointing though Byrum has criticized the university's handling of the scandal. 

Separately, the board unanimously elected as vice chair Trustee Dan Kelly, a Republican who reportedly cast a key vote that prevented the board from electing Trustee Joel Ferguson as chair. Ferguson, a Democrat, has made controversial comments connected to the Nassar scandal. 

The vote was split for chair between Democrats Byrum and Mosallam, who are allies and have worked together during the Nassar scandal. The board has six Democrats and at least two Republicans. 

Byrum, who has co-chaired the search committee for the university's next president, won by a 5-3 vote. Byrum cast a vote for herself as chair and was supported by trustees Melanie Foster, a Republican; Kelly; newly elected Trustee Brianna Scott, a Democrat, and Ferguson, who nominated her.

"I am very humbled and very honored," Byrum said. "I am committed to working with all of the trustees on this board so we can facilitate change."

"We will be writing new pages in the history of Michigan State University."

After the vote, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, said during a phone interview that she was "incredibly disappointed" in Byrum's election. 

"She has steadfastly refused to engage with survivors, she has had a lot of difficulty being supportive with initiatives and she is part of the Lansing insider crew," Denhollander said. "We needed someone someone committed to cultural change, but she has completed refused to engage with us."

Denhollander noted Byrum's supporters included Ferguson and Foster.

"That tells you everything you need to know about what team (Byrum) is playing for," Denhollander said.

Many Nassar victims apparently wanted to see the chairmanship go to Mosallam, who has been one of the loudest voices for university reform, and the vice chairmanship to Nancy Schlichting, the former Henry Ford Health System CEO who was appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder. Both are MSU outsiders. 

"Brianna ran on a campaign to change the culture at MSU," Denhollander said. "She sided with the people most reluctant to change."

Valerie von Frank, mother of Nassar victim Grace French, said she and others had "hoped to see a new day in leadership, but it seems apparent that a few of the old guard cut a deal."  

"It does not bode well for a future of transparency and support for victims," von Frank said. "Brian Mosallam has engaged with survivors and families and shown some real leadership with his proposals to take the university forward through this crisis."

Other women abused by Nassar spoke out on Twitter, expressing their unhappiness with Scott.

"I was hoping that insincerity and dishonesty went out with the the old regime," tweeted Sarah Klein, believed to be the earliest of Nassar's victims. "MSU and survivors deserve so much better."

Sterling Riethman, who was also abused by Nassar, tweeted: "Seeing (Scott) side with Ferguson after how he’s handled this 'Nassar thing' leaves me incredibly disappointed," Riethman said. "I guess I was right to not have faith in any potentially positive changes around MSU. There never will be with Ferguson around."

French added: "My hope this morning was for promises to be kept. (Scott) has gone back on what she campaigned on, and not engaged with survivors after her election. In fact, her first move on the board was to side with Ferguson and Foster. I'm beyond disappointed."

Scott did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

Former MSU trustee Mitch Lyons, a Republican, praised Scott for her chair vote.

"Thank you for doing the right thing for MSU today. I remember taking heavy artillery my first chair vote. Good luck," Lyons tweeted

Byrum, a public relations professional, said she wants to see dramatic change at MSU.

"We are going to be embracing monumental change here at Michigan State University," the new chairwoman said. "I am looking forward to all eight board members being fully involved. As I said, it's a new year. It's a new board. We are writing new pages in Michigan State University's history. We will do that collectively with one voice as a board is my goal."

Interim MSU President John Engler, who has survived calls for firing, will be at MSU for three more board meetings before the next president is seated in July, she said.

Byrum edged out Mosallam, who was the first trustee in June to call for Engler to step down for moves and statements that infuriated Nassar victims. 

Mosallam garnered the support of new trustees Kelly Tebay and Schlichting, who nominated him.

Mosallam praised Kelly's leadership in casting a key vote and explained afterward that Kelly was going to vote for Mosallam but changed his mind because there would have led to a 4-4 split between Mosallam and Byrum. In the case of a tied vote, the university's bylaws say the chairmanship goes to the prior vice chair, Ferguson.

"We were at a 4-4 impasse, and we were trying to figure out the best way to do this," Mosallam said afterward, explaining why the board's meeting started late.

"That's why I praised Dan Kelly's leadership. Dan understood the ramifications of a 4-4 public vote," he said.

Kelly, a lawyer who vowed during the meeting to speak publicly more, called Mosallam's comments about him "nice" but declined to address them.

"The discussion of the board should remain the discussion of the board," Kelly said.

Ferguson — who generated backlash among Nassar accusers when he referred to the scandal as "that Nassar thing" and characterized Nasser accusers as only looking for a paycheck — scoffed at Mosallam's explanation after the meeting.

Ferguson, who has been on the board since 1986, said that he has been the chair of the board for 12 years and vice chair for six years and didn't want to be in leadership again. He said he was campaigning for Byrum and letting trustees such as Democratic newcomer Scott know that he "unequivocally" supported Byrum.

"I was working hard, and gave long speeches for Dianne," Ferguson said. "She is the most deserving. She paid her dues."

Ferguson pointed to Byrum's numerous hours on the presidential search committee, her appearances at MSU ceremonies and previous work as a Michigan lawmaker.

"She completely earned that," Ferguson said. "That was an easy one. We picked the right people."

Byrum said some goals include taking a look at the university's governance structure, how the trustees interact with each other another and its transparency, "in terms of how we conduct our business."

She is among the few woman to chair the board in MSU's 160-year history. The last woman to chair the board was in 2001, when Colleen McNamare was chair, said MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant.