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Incoming MSU president reveals thoughts on transparency, Title IX

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Samuel Stanley Jr. participates in a question and answer session after being named Michigan State University's 21st president, May 28, 2019.

Michigan State University President-designee Samuel Stanley Jr. admitted Wednesday that it's complex to describe how he would be transparent in a community that is demanding it in the era following the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

The scandal, and university officials' response and lack of response to it, created a climate in the MSU community in which many grew to not trust in university leaders and their decisions — but most have longed for it to be restored.

After MSU officials took months to acknowledge, apologize for and offer empathy to the young athletes who were assaulted for decades by Nassar, many told the MSU search committee that transparency in its next leader was paramount. Many outside observers also agreed it would be the new MSU president's most pressing challenge.

Some in the MSU community felt like the culture of secrecy was continuing even as Stanley was introduced on Tuesday since Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum wouldn't reveal how many candidates interviewed for the MSU president's job.

On the day after he was appointed MSU's 21st president, Stanley imagined what it would mean for him to be at the helm of MSU and embrace transparency.

“It is going to vary according to the situation," said Stanley during an interview with The Detroit News while at the Mackinac Policy Conference. "Transparency doesn't necessarily mean that everybody is consulted on every decision That's impossible to do."

He pointed to Stony Brook University, a $2.7 billion operation where he has been president since 2009.

"You can't have the structure where everyone participates in the decision," he said. "You can't be a democracy."

At the same time, Stanley said when it comes to important issues around campus that affect everyone, transparency is critical to let the university community know what is being done. He gave an example of sexual violence. 

“We want to be very transparent (about) what our procedures and policies look like," he said. "We want to be transparent in what we expect people to do, and what their responsibilities are.”

Stanley gave an example of transparency while creating a budget at Stony Brook, and including the faculty's shared governance system in the process.

“When you make difficult decisions, you should be prepared to be accountable for those decisions,” Stanley said. “You should be transparent about why you made those decisions what were the reasons by which you decided this particular area … “

“That, to me, is what transparency means: Being accountable, being responsible and communicating as effectively as possible,” Stanley added. “Sometimes getting lost in the concept is that everybody will be informed about every decision that is made at the university. Because of the extraordinary complexity of these institutions, that is really not possible.”

Stanley was attending the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island with several MSU officials, including Byrum; Trustee Melanie Foster; Kathy Wilbur, executive vice president for government, communications, and advancement; and David Bertram, associate vice President for state relations.

Fresh from a morning workout and sporting a green Michigan State tie, Stanley answered questions about controversies on his own campus, and the ones he's going to tackle at MSU. 

Asked about Title IX complaints under federal investigation at Stony Brook after many news outlets reported three complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Stanley said that it's "not ideal but not unusual."

“This is not unusual, unfortunately,” he said.

While he added that he could not comment on the specific cases, he acknowledged the three complaints.

Stanley said they are unfortunate especially in this time as “the recognition and the filing of complaints related to sexual violence as more people feel more comfortable reporting, the number of cases on every campus has increased,” he said.

"If you look around the country, while it is not ideal, it is not usual to have institutions on the OCR list," Stanley said.

Lisa Lorincz — the mother of Kaylee Lorincz, among the young women sexually abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment — said Wednesday she was disappointed by Stanley's response because it was "too dismissive, too status quo" to change MSU's culture.

"Instead of saying: one is too many; that I would have loved," Lorincz said. "We'll see. That is unfortunate."

But Merrily Dean Baker, Michigan State athletic director from 1992-95, who served on the Office of Civil Rights committee that helped draft the Title IX legislation in 1972, said Stanley's response was reasonable. She said complaints of alleged Title IX violations can either be filed with the university, the federal government or in a lawsuit.

"What he said is reasonable in light of what is happening on college campuses and the cases that are coming forward and the people who are coming forward and the lawsuits being filed," Baker said.

In one of the complaints filed in 2015, former Stony Brook University student Sarah Tubbs alleges university officials did not take seriously her allegation that she'd been raped by a fellow student at a party in 2014. After the Title IX claim was dismissed, Tubbs filed an appeal, which was rejected. She then sued the university, which was also dismissed.

Even so, U.S. District Court Judge Nelson Román said her case raised “distressing issues” about the university, saying that it "could have — and perhaps should have — demonstrated greater compassion in handling a sensitive allegation, their responsibility derives from the need to be nominally vigilant about access to educational opportunities through the loose framework of a discrimination statute."

As of April 26, there were hundreds of K-12 and higher education institutions under investigation by federal officials for complaints about violations to Title IX, including dozens of complaints from Michigan. 

Stanley, who begins his Michigan State post on Aug. 1, said he wants to meet with victims of Nassar, who sexually assaulted under the guise of medical treatment for decades.

"I really want to learn where the survivors are at this point in time," Stanley said. "I want to listen to them. I want to learn from them. I want to hear their thoughts."

Stanley also said he hasn't decided whether he supports an independent investigation into the Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Many of those who were abused by Nassar are lobbying for an independent investigation at MSU to show what were the cultural problems that led to the Nassar scandal. They argue that the Attorney General Office's investigation into MSU has focused on criminal behavior that led to charges to several high-ranking officials, including former MSU President Lou Anna Simon.

But it's important to identify areas at MSU that were not criminal but part of the culture that need to be changed.

"I need to be on campus before I make any decisions," Stanley said. "I will look for the board’s guidance as well because they have been dealing with this issue. I am not ready to say anything about that in this point in time. I need to understand the situation much better."

MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam said after the board meeting on Tuesday that it was not up to Stanley whether an independent investigation would launch.

"That decision is up to the audit and risk committee and the board of trustees independent of the president," Mosallam said. "It's not really up to him to support. We're looking at different things, hopefully progressing toward it."