Whitmer appoints legal ethics professor to MSU Board of Trustees

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has appointed a legal ethics professor to sit on the Michigan State University Board of Trustees as the university continues to work on healing from the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. 

Renee Knake, an East Lansing resident who has taught law at MSU, holds the Doherty chair in legal ethics at the University of Houston Law Center. 

Renee Knake

Knake consults on legal ethics, gender diversity in leadership roles and the First Amendment, according to a biography on her website. She is the author of "Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court," which is due out in May 2020. 

She was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University for the first six months of 2019. 

The MSU Board of Trustees seat was vacated in October by former Henry Ford Health System CEO Nancy Schlichting. She resigned after a 10-month tenure, citing her frustration with the board and her inability to persuade her colleagues to let "the truth can come out" about Nassar, the former MSU doctor and convicted sexual abuser. 

"I know Renee will work with President (Samuel) Stanley to ensure that Michigan State embodies a culture that respects diversity, values and listens to all survivors, and makes college education more affordable and accessible for Michigan families,” Whitmer said in a Wednesday statement.

"I’m confident that Renee’s professional background and unique skillset is what Michigan State University needs right now."

Stanley said he looks forward to meeting and working with Knake and welcoming her back into the MSU community.

“Her experience in higher education, ethics and diversity issues will be great assets in supporting our efforts to build a safer, more respectful and more welcoming campus while striving to enhance student success and improve our community,” he said.

MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum welcomed Knake's appointment.

"I am excited to have Renee as a colleague and look forward to working with her," Byrum said in a statement.

"Renee brings an inside look of MSU from her decade-long time on the faculty as a law professor. In addition, she brings an outside look through her scholarly efforts and her current role" at the University of Houston Law Center.

When contacted by The Detroit News just prior to the announcement, Knake referred any comment to the governor's office.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to serve the students, staff, and alumni at MSU and am eager to work with my partners on the Board of Trustees to ensure the safety and security of everyone on campus,” Knake said in a statement provided by Whitmer's office.

"I’ve dedicated my career to ensuring diversity in institutions like Michigan State, and I’m prepared to continue that work as a trustee. I know that as an MSU grad, this is an issue the governor cares deeply about, and I’m committed to ensuring that she and everyone else who graduates from Michigan State is proud to be a Spartan for life.”

Knake was at Michigan State for more than 10 years before joining the University of Houston in 2016, according to Whitmer's office. Besides receiving tenure at the university's College of Law, she taught at the Eli Broad College of Business and the Honors College.

She also directed the 21st Century Law Practice Summer Program in London and co-founded the ReInvent Law Laboratory for Law, Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. 

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse and one of many survivors who lobbied for an independent investigation into the university's handling of the scandal, said Wednesday she is encouraged to see the appointment of someone who has experience with legal ethics.

"Ethics is something MSU has a great deal of difficulty with," Denhollander said. "I am hoping she can lead the board and university toward transparency and accountability and operating with a good moral compass."

Knake's background in ethics is extremely important to the MSU community and all victims of sexual assault, said Morgan McCaul, a Nassar survivor.

"I think her voice will be welcomed by the community on the board," McCaul said Wednesday afternoon. "She is deeply sensitive to the needs of survivors on campus. And I think she has the best intentions."

McCaul, who is a student at the University of Michigan, said Knake's appointment is a step in the right direction.

"The majority of board members have been disappointing, to say the least, in their tenure," McCaul said. "She is walking into a difficult situation."

When reached on Wednesday afternoon, MSU Trustee Melanie Foster said she had just heard Knake’s name for the first time. 

“I am looking forward to working with her and getting to know her. She is very accomplished, from what I have heard,” Foster said.

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Schlichting in the midst of the Nassar sex abuse scandal. In her resignation letter, she specifically cited the board's failure to move forward on an independent investigation to assess the culture of the university that allowed Nassar to prey on women for decades undetected.

Schlichting replaced former Trustee George Perles, a Democrat who stepped down in 2018 for health reasons, for a term ending in January 2023. 

Nassar, who was a sports doctor at MSU for more than 20 years, is serving a de facto life sentence after pleading guilty to child pornography and sexual assault charges. MSU reached a $500 million settlement with 332 women who sued the university for failing to protect them but has resisted demands from the Michigan Attorney General's Office to hand over 6,000 documents as part of the agency's criminal investigation of MSU, citing attorney-client privilege.   

Byrum announced during Stanley's first Board of Trustees meeting in September there was a split on the board on the scope of the proposed independent investigation, so it would not move forward. Byrum, Foster and trustees Joel Ferguson and Brianna Scott wanted a narrower focus.

Bill Ballenger, a former state lawmaker and long-time political pundit, said he expects Knake to approach her new role differently than the trustee she is replacing.

"This woman is likely to be much more proactive and much more in sync with the feelings in the MSU community ... no matter all the steps that have been taken and the new president, there are many who still feel aggrieved at the whole process and that the university got away with murder," he said.

"This is a very sound, savvy appointment by the governor to fill a need still felt, that is giving a voice to people who feels aggrieved over the last two decades," Ballenger said.

In a U.S. Judicial Conference hearing last year, Knake testified that the conference’s proposed changes to the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges to combat sexual harassment and misconduct in the legal and judicial professions fell short of what was needed. 

The changes did not address the pressure young clerks may feel to avoid reporting harassment from a judge out of fear of losing a recommendation, Knake said. 

“We have to appreciate why a victim may feel compelled to remain silent,” she said in the October 2018 hearing. “We have to consider options that reduce adverse consequences to sounding the alarm.”

Instead of assuming that harassment will occur, the conference should make changes that prevent such action from occurring in the first place, Knake said. She referenced policies at the University of Houston that banned sexual relationships between an individual and another employee or student over whom the individual had an oversight role.

“All professions have experienced their own ‘Me Too’ reckoning regarding the mistreatment of women,” Knake said. “No one should expect that the judiciary is somehow immune.”

MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam said he does not know Knake personally but looks forward to working with her on the board.

"I think her background and expertise is a much welcomed addition," he said.

Ferguson said although he does not know Knake, he is extremely impressed with her credentials and trusted Whitmer to pick the best person for MSU. He said he did not speak with the governor about the appointment.

"She slam-dunked it," he said.

"All of us on our board are going to work with each other and interface and maintain a strong relationship," Ferguson said. "She picked the right person."