Michigan State University trustee resigns, citing lack of transparency

Anna Liz Nichols Kara Berg
The Detroit News

Pat O'Keefe is resigning from the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, citing concerns with a lack of transparency and slow cultural change since Larry Nassar was exposed as a serial sexual predator.

In O'Keefe's letter of resignation to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Republican businessman from Troy said he was stepping down over concerns related to the resignation of former Business School dean Sanjay Gupta, the interim president selection process and a lack of transparency from the board to the public.

"My fear is that the Board will bypass yet another opportunity for institutional transparency and never disclose the results of any internal or external reviews into (Gupta's resignation)," wrote O'Keefe, who has been a trustee for less than two years after getting elected in November 2020.

"I hope University influencers and stakeholders demand answers regarding the termination of the former Business School Dean, as well as the Interim President selection process. The population served by the Board is worthy of such answers. My belief is that the shadows of the University's past will continue to linger if true change remains aspirational and the Board does not practice the transparency it works to promote."

Republican Michigan State University Trustee Pat O'Keefe speaks during an Oct. 28, 2022 board meeting at the Hannah Administration Building in East Lansing. O'Keefe resigned on Wednesday after less than two years on the board.

Gupta resigned in August after he allegedly failed to report sexual misconduct to the university. As a university employee, he is a mandated reporter.

O'Keefe's resignation adds to the tumult at MSU, which has had five presidents since the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal gained steam in 2016. The Republican becomes the second trustee to resign in the past three years by citing frustration with his colleagues.

Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy confirmed the governor had received the resignation letter from O'Keefe, whose departure allows the Democratic governor to add an appointee to a board that now has a 5-2 Democratic majority with his resignation.

Whitmer's last appointee was law professor Renee Knake Jefferson, who in December 2019 replaced Nancy Schlichting. The former Henry Ford Health System CEO resigned following a 10-month stint by citing her inability to persuade her colleagues to let "the truth can come out" about Nassar, the former MSU doctor and convicted sexual abuser.

"Michigan State University is a premier institution in the state. It is deeply important to Governor Whitmer, both as a Spartan and as governor, that students, staff, faculty, alumni, and the public have confidence in the board," Leddy said in a text. "That begins with having great partners and great leadership in these positions. We will begin our search to appoint someone who will stand up for those values and move the university forward."

At an Oct. 28 Board of Trustees meeting, O'Keefe criticized then-Provost and now Interim President Teresa Woodruff, saying she was "uninformed" in criticizing the board's investigation into Gupta. He said things desperately needed to change within MSU's culture.

"I'm tired of reading about the sexual transgressions of the faculty, which are like reading '50 Shades of Grey' and as long as 'Gone With the Wind,' without knowing what the outcomes are (of) such behavior," O'Keefe said. "This is about corralling the unchained sexual promiscuity of the faculty, who seem to have unfettered access to our most vulnerable student population with little to no repercussions in some instances."

O'Keefe was one of the trustees who expressed concerns with former President Samuel Stanley Jr.'s handling of Title IX compliance paperwork submitted to the state. He said he did not like that Stanley took credit for initiating an internal investigation into the compliance issues, when he said several trustees initiated the audit. Stanley resigned in October, two years before his contract expired in 2024, saying he no longer had confidence in the board.

O'Keefe criticized the lack of honesty, transparency and commitment to Title IX by the university's administration.

The Board of Trustees was informed that Woodruff requested Gupta's resignation — a decision that was supported by Stanley. But the board learned about it after it occurred, and some trustees including O'Keefe felt that they did not get adequate information to make sure that it was the right decision.

But in his first comments about the board's concerns during a Faculty Senate special meeting in September, Stanley said Gupta served in his role as dean at the will of the provost, and she was within her rights to make a leadership transition. Woodruff told the Faculty Senate during that meeting that all university policies and procedures were followed.

"The work was deliberative and neither capricious nor malicious. I stand by this course of action today," Woodruff said during the September Faculty Senate meeting. "Dr. Gupta failed in his mandatory reporting responsibility. Additionally, he failed to act in a timely and reasonable manner to protect students and uphold our values. The culture that we seek is one in which the well-being and safety of everyone is managed in an immediate, cooperative and trauma informed way."

But O'Keefe still voted to approve Woodruff as interim president. She was endorsed by many faculty and student leaders in what was believed to be the first time that some in the academic community stood behind a prospective interim president.

Woodruff sent an email out to MSU leaders Wednesday notifying them of O'Keefe's resignation.

"I remain committed to maintaining a close working relationship with the board and all its members, as I relayed in my message to the MSU community earlier this month," Woodruff wrote. "I will also continue to focus on building trust, affirming transparency and advancing the university's strategic initiatives."