Michigan State president John Engler introduces Bill Beekman as permanent athletic director. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Brian Mosallam knows what so many of us are thinking.
And as the Michigan State trustee stood off to the side Monday, while reporters surrounded Bill Beekman — the university's new permanent athletic director after a news conference announcing the interim tag he’d held since February was no more — Mosallam knew he had to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
“Yeah, it’s gonna feed into the same-old narrative,” Mosallam said. “But that’s really not the case.”
It’s a difficult case to make, though, because narratives only grow as you feed them. Mosallam, who for several months has been the loudest — and loneliest — voice calling for reform from within MSU’s Board of Trustees, probably understands that as well as anyone by now.
But that’s also one reason why he wanted to make it clear where he stood Monday, extolling Beekman’s character and integrity while pushing back against the perception that this decision is just one more example of an incestuous problem in East Lansing.
“This Bill Beekman hire was not another good-ol’-boy network hire at Michigan State,” Mosallam insisted. “This was legitimate. This grew organically from within. And I fully support him, 100 percent.”
His support sounded genuine, much like the speech Beekman gave at the podium Monday, as well as the unscripted answers he offered later, after he was introduced as the 19th athletic director in Michigan State history, tasked with overseeing a department that includes 25 varsity sports, 240 employees and a $130 million operating budget.
Loss of faith
But the problem the 51-year-old Beekman faces was right there for all to see as he spoke Monday, flanked by the trustees who’ve lost any semblance of public confidence in recent months and the interim president — former Michigan governor John Engler — whose brief tenure has only exacerbated many of the problems the university faces in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal and the handling of sexual assault allegations.
"The last several years have been among the darkest in our history," Beekman said, addressing the Nassar case specifically in his prepared remarks. "We must do better and we will."
But it’s fair to ask where exactly that confidence comes from, with all those promises of a “culture change” from MSU’s leadership followed by changes like this. And just because Engler interrupts the question with an abrupt answer, as he did Monday, it doesn’t make it go away.
“I say check the box,” Engler said. “We’ve got that with Bill Beekman. He’s fresh, he’s new, he’s not been here in the department before. He comes in with a great background to make the kind of changes that are necessary. There’s no wedded-to-the-past approach on Bill’s part.”
Maybe so, but Beekman has deep roots at Michigan State, earning an undergraduate degree in 1989 from the university’s James Madison College, a residential program for public affairs and international relations where he also met his wife, Cindy. Beekman holds an MBA from Northwestern and a law degree from Wayne State, but he began his administrative career at MSU in 1995, working in a variety of roles, from the College of Health and Medicine to the provost’s office and the MSU Alumni Association. Most recently, he had served as a vice president and secretary of the Board of Trustees.
Back in February, when Engler tapped him to replace longtime AD Mark Hollis, who abruptly retired just before an ESPN report called into question MSU’s response to sexual assault cases involving the football and basketball programs, this notion was “about the furthest thing from my mind,” Beekman said.
But it was only a temporary post, Engler said at the time, vowing to begin a "nationwide search" and promising "no internal candidates will be considered in the search process.” It sounded good, what with protesters rallying on campus demanding change from an administration that had failed miserably on so many fronts.
Technically speaking, Engler didn’t go back on his words. Because there was no search process, really. There was only one candidate in the end: Beekman.
“He has all of the skills necessary,” Engler said. “I think we could have looked across the country and been hard-pressed to find somebody that would know Michigan State the way Bill does with the quality he has.”
They could have, sure. But they didn’t, and that contradiction was impossible to ignore Monday, even for Mosallam, who’d said as recently as a few weeks ago that he wanted the next AD to be named by Engler’s eventual successor.
Calls for unity
Mosallam called for Engler to step down as president and lobbied other trustees to join him last month — only Diane Byrum did — after the former governor’s insensitive remarks criticizing Rachael Denhollander, the first of Larry Nassar’s victims to come forward publicly, came to light.
But Monday, Mosallam was more interested in separating perceptions from the reality, at least as he sees it. ("I think I’ve proven that I’m not gonna go along just to get along, you know?" he said.) And after working the phones last week talking to various constituents within the athletic department, including some of the coaches of non-revenue sports — not just Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio, who were busy predictably touting the importance of “unity” and “focus” Monday — he was comfortable with this decision.
“It was well-intentioned, and that was the initial plan,” he said, when asked about Engler’s aborted search. “But this is something that internally our folks wanted, and it played out this way for that specific reason. … Throughout this process, the feedback that we’d gotten was extremely positive. It was pretty remarkable to see the show of support and the feedback on him.”
It also reaffirmed what he says he already knew about Beekman, who has kept a low profile while making organizational changes inside the department the last few months. Sort of like a duck, he explained, in that “you may not have noticed a whole lot above water, but below water we’re doing a lot of churning.” That will continue, he says, though he's aware the scrutiny will be heightened now that he's no longer a place-holder.
“But he’s somebody who’s an excellent administrator, who understands student health and wellness, understands compliance, understands Title IX issues and social equity issues,” Mosallam said. “And I’ve worked with Bill Beekman for 5½ years. I know he’s a man of integrity, I trust him.”
And as for those on the outside looking in, those who might see an insider masquerading as a change agent? Those who see the dysfunctional board of trustees smiling together and wonder if this show of unity isn’t simply a show? (As trustee Mitch Lyons admitted recently about the search for a new president, “Nobody in their right mind is walking into this hot mess right now.”) Those who see Bill Beekman and wonder why no one bothered to look for an alternative?
“I guess what I’d say to those folks is give us six months or a year and reassess,” Beekman said Monday, answering for everyone else in the room, which is essentially what he was hired to do. “I think you’ll be pleased.”