Detroit Free Press

Experts disagree on Whitmer’s move regarding MSU board

Governor could face political implicatio­ns

- Sarah Atwood Lansing State Journal USA TODAY NETWORK – MICHIGAN

EAST LANSING — In the four weeks since Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees formally asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to consider removing two of their colleagues for ethical and code of conduct violations, the governor has taken no public action.

Removing former board Chair Rema Vassar, D-Detroit, and Trustee Dennis Denno, D-East Lansing, could have political implicatio­ns for Whitmer, who may be eyeing higher office in the future, according to one expert.

Another argues it may not matter, despite the fact that trustees are elected in statewide votes, given that both are relatively unknown outside education circles and the East Lansing campus.

Whitmer’s Press Secretary Stacey LaRouche said one day after the board voted 6-2 on March 3 to censure Vassar and Denno and refer them to Whitmer’s office that the governor’s office was aware Vassar and Denno had been referred for potential removal

“As we have done in similar instances, we will take the time to carefully review this request upon official receipt of the formal communicat­ion of the board,” LaRouche said at the time.

LaRouche said Wednesday the request was still under “careful review.”

Whitmer recently told Fox 2 Detroit in brief statements that she’s taking the board’s requests seriously but that there’s serious ramificati­ons from any decision made, so she wants to take her time to “make the right call.”

“My legal team is doing its due diligence and I don’t have anything to announce today,” Whitmer said.

‘Political theatre’

Demetri Morgan, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago, said he would be concerned Vassar’s race — she is Black — and gender will play a role in the fallout of her potential removal. Depending on the way it’s spun, this issue could get “dicey” for Whitmer.

“Whatever Whitmer’s future political aspiration­s are, she’s expected to deliver Michigan for the Democratic candidate (President Joe Biden),” he said. “To do this, she needs Black people to show up and vote.”

The media coverage of any removal effort might not look good for the governor.

“I can see ‘First Black Chair of MSU removed by governor’ as a headline, which wouldn’t look good for (Whitmer).” Morgan said. “People might not care about the nuances of the situation, and just see that (Vassar) was removed by the governor.”

Morgan argues that politicizi­ng a university issue could get complicate­d. He added that MSU’s governance problems existed long before Vassar and Denno were elected, and time needs to be taken to step back and review the existing policies.

Politicizi­ng the internal problems means expecting the rules of university govern

ance to fit nicely within the rules of political theatre, which they won’t, he said.

Morgan said he couldn’t say that Vassar’s racial identity did not play a role in how the entire controvers­y played out.

“Would we be here if Rema was someone else? I don’t know for sure,” he said. “It’s hard for me to not believe that the punishment might not be categorica­lly different, if it was someone else ... I don’t know if she’s given the same grace.”

Before the trustees voted to refer her to the governor and take away her leadership positions, Vassar alluded to her belief that her race and gender could have been factors in how the investigat­ion was conducted and the board’s scrutiny of her.

“African Americans, other people of color and women are oftentimes held to a much higher standard or diminished and dismissed...,” Vassar said. “Well, as I’ve stated, I could have made some different decisions. I certainly hope that who I am did not influence anyone involved in this investigat­ion and report.”

State Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, sent a letter to Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office on March 4, asking for a review of the constituti­onality of the board’s vote to censure Vassar. The board also censured Brianna Scott, who is Black, but did not vote to refer her for removal by Whitmer.

“Specifical­ly, I am asking for your opinion on the attached MSU Board of Trustees Executive Action Summary on the resolution for censure; if the censure and removal from committee boards of Dr. Vassar is a violation of the Michigan

Constituti­on,” Santana wrote. “I stand by my belief that the electorate’s right to afford Dr. Vassar the full powers and duties of an MSU Trustee have been violated. Subsequent­ly, forwarding of Dr. Rema Vassar to the Governor of Michigan for removal under MCL 168.293 further disenfranc­hises voters from marginaliz­ed communitie­s exacerbati­ng equal representa­tion on the MSU Board of Trustees.

“I strongly believe these actions are an attempt to silence strong Black leadership and marginaliz­ed communitie­s.”

‘Better if this wasn’t a distractio­n’

“I don’t think there’s a ton of downside (to removing the trustees),” said Adrian Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest, a political consulting firm based in Lansing. “No one knows who these people are.”

Hemond said trustees aren’t high profile enough to cause real political problems for Whitmer. He believes taking action and being able to move past this “distractio­n” would be for the best.

He also dismisses the idea that removing the two trustees would have any impact on any of her future political aspiration­s, or on the upcoming elections in Michigan. He said voters don’t have any real attachment to Vassar and Denno.

“Much of the conduct was admitted to,” he said.

Hemond thinks that the way trustees are elected is part of the reason there’s so many issues with the university’s governance.

MSU, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University are the only public higher education schools in Michigan whose trustees are candidates on statewide ballots. Candidates are nominated at party convention­s. Board members of the state’s other universiti­es are appointed by the governor.

Few people know who the candidates are, though, Hemond said, and typically voters choose the names associated with their preferred party.

“It was a good Democratic year and they had a ‘D’ next to their names.” Hemond said. “That’s why they were elected.”

Vassar was elected in 2020, for a term that expires in 2029. Denno was elected in 2022, for a term that expires in 2031.

Pressure building

There isn’t a clear roadmap for Whitmer going forward, Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council, a nonprofit public affairs research organizati­on based in Livonia, told the State Journal earlier last month.

It’s extremely rare for an elected official to be removed by the governor, so much so that there isn’t a defined process, he said.

MSU’s university council is the latest university group to condemn Vassar and Denno’s actions.

In a 69-2 vote on March 26, the council passed a resolution to support the board’s decision to refer the two trustees to the governor and supporting previous resolution­s by the university’s academic congress and the Associated Students of MSU.

Hemond said he understand­s the governor might be hesitant to make a decision now and that it would be “responsibl­e for her to take steps to review materials.”

But while the board has new leadership under Chair Dan Kelly and Vice-Chair Kelly Tebay, Vassar’s and Denno’s futures are murky. This could lead to more conflict among board members and might prevent steps being taken to rewrite bylaws and take steps towards successful governance, Morgan said.

“The board being messy is fine until there’s a crisis.” Morgan said. “Will MSU have time to move on, make new bylaws...? You need the conditions to be right for governance success. Right now MSU does not have that.”

Whitmer would be expected to appoint new trustees if she removes Vassar and Denno.

Because the board candidates are nominated at the major party convention­s, they’d need to have their positions by whenever their respective party holds the convention. The latest date for the parties to hold their convention­s this year is Sept. 6.

The practice of parties nominating these candidates isn’t working, said Hemond.

“The idea that these folks are elected is silly ... They should be appointed (by the governor), so the general public knows who’s accountabl­e for them.”

 ?? PHOTOS BY MATTHEW DAE SMITH/LANSING STATE JOURNAL ?? Former Michigan State University Chair Rema Vassar is fighting her recommende­d removal from the Board of Trustees.
PHOTOS BY MATTHEW DAE SMITH/LANSING STATE JOURNAL Former Michigan State University Chair Rema Vassar is fighting her recommende­d removal from the Board of Trustees.
 ?? ?? Michigan State University Trustee Dennis Denno, shown at an Oct. 27 meeting, is among the two board members targeted for removal.
Michigan State University Trustee Dennis Denno, shown at an Oct. 27 meeting, is among the two board members targeted for removal.
 ?? NICK KING/LANSING STATE JOURNAL ?? Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has yet to consider removing two Michigan State University Board of Trustees members.
NICK KING/LANSING STATE JOURNAL Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has yet to consider removing two Michigan State University Board of Trustees members.

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