LANSING — Three of the four candidates vying for two seats on the Michigan State University Board of Trustees agree on one thing.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in December announced that her office’s investigation into MSU’s handling of the Larry Nassar case arrived at an “impasse” because the university refused to release 6,000 documents that MSU continues to shield under attorney-client privilege.
Democratic incumbent Brian Mosallam, Democratic candidate Rema Ella Vassarand Republican candidate Tonya Schuitmaker each want to see MSU waive that privilege and release the documents.
The other Republican candidate, Pat O’Keefe, didn’t rule out supporting the release of the documents, but said he wants to learn more about the issue first, like whether the documents should have been released under the Freedom of Information Act.
“These documents need to be released so the survivors can have closure and this university can move forward,” said Mosallam, president of Spartan Wealth Management.
Brian Mosallam (Photo: Brian Mosallam)
Mosallam joined Trustees Dan Kelly, Renee Knake, Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay in individually reviewing the documents. He declined to share any of the documents’ details or his reaction to the contents.
Keeping students safe
Making the East Lansing campus safe joins the list of priorities is one of the other issues successful candidates will review in the coming years.
For Vassar, an associate professor in the educational leadership and counseling department at Eastern Michigan University and a former public school teacher, counselor, administrator and parent organizer, campus safety is a personal concern.
Her daughter is a sophomore at MSU and like Vassar, she is black. She’s loved her experience, apart from racist incidents on campus, like decorations depicting black leaders hung from a tree in the Wharton Center gift shop and racial slurs written on marker boards hanging outside black students’ dorm room doors.
“On top of that, she’s a woman and there’s been the issues of sexual violence,” said Vassar, of Detroit. “There’s been times where she’s felt physically unsafe. As a black woman, there’s a lot of problems with safety and belonging that she’s encountered.”
Vassar said work toward eradicating racism and sexual violence on campus can be done by educating and creating policies. She acknowledged the strides MSU officials have already taken, but Vassar wants to see more campus-wide education on what consent looks like, sexual violence, race and racism.
Within that work, a specific focus has to be placed on protecting students who identify as black and transgender, she said. During listening sessions Vassar participated in with students, faculty and staff, several people reported that black and trans students who have been violated aren’t believed and have nowhere to heal.
Part of keeping students safe is assuring MSU complies with the Clery Act, said O’Keefe, who is from Troy and works in strategic and financial advising and runs a turn-around consulting firm. The Clery Act requires schools to report crimes that happen on campus.
Pat O’Keefe (Photo: John Sobczak / Lorien Studio)
The U.S. Department of Education released a report in 2019 following an investigation into MSU’s compliance with the Clery Act, slamming MSU for its handling of complaints against Nassar, a former MSU doctor and convicted sex offender who sexually abused more than 500 women or girls under the guise of medical treatment.
To further address Clery Act violations and overall campus safety, O’Keefe said, the internal Clery Act violation reporting structure needs an overhaul, starting by moving the responsibility of campus departments to review employees, including for potential Clery Act violations, to an independent body in order to prevent the opportunity for a supervisor to look the other way when encountering indiscretions.
“It’s a problem and a problem that persists today despite the bad press and problems,” he said.
Teaching how to think, not what to think
Both O’Keefe and Schuitmaker said students should also feel safe to express their thoughts and opinions.
O’Keefe said conservative voices have been suppressed on college campuses across the country, including at MSU. Students, primarily conservative students in James Madison College, have spoken with him, he said, reporting that they have mostly progressive professors who mold their syllabuses around only progressive scholars and not conservative scholars such as John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher.
He’s started working with conservative students on campus.
After word spread that James Madison College officials were considering dropping the former president’s name because he was a slave owner, O’Keefe read an op-ed by Charlie Jones, an MSU student who encouraged officials to keep the name.
Jones pointed out that at the Constitutional Convention, Madison argued that the slave trade was “dishonorable to the National character.” O’Keefe is now helping Jones raise money to start a group for conservative students on campus that would look to promote discussions on conservatism and liberalism and bring conservative voices to campus.
“Universities are areas where there should be free expression of thought,” said Schuitmaker, an attorney and former state senator from Lawton who also led the senate higher education committee for appropriations.
She said her daughter, an MSU graduate from James Madison College, told her she felt she had to write a paper “from a certain viewpoint” in order to receive a good grade.
“You should be teaching how to think, not what to think.”
Tonya Schuitmaker (Photo: Tonya Schuitmaker)
The MSU Board of Trustees is still dealing with the fallout from the Nassar scandal.
Mosallam said MSU needs to “bring those Spartans back to the university that they love,” including about 30,000 lost donors.
Both Republican candidates suggested Mosallam isn’t the man for the job.
Former MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned as president on Jan. 24, 2018, but stayed on as a tenured professor in the College of Education. She resigned that position effective Aug. 31. It came as she faced charges of lying to investigators about her knowledge of a 2014 complaint against Nassar.
“I’m a firm believer in not rewarding bad behavior,” O’Keefe said. “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
Reclaim MSU, an activist group comprised of students, faculty, staff and alumni in February started an online petition calling for the Democratic party not to renominate legacy trustees Mosallam and Joel Ferguson, arguing that the representatives failed the campus by hiring Engler and refusing to release the documents sought by the Attorney General.
Reclaim MSU’s stance hasn’t changed.
“If we keep allowing for individuals to stay in positions of power … the policies are only as good as the people who are going to carry them,” said Colin Wiebrecht, an MSU alumnus and member of Reclaim MSU.
Mosallam defended his record on the board, pointing to a town hall he hosted for the community and survivors in February of 2018 while “everyone else ran” and his advocating for the firing of former interim President John Engler in light of his hostile relationship with Nassar survivors.
“I stayed true to myself,” he said. “I stuck to everything I believed in and stayed true to myself.”
And some Nassar survivors and the Parents of Sister Survivors Engage group gave Mosallam their endorsement. The group also endorsed Vassar.
“We think it’s important to have somebody on the board who we’ve seen first-hand who advocates for survivors, who realizes the mistakes that have been made and wants to do something about it,” said Valerie Von Frank, founder of Parents of Sister Survivors Engage and the mother of a survivor. “He’s been through it with the survivors and families.
“His experience and the recognition of the gross mistakes made is valuable going forward.”
The only way to rebuild trust in MSU is by building relationships, Vassar said.
She spoke with people at listening sessions who had never met an MSU trustee candidate, let alone a sitting trustee. Vassar wants to change that. She wants to be a trustee who talks with people about issues and learns about their needs by email or over a coffee at Starbucks.
“That’s what effective leaders do,” she said. “They listen, learn and then lead.”
Contact Mark Johnson at 517-377-1026 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.
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