Campus support for Michigan State University’s embattled president has swelled over the past 10 days, including nearly 100 prominent faculty members who signaled their “wholehearted support” for Samuel L. Stanley Jr. in a public letter this week.
The faculty letter responded to an apparent attempt by several Michigan State trustees to oust Stanley, who has been president since 2019. Other faculty and student groups have also demanded transparency from the board after the Detroit Free Press, citing an anonymous source, reported that the trustees had delivered an ultimatum to Stanley: resign within a few days or be fired.
“The anonymous attempt to undermine the sitting president is just despicable,” said Raymond L. Brock, a professor of physics and a co-author of the faculty letter, along with two other professors, Felicia Wu and Victor DiRita. “The excuses appeared to be pretty flimsy and contrived, and the reputation hit we’re going to get is going to discourage faculty from coming to MSU.”
Brock described the letter as “a spontaneous and heartfelt effort to try and set the record straight about this.” He added: “We wanted to be sure Stanley knew he had our support.”
The professors’ statement highlights a longstanding division between the campus community and Michigan State board members, who are elected by statewide vote. Kristen A. Renn, a professor of higher education who signed the letter, said the board’s recent actions had hurt the university’s efforts to distance itself from past events — in particular, the scandal caused by Larry Nassar, a former university sports doctor who, for years, sexually abused girls and women under the guise of medical treatment. That was a time when “the board did not behave well either,” Renn said.
“This behavior by the board really created a massive distraction from campus life and the very serious nature of our continued progress in the areas around issues of sexual assault and harassment,” Renn said.
The status of Stanley’s job remains unclear. Shortly after the Detroit Free Press article was published, on September 11, university officials told reporters that no ultimatum had been issued. But the officials confirmed that board members were discussing Stanley’s contract, which doesn’t expire for two years.
On Wednesday, in response to questions about the president’s status and the board’s actions, a Michigan State spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Chronicle that “the president and the Board of Trustees continue to discuss the best path forward for the university.”
“Many faculty, students, and alumni have been reaching out to both the president and board office to express their views on this situation,” the statement continued. “We appreciate that so many groups and individuals care greatly about MSU and ensuring we can be, and are, the best institution that we can be.”
In their letter this week, Michigan State faculty members expressed concern that reputational damage had already been done to the university.
“Dragging the president through a public discussion of negotiations about his contract or his future, by leaks to the media and public disagreements among the board, causes community confusion and damages the reputation of our great institution,” the letter says.
Michigan State’s Faculty Senate spoke out about the saga last week in similar terms, as did the Coalition of Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the university’s student government, according to The State News, the student newspaper.
Title IX has emerged as a key issue in the debate over Stanley’s future. After failing to report allegations of sexual harassment by a subordinate, Sanjay Gupta, the dean of the Eli Broad College of Business, abruptly resigned in August — a decision that Stanley supported. University officials have said that Gupta’s resignation was “the result of poor administrative oversight, including a failure to adhere to our mandatory reporting guidelines,” as previously reported by The Chronicle.
Gupta said in a statement to The Chronicle that he welcomed an investigation into the events that led to his resignation.
“I am confident the results will reflect the high ethical standards and integrity of the leadership of the Broad College of Business,” he wrote.
Several board members, though, have expressed concern with how Stanley handled sexual-misconduct reports and whether he complied with state law on certifying them, according to the Detroit Free Press, which also reported that the board had hired an outside law firm to investigate.
Last month a news release from Dan Kelly, vice chair of the board, said the trustees had “retained outside counsel to review the administration’s decision” in the matter of Gupta’s resignation.
Stanley’s term is slated to run through July 31, 2024. If Stanley were to resign or be fired, he would be the third university leader to leave the job within the past five years.
“We were on our way to getting better,” Renn said, “and this self-induced media circus is a big distraction from the good work people are doing on campus.”