First Black Woman Elected as Chairperson of MSU Board of Trustees 

Rema Vassar, Ph.D., is the first Black woman elected to Chair Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees. 

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.  


Last month, Michigan State University’s board of trustees elected Rema Vassar, Ph.D., or “Dr. Rema,” to serve as board chair and Dan Kelly as vice chair at the board’s first meeting of 2023.   

“It’s been a hundred miles per hour,” said Vassar. “It’s been really good and I’m learning all sides of the university that I hadn’t known prior, but I’m also meeting the coolest Spartans ever from D.C. to Lansing. I’ve met some really awesome and inspiring people. Since I’ve been board chair, the best part is to meet good people in different stages, which has been inspiring and encouraging, but informative.”  

Vassar’s election marks the first time in MSU history that a Black woman will serve as chairperson of the Board of Trustees.  

“We’ve had women of color and two Black women as trustees, but it still shows that we just have a long way to go and a lot of hard work. I mean, for me to be to be the first Black woman chair in 2023 speaks volumes to our progress but then also the length of our struggle. I’m encouraged and also determined that I’m the first means there should be many more after me.” 

During her tenure, Vassar is focused on building a model of transformative leadership by addressing policy changes to ensure the safety of individuals on campus given the aftermath of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.  

“It’s no secret that we’ve had some issues that continue to dog us. Getting Title IX right is a problem and a problem that I need to solve.  We can’t afford to be on the wrong side of history in terms of Title IX issues and we certainly can’t afford to have safety jeopardized for Spartans really globally, but particularly on campus. We don’t have the Title IX office running efficiently and effectively and protocols around Title IX. I think this is the number one priority, along with that is trust. We’ve had some issues on the board around trust and transparency and it’s not just the board.” 

Title IX is a  federal civil rights law that was part of the 1972 Education Amendment that prohibits discrimination of individuals on the basis of sex (including pregnancy) sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Vassar has attended listening sessions with students to understand their needs and concerns to help build trust and transparency between students and the administration.   

“Most students reported that they feel safe and they can walk on campus and not feel like they may be accosted, with the exception of a few groups,” said Vassar. 

“A big safety issue is around LGBTQIA folks have not felt welcomed on campus and that their bodies are safe and they can walk and not be harassed or even attacked. And we know going back to Title IX that that office has a different, disparate approach to students of color. They report that they are not believed. At different rates, Black and Latinx folks especially, and also trans youth are not believed when they’ve been assaulted on campus or even feeling safe to report it.  So, my heart is for all those who are minoritized in all educational spaces.”  

Vassar grew up in the small, rural community of Sturgis, Mich., before moving to Kalamazoo where she graduated high school. She earned a Ph.D. in urban education from UCLA and is presently a professor in the department of administrative and organizational studies in the college of education at Wayne State University. 

Her research interests include parent-school partnerships, race, gender and class implications in schools, the effects of policy and practice on student achievement and outcomes and equity, justice, access and inclusion for underrepresented communities. She is the author of numerous scholarly journal articles.  

Along with her work in higher education, Vassar has over 20 years of experience working in public K–12 schools as a teacher, counselor and principal. Vassar was selected by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the MiSTEM Advisory Council this year for a three-year term. Through her connections, she upholds a consistent dedication to community involvement. 

Through her collaborations with school districts all around the state to foster the development of students’ and educators’ transformational leadership abilities, she upholds a consistent dedication to community service. In Detroit, where she lives with her husband and kids, Dr. Rema is especially dedicated to the development of leadership. In 2020, she was honored as one of Michigan Chronicle’s Women of Excellence.  

“The day I was elected, history was made,” said Vassar. “I’m glad at Michigan State University there were trustees who were on the right side of history. I think that’s important. That day, the earrings I had on were Shirley Chisholm and she’s the first African American to run for president. I wore those earrings not knowing I would win quite frankly. But I always think about what she says, ‘Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this Earth.’ And that’s how I see myself — a servant leader.” 


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