Treatment of MSU’s Board Chair Dr. Rema Vassar Highlights Unfair Criticism of Black Leadership

The recent turmoil surrounding allegations against Dr. Rema Vassar, the Chair of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees, has ignited a pointed discussion about the treatment of Black women in leadership, and particularly within academic institutions. Vassar, who was elected in January 2023 as the first Black woman to hold the position of Board of Trustees Chair at MSU, represents a significant step forward in diversifying leadership roles within academic institutions.

But after just 10 months leading the board, a barrage of accusations, including ethical violations, bullying, and obstructing investigations, has been directed at Vassar, leading some trustees and even Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to call for her resignation.

Fellow MSU Trustee Brianna Scott, also a Black woman, penned a seven-page letter accusing Vassar of violating the board’s code of conduct on multiple fronts. The alleged infractions include interference with administration, acting against the fiduciary interests of the university, improper communication with the administration, bullying, and the release of privileged information without authorization. Scott further suggests that Vassar may have obstructed an investigation into the leak of Brenda Tracy’s name, the woman who accused former MSU football coach Mel Tucker of sexual harassment.

Historically, “interference” and “bullying” is coded language that gets hurled at assertive Black women in an effort to get them to shrink to their white counterparts. Without a thorough investigation into these allegations, it’s difficult to see these claims against Vassar in any way other than an attempt to minimize her authority.

In the face of these allegations, though, Vassar has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. Not only has she expressed her willingness to undergo a thorough review of her conduct, but she has also categorically stated that she is not aware of any policies she has violated. Vassar was accused of being uncooperative in the investigative process by refusing to turn over her cell phone for a forensics analysis, but she also denied those allegations and said that she did, in fact, turn over her phone at the same time other board members were instructed to do so.

After calls for her resignation in both Scott’s letter and a second time by Scott at a recent public board meeting, Vassar again refuted any knowledge of wrongdoing, and said she would not resign. Prior to the board meeting, Scott sought after other trustees to support a motion calling for Vassar’s resignation, but she couldn’t get the support of two additional members to formally put forth the motion to a board vote.

“I am looking for a review of my conduct because I am not aware of any policies I have violated. I won’t resign,” Vassar said during the meeting.

Calls for Vassar’s resignation have reverberated beyond the boardroom, with the Faculty Senate Chair and interim president Teresa K. Woodruff aligning herself with Scott’s stance. Even Gov. Whitmer, an alumna of MSU, expressed her concerns over the university’s lack of “clear unified leadership” and hinted at the possibility of using her power to remove Vassar. Sen. Debbie Stabenow joined the dogpile of criticisms against Vassar, also calling for her resignation in the days following Scott’s allegations.

“For the MSU community to move forward, we need new leadership we can all trust,” Stabenow said. “This means board members must comply with all parts of any investigations into the deeply disturbing incidents involving the university over the last few months. It’s time for new leadership and a new start for a great school – Michigan State University.”

But truthfully, Vassar has outperformed several of her predecessors in just 10 months leading a board that had been in a state of flux for years prior to her being called into the leadership role. Samuel Stanley Jr. quit as president a year ago because of what he considered to be meddling by trustees. Interim University President Woodruff said she has dropped out of consideration for the permanent job. Lou Anna Simon quit in 2018 in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, where hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by the athletic doctor.

She took over when the board had churned through several previous chairs in a matter of less than five years, and Vassar has been dedicated to righting the ship. Her colleagues believed that, too. Even Scott, who levied the allegations against Vassar, voted for Vassar to be the board chair and gave her a series of resounding compliments, saying at the time: “I have all confidence that Trustee Vassar is going to lead us extraordinarily into this next phase as we go into some very important decision-making with the new presidential search and other things coming up.”

Vassar’s election to lead the board was not a mistake. She has proven herself a leader for decades. Before her role as Chair, she had a distinguished career in education. As a Professor in the Administrative and Organizational Studies Department at Wayne State University’s College of Education, she has made substantial contributions to the field. Her research interests encompass crucial aspects of education, including parent-school partnerships, the intersection of race, gender, and class in schools, and the impact of policy and practice on student outcomes.

With over 20 years of experience in K-12 public education, Vassar’s expertise extends beyond academia. In 2023, Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed her to the MiSTEM Advisory Council, underlining her dedication to fostering transformative leadership skills in students and educators across the state.

So with Scott, the only other Black MSU Trustee, as the voice behind the allegations, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What were the true motives of the letter? Is there a larger angle at play? Why were Gov. Whitmer and Sen. Stabenow so quick to rush public comments (each commented on the allegations within days of the letter being sent to them) without there having been a full investigation into the allegations? Would they have commented so passionately and so quickly if the board chair was white? As of now, we’re left with more questions than answers, but we do know that this is yet another instance where Black leadership isn’t given the benefit of being presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Despite the allegations against her, Vassar remains unwavering in her commitment to the best interests of Michigan State University. As this situation unfolds, it is crucial to consider the historical significance of Vassar’s appointment, her substantial contributions to education in Michigan and beyond, and the potential consequences of baseless accusations on her leadership and the university’s future. The resolution of this controversy will undoubtedly shape the narrative surrounding diversity, accountability, and leadership.

Regardless of whether the allegations are true, it’s imperative to acknowledge the flaws that come along with the rush to judgment and condemnation from so many parties. And it’s equally important to demand more fair and equitable processes for lodging allegations against Black women in leadership positions. Due process shouldn’t just be a theory. Fair investigations are much more critical than the allowance of trial by the court of public opinion.

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