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Vassar says she will not resign from Michigan State University board if violation is found

 MSU Board of Trustees Chair Reema Vassar shared her daughter sheltered in place for three hours in a bathroom while police investigated the shooting Monday.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
MSU Board of Trustees Chair Reema Vassar shared her daughter sheltered in place for three hours in a bathroom while police investigated the shooting Monday.

Michigan State University is currently conducting an inquiry into its Board of Trustees in response to allegations of misconduct. Brianna Scott, a trustee at MSU, has accused Chair Rema Vassar, of breaching the Board's code of ethics and conduct. In a letter sent to their fellow trustees last week, Scott detailed multiple instances of what she claims are the chair's bullying behavior and mismanagement.

Vassar, on the other hand, denies these allegations, categorizing them as "fabrications, misstatements, innuendo, and untruths." The turmoil has led both Scott and fellow MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum to call for Vassar's resignation. Joining them in this call on Tuesday was U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

“Vassar has clearly lost the trust of students, faculty alumni and many of the MSU board members," Stabenow said in a statement.

WKAR’s Michelle Jokisch Polo spoke with MSU Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar to discuss the allegations made against her.

Interview Highlights

On whether Vassar would step down if she's found to have been in violation of the Board's ethics code of conduct

On the accusation she leaked information on former MSU football's coach Mel Tucker's sexual harassment investigation

On the release of the Larry Nassar documents to Michigan's Attorney General

On the release of the Quinn Emmanuel Report

On accusations of bullying MSU interim president Teresa Woodruff

Interview Transcript

Michelle Jokisch Polo: What was your first reaction to hearing these allegations?

Rema Vassar: I was shocked. Floored. I got media requests right away. And then I saw the email that they were referring to. I was surprised and taken off guard.

I immediately was hurt, right? That someone that I considered a friend, someone who's a sorority sister, we're both a part of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. She's my sister. That she would do something like this was hurtful.

I regret that she felt that she had to do something like this. Hurt people hurt people. And so, if she's personally aggrieved by me, I would like an opportunity to make amends. I just wasn't prepared for this.

I then was pretty disheartened with the politics. I'm an educator, so I'm not used to these kinds of political maneuverings. But this is kind of vitriolic and caustic. It's not healthy. It's not what leadership looks like.

This is a, to me, a challenge in in that leadership needs to be transformative. It needs to be positive. We have eight people on a board. You don't cause decisions and factions, like we're on the House floor. You build consensus. You build agreement. You build a community, it's only eight people. So, this brand of old school, ruthless, to me, caustic politics is antiquated. And it's not going to serve MSU as we try to move forward from all the things that we have to do, from all the things that we've experienced, and get done all that we need to do.

Jokisch Polo: As MSU has investigated former football coach Mel Tucker on sexual harassment, you've been accused of not allowing a forensic review of your cell phone. Is that true?

Vassar: No, that's not true. I'm the person who has cooperated the most with this investigation. If you look at my track record, I'm committed to accountability and to transparency.

I've released reports, Title IX investigation reports. I've also tried to release the Larry Nassar documents to the AG’s Office.

I welcome any opportunity to be transparent. The Board decided that as a board, they would, we would release our phones or not as a board. And so, that decision hasn't been made. I've not withheld anything.

Jokisch Polo: You've also been accused of leaking Tucker's Title IX investigation to members of the press. Is that true?

Vassar: No. I have never leaked anything related to Title IX. And I don't think any trustee would. This board has been committed to improving Title IX policies and procedures. We've had very contentious relationships with administration in the past around Title IX mishandlings.

With what has happened at MSU and in honoring our survivor community, we really do have to get Title IX right. And so that office has undergone a lot of change. We've undergone training and we've committed to different practices as well as a board to make sure that we're honoring that particular process.

In the OIE [Office of Institutional Equity] investigation, we'd never even know about investigations. That's not something that the Board is privy to. We wouldn't know Brenda Tracy's name to leak it. I certainly did not know her name until the USA Today article was printed early in the morning on a Sunday.

Jokisch Polo: A review of MSU’s handling of the February 13 mass shooting has said the Board of Trustees overstepped the role during the incident. You've been accused of attempting to revise that finding. What were you concerned about on the report?

Vassar: Yeah, that's a lie. So, I mean, it's hard for me to say it in another way. That's like a wholesale lie. There was a trustee who did have many issues with the report. And as I'm told by him, those were not addressed in the edits, right? So, they gave us the report ahead of time, just as any outside investigator generally does. And you know, you have an opportunity to raise questions. And that trustee did, he raised a lot of questions, which actually were valid.

One of the questions was, if you have a critique of the Board, why didn't you interview the four board members who showed up on February 14 bright and early to be of service, right? Why didn't you talk with them just to see what their experiences were? And I think that was a valid question. Methodologically, that should have happened. It never did, though.

But what they did do was add, with their critique of the Board, because I don't think they changed it. With their critique of the board, they added what NIMS [National Incident Management System] their framework would recommend as the role for the Board. And if you're going to offer a critique, you should offer recommendation, or some kind of protocol.

So, I don't think that his concerns were invalid. I think they were right on. And I think what they added to the report, I don't think they took anything away. What they added would be instructive for the Board and for the administration.

Jokisch Polo: You've also been accused of making unilateral decisions on behalf of the Board. First with the release of the documents related to the Larry Nassar investigation, and then with the release of the Quinn Emanuel report which looked at MSU’s Title IX policies and procedures.

Vassar: Both [of] those are completely false. The Quinn Emanuel report, if you go back to the Board meeting in February, we voted to release the report. How can I make a unilateral decision on what we voted as a Board to do during the meeting? So, it’s baseless, there's no merit.

When there was an appetite, seemingly an appetite to release the Larry Nasser documents, when they reached out to me, I said just that. I think there is an appetite for the Board to be transparent and release those documents, which I'm told have been released in different ways already. And I'm also told there's no smoking gun. So, I'm not sure why folks are hesitant, but there are about two people who don't want to release those documents. But I didn’t act unilaterally, and we didn't release them.

Jokisch Polo: If an investigation does show you violated the Board's code of conduct and ethics, will you step down?

Vassar: No. And I think that's a really important question. There have been several examples of folks who have engaged in really unlawful behavior that have not been asked to resign from any board. That we're in this moment with, what seems to me, a very coordinated, intentional effort to malign my character. I have to know that there's something bigger at play. I'm confused as to why all of these things are happening. But I'm also pretty confident that this is not personal. There's a bigger, larger agenda. So no, I'm steadfast in doing my work in I will continue to finish my term.

Jokisch Polo: You've been accused of bullying interim President Teresa Woodruff. How would you characterize your relationship with her?

Vassar: Well, until the allegations, I didn't have a question about whether or not we were collegial and mutually respectful. And I would characterize us as having a professional, pleasant relationship. I haven't read her statement. I did read the allegations. I'm not sure if those are Trustee Scott's allegations or hers.

Jokisch Polo: MSU Trustees Scott and Byrum have called for your resignation. Do you think you can continue to work with them?

Vassar: Well, Trustee Byrum will be gone in a year, so I don't think that I need to worry about that as much as mending a relationship with Trustee Scott. And again, Trustee Scott, it goes beyond working on the Board together, right? There is a friendship and a sisterhood that we're both beholden to that I'm committed to ensuring is righted.

Jokisch Polo: Rema Vassar is the chair for MSU’s Board of Trustees. Thanks for your time.

Vassar: Thank you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness

Copyright 2023 WKAR Public Media. To see more, visit WKAR Public Media.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.