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MSU needs a president who can restore trust

Michigan State University sign
Michigan State University

In recent days, I’ve heard people affiliated with various other universities say how glad they are not to be at Michigan State. Parents whose children go to MSU are worried. Not about sexual molestation, but about the school’s reputation.

For years, MSU graduates were sometimes asked if it was a “party school.” Now, the mother of one freshman I know worries what people will think about her daughter when they know she has a Michigan State degree.

But what everyone needs to realize is that what happened hurts everyone, and that we all have a huge interest in getting MSU beyond its present paralysis.

This is not merely an abuse or an athletic scandal but one that has revealed a university whose leadership was and is totally dysfunctional. And there is little time to lose.

Three days ago, the now discredited MSU Board of Trustees named their secretary, Bill Beekman, interim president. That may speak volumes about the breadth of their vision, but also makes a kind of sense, as long it’s understood the duration of his presidency should be something like 10 days.

Michigan State cannot now be led by anyone already there.

Nor can they appoint a traditional academic to lead the school. Conversations over the weekend have persuaded me that the best candidate may be Mark Murray, the president of the Meijer chain who was also a well-regarded president of Grand Valley State for five years.

There's a lot of baggage at Michigan State University. The last thing MSU needs is a political appointee with heavy baggage of their own.

Though former governors Jim Blanchard and John Engler have both been mentioned, they are widely seen as too political and controversial. There’s a lot of baggage at Michigan State University. The last thing MSU needs is a political appointee with heavy baggage of their own.

Murray is seen as a Republican, but one whom Democrats respect. Whoever does take over the presidency will have to be utterly ruthless and have the power to be, and have the backbone and the clout to make decisions that will make people unhappy.

There is also a huge problem that I don’t have a solution for: What to do about the eight members of the governing board of trustees? They have all been thoroughly discredited, thanks to their performance, or rather lack of it, during the Nassar scandal. They are guilty of cluelessness at best, if not of being complicit in a clumsy cover-up.

When Joel Ferguson took to the airwaves during the scandal, it was perfectly clear that the only thing he was interested in was protecting the athletic department. If they had a sense of honor, every one of them would resign. Yet while they should be gone, I’m not sure I agree with calls for Governor Snyder to remove them. He probably does have that power, and both Governors Blanchard and Engler forced out university board members who had clear conflicts of interest.

But Michigan’s largest universities have an independent constitutional status, and we should be careful about making it easy for governors to remove trustees.

Michigan State needs a leader who can make hard choices and, just as importantly, begin to restore confidence and trust in one of Michigan’s most important institutions; someone who is a combination of Winston Churchill and Mike Duggan.

Nobody expects it to be easy.

But we are finally at a point where everyone knows it needs to be done.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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