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Michigan State University, two former governors, and one big mess

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Back in the late 1850s, a handful of farm boys were taken to the woods outside Lansing and told to cut down some trees and build themselves classrooms and a dorm.

That was the beginning of what became Michigan State University. Last month may have been the worst in that school’s long history.

Suddenly, the nation was riveted by more than a hundred women who had been cruelly molested by an MSU doctor, and were on camera telling how the school had failed to protect them. The University president appeared cold and unfeeling, and the board of trustees looked pathetically out of touch. After Lou Anna Simon finally resigned, a new interim president was needed, fast.

I’ve known former Governor James Blanchard since he was a congressman 40 years ago. I knew part of him wanted the job, even though he loves his life in Washington, where he is a partner in a prestigious law firm and just became chair of the National Archives Foundation.

But the night before the selection was announced, he told me it wasn’t going to be him, that the trustees were turning to his old nemesis John Engler. The next morning, however, I heard the Detroit Free Press and other media say that both men had been hired to run the university, that Blanchard would have an official role as senior advisor for government affairs.

That morning I reached him in an airport. “When did things change?” I asked him.

Governor Blanchard said the equivalent of “Huh?” He didn’t know what I was talking about. Later, he called back and said at least one trustee had been talking to the press and had invented a title for him, to convey the impression of bipartisan leadership.

It’s clear why they might have wanted to convey that impression.

The Free Press quoted one parent of an MSU freshman as saying how much he liked that both former governors were running the school. But it wasn’t true.

“What I told them is that I’d help them if I could,” Blanchard said. He doesn’t have a title, an office, or a salary. Nevertheless, the press has continued to refer to him as a special advisor. “People are still congratulating me on being picked to help run MSU,” he told me yesterday, laughing. “I don’t correct them anymore, I just say ‘thank you.’”

But things changed when it was announced last week that Blanchard’s law firm DLA Piper has been hired to represent MSU on various federal inquiries into the Nassar scandal.

Suddenly, some said this was a conflict of interest, since the former governor was seemingly now part of the administration. Which is why, Blanchard said, he wants it understood that he isn’t.

“Look, I love MSU. I am a loyal and very proud alum. We need to clean this up and establish a gold standard for accountability. But I’m not on the payroll.”

Nor, he said, is he personally profiting from MSU’s business. “I’m directing a team of lawyers, but my salary is exactly the same,” he said.

I believe him. But what I think Michigan State most needs is for interim president Engler to clean up the mess and also set a timetable – soon – to pick a permanent university president.

Hopefully, one who understands the full dimensions of the job.

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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