NewsLocal NewsInvestigations

MSU trustees 'exploited' minority student groups, Palestinian student says

Vassar and Denno
Posted at 9:01 PM, Mar 04, 2024

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — MSU trustees Rema Vassar and Dennis Denno “exploited” minority student groups on campus, according to a Palestinian student who met with both trustees, often directing them to antagonize or protest the school’s interim president.

“I realized that my involvement with Trustee Vassar and Denno has been kind of used in a way to harm others,” said Saba Saed, a fourth year MSU student who met both trustees last fall.

RELATED: Trustees urged attacks on MSU president, kept phones from investigators, report says

They met just after MSU’s board of trustees came under fire after trustee Brianna Scott released a letter in October saying Vassar bullied interim President Teresa Woodruff, overstepped her authority and violated the board’s ethics policies.

“After that meeting, Chair Vassar came up to me and talked to me and so did Trustee Denno, thanking me for what I did (as a student activist),” Saed recalled. “And that’s when we set up a meeting.”

Saed is Palestinian and says she thought meeting with Vassar and Denno would help bring attention to the struggles of Arab students.

She said she was hopeful but, before long, felt like the trustees were merely exploiting her and her fellow students.

“It was very transactional,” she said. “It was just fueling the anger that we had because of everything that was going on. And exploiting it for their own good.”

That assessment is supported by the findings of an independent investigation by a third-party law firm hired to investigate Trustee Scott’s claims against Vassar.

In meetings that Saed said she recorded, Chair Vassar was heard telling students to protest Interim President Teresa Woodruff: “There’s so many other groups that you
could partner with to crucify her,” she said.

Denno was heard telling students; “Embarrass (Woodruff)…tell her you’re working with (Black Student Alliance), whether you are or not…that will terrify her.”

At one point, the report says Denno discussed shirts that said #NOTASPARTAN that students could wear to meet with Woodruff. It says Denno offered to pay for the shirts, but asked the students "to keep (his) name out of it."

“You didn’t want your name on it because you didn’t want to know that you’re encouraging students to come to these meetings, shouting out they’re not a Spartan and calling out these individuals,” Saed said.

Ultimately, Saed told 7 Action News she felt used by Vassar and Denno, exploiting hers and other students’ causes to weaponize them against their enemies, and their university.

“It’s exploitation of our issues,” she said, adding later: “Don’t use the fact that the university has failed the Arab American Community as a way to say it has failed you, when you’ve failed us.”

Neither Vassar nor Denno responded to text messages seeking comment from 7 Action News. Both said yesterday that they disagree with some of the findings of the third-party investigation, with Denno saying he was targeted.

Both said they have consistently stood up for marginalized communities like Arab American and Black students.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.