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

Dr. Rema Vassar and Dennis Denno were heavily criticized by investigators looking into allegations of board misconduct
Posted at 8:40 PM, Mar 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-04 06:11:56-05

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — Two Michigan State University trustees suggested ways for student groups to attack the school’s interim president, repeatedly violated the school’s code of ethics and refused to share their cell phones with lawyers investigating the board’s conduct, according to a recently released report.

Dr. Rema Vassar, the embattled chairwoman of the board, submitted her resignation as board chair on Sunday evening, effective once a new chair in chosen. The resignation came two hours before a virtual meeting of the school's board of trustees on Sunday night.

Vassar resigns as MSU board chair; board votes to censure 3 members

On Sunday night, the board voted 6-2 to censure Vassar and Dennis Denno, and voted 7-1 to censure trustee Brianna Scott. The board is also urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to think about removing both Vassar and Denno from the board.

During the meeting Sunday, Vice Chair Dan Kelly also became the new chair, and Trustee Kelly Tebay became vice chair.

It follows the release of an independent probe into the board’s conduct.

The law firm Miller & Chevalier was hired last year after trustee Brianna Scott made allegations that Dr. Vassar bullied her colleagues on the board, in addition to the interim president, and regularly violated the school’s code of conduct.

The Miller & Chevalier report, released Thursday, described tactics employed by board members Vassar and Denno to handicap their critics, even suggesting ways for student groups to “terrify,” “publicly embarrass” or “crucify” interim president Teresa Woodruff.

In a meeting that was secretly recorded, according to the report, Vassar was heard instructing students to “flood the public comment” at an upcoming board meeting in an effort to intimidate the president.

Said Denno: “Embarrass [Woodruff] . . . tell her you’re working with [Black Student Alliance], whether you are or not . . . that will terrify her.”

During the meeting, according to the report, “students discussed a recently‐launched #NOTASPARTAN campaign, designed to draw attention to issues impacting specific students of color at MSU.”

Denno offered to pay for the students t-shirts but asked “to keep [his] name out of it,” the report said.

Interviewed by investigators, Vassar denied making the comments, presumably unaware that they had been recorded. Denno said he “could not recall” ever making them.

The report also noted that neither Vassar nor Denno agreed to share their cell phones with investigators, in stark contrast to the other 6 members of the board and the board secretary.

Among other things, the investigation was seeking to determine whether board members may have violated the school’s code of conduct. 

The report also criticized Vassar for accepting a private jet flight, along with court side basketball tickets for herself and her daughter, from an MSU donor who was actively seeking to do business with the school.

Vassar gave conflicting answers when questioned by investigators, the report said, telling the law firm that she was not planning to attend the basketball game at Madison Square Garden in March of 2023, but changed her mind when she learned she could travel to the game and return on the same day.

But flight records indicated that MSU’s travel agency had already booked seats for Vassar to attend the basketball game in New York City, suggesting that she had always intended to travel to the game.

Denno was also found by investigators to have instructed student groups how to criticize Dr. Jack Lipton, the president of the faculty senate.

In October 2023, Lipton called for Vassar’s resignation after Trustee Scott made public claims that Vassar regularly intimidated board members and the interim president.

After some groups pushed back on Lipton’s push for Vassar’s resignation, Lipton used the word “mob” when referring to students who vocally supported Vassar at the next trustees meeting.

In a recording made the following moth, Denno was heard telling students how to go after Lipton in public.

“The other thing you can do to help us [referring to himself and Chair Vassar], at least for me, is attack Jack Lipton, the Chair of the Faculty Senate. I mean this guy called you a mob... call him out, call him a racist,” the report said.

When questioned by investigators, Denno did not dispute making the comments.

Lipton later apologized for use of the word “mob,” but stood by his criticism of Vassar.

Saturday night, MSU announced plans for a 10 PM special meeting Sunday of the board of trustees, set to take place over Zoom, where Vassar and Denno’s conduct is expected to be discussed.

Neither Vassar nor Denno responded to text messages seeking comment from 7 Action News.