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Remove the trustees. Now.

Feb 2, 2018

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

To the best of my knowledge, the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, has never before bothered to notice Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees.

But in a stunning editorial Wednesday, the Times called on Governor Rick Snyder to remove the disgraced eight MSU trustees who did nothing to exercise oversight or protect one of the nation’s major universities from perhaps the worst scandal in higher education history.

The Times said the “university trustees, who are elected to staggered eight-year terms, have no credibility to help the university regain trust.”

The editorial added that while the two whose terms are up this year have prudently decided not to run again, “all of them should leave.”

That’s exactly right. There are times when a sense of shame is appropriate, and taking responsibility for one’s actions is always essential. I had worried as to whether we wanted to set a precedent for a governor arbitrarily removing members of an elected board.

But these are anything but ordinary circumstances. The New York Times, by the way, knows something about that.

Fifteen years ago, it was shaken by a scandal that threatened the paper’s credibility, when arrogant and unresponsive leadership failed to do anything to stop a reporter who made things up and committed dozens of acts of plagiarism. The family that owns The Times then intervened and fired both the executive editor and managing editor.

What’s happened at Michigan State is inexcusably terrible. This huge institution has been run as though it were a small college in some backwards state in the 1950s. MSU elevated to its presidency in 2004 a woman who was essentially an administrative bureaucrat who had never been anywhere else or had any other experience since she came there as a student nearly half a century ago.

They listened to her assurances as the Nassar scandal grew and metastasized, and showed no desire to authorize an independent investigation. After all, they were still getting their football tickets and other perks. Instead, famed former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was hired for what MSU wanted people to think was an investigation but was just a whitewash.

Earlier this week, Joel Ferguson, who earlier showed himself to be utterly insensitive and out of touch with reality, helped broker a deal where the Democrats on the evenly divided board agreed to make Republican John Engler, one of the state’s most partisan and polarizing figures, interim president. This was further proof the board doesn’t have a clue. The governor should remove them, and then appoint a blue-ribbon panel of eight respected leaders from various walks of life to serve as interim trustees and restore Michigan State’s credibility.

When Penn State had its horrific sex abuse scandal, it commissioned Louis Freeh, the former FBI director, to conduct a massive independent inquiry. That, as the New York Times noted, is exactly what’s needed here.

We have no idea how much damage this scandal has done to MSU, but we should all realize how essential it is that we fix it. Last year I told the very bright son of some friends that I thought he should go to Michigan State’s James Madison College.

I wouldn’t tell him that today, nor would thousands of other adults. That’s what Michigan State University needs to fix most of all

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.