Michigan State University president Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. is reportedly facing pressure from a faction of the Board of Trustees to step down, a move the chairwoman has called a rogue effort by certain members. Now Dr. Stanley faces an uncertain future at the institution he has led since 2019.
The call for his resignation comes amid a dispute over the resignation of Sanjay Gupta, longtime dean of MSU’s Broad School of Business, who stepped down last month in the face of concerns over his leadership and alleged failures to report incidents of sexual misconduct on his watch.
Dr. Stanley was previously president of Stony Brook University before joining MSU. He ascended to the MSU presidency in 2019, following a series of controversies related to sweeping institutional failures on Title IX issues that toppled former president Lou Anna K. Simon in 2018 and interim president John Engler in 2019. Both Simon and Engler were accused of mishandling aspects of the sexual abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State sports doctor convicted of sexual assault. (Acting president Satish Udpa served as a bridge between Engler and Dr. Stanley.)
If Dr. Stanley is fired or steps down, Michigan State will soon be looking for its fifth president, counting Udpa, in only four years.
Michigan news outlets broke the story Sunday, reporting that Dr. Stanley was facing pressure from the Board of Trustees to resign by today, according to anonymous sources. If Dr. Stanley refuses, the board is reportedly poised to fire him, potentially calling a special meeting to do so.
Administrators remain tight-lipped on the subject, though university officials dispute the deadline.
MSU deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen offered little insight into the current state of affairs, stating that trustees and Dr. Stanley “are in discussion about his contract” with no set deadline on the talks. Olsen said reports that Dr. Stanley faced a Tuesday deadline to resign are “factually inaccurate.”
MSU Board of Trustees chair Dianne Byrum made it clear in a statement Monday that the governing body was not unified on calls for the president’s resignation. She also called out fellow members, stating that “these actions do not represent how the board of an institution of higher education should act.”
Byrum referred to her fellow trustees’ calls for Dr. Stanley’s resignation as “misguided” and pointed to various wins under his leadership, including a record freshman class this year, improvement in college rankings and financial stability in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. She also stated that, under Dr. Stanley’s leadership, Michigan State has “taken great strides to address relationship violence and sexual misconduct and to improve the culture on campus.”
Given the progress at Michigan State, Byrum said she takes “strong exception to the conduct by several MSU Board of Trustees who have sought to undermine and second guess President Stanley under the mistaken belief they are somehow better qualified to run the university. They clearly are not, as evidenced by the outpouring of concern, bewilderment and outrage their recent actions have generated. It is my belief these board members should apologize, reverse course and refocus on their proper role as Trustees of this amazing institution. President Stanley should be allowed to complete his service to MSU without [undue] interference by the Board.”
Byrum did not specify which of the other trustees were seeking Dr. Stanley’s resignation.
Daniel J. Kelly, vice chair of the Board of Trustees, noted in a statement Monday that he and Byrum met briefly with Dr. Stanley on Friday.
“Contrary to recent media reports, at no time was the President threatened with termination or given an ultimatum regarding his employment. The Board has made no decision regarding any change in President Stanley’s employment status nor his employment contract,” Kelly said.
As news of the call for Dr. Stanley’s resignation broke, faculty members pushed back, releasing a statement calling for trustees to communicate with leadership in the professorial ranks before reaching a decision.
“We are gravely concerned about the trustees’ reported intention to oust President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. Despite the institutional trauma Michigan State University has endured in recent years, the Board of Trustees is apparently debating—behind closed doors—forcing out a third president in less than four years. They should know better,” read a statement from Karen Kelly-Blake and Stephanie Anthony, the chair and vice chair of the Faculty Senate and the Steering Committee, respectively. “Extraordinary actions require extraordinary justifications. Given our special role in achieving the mission of our university, MSU faculty deserve and demand the transparency the Board of Trustees claims to value.”
Kelly-Blake and Anthony went on to write that Dr. Stanley received high marks in a recent review from the Board of Trustees.
“Less than a year ago, Board Chairperson Dianne Byrum announced the results of President Stanley’s performance review, saying that the trustees were ‘grateful to have Sam Stanley leading this institution’ and deeming his conduct worthy of a nearly $1 million salary. If the trustees’ view of the president has shifted so drastically since, we should know why,” they said.
The Revolving Door
The presidency at MSU has been a revolving door since 2018, when Simon left in disgrace for mishandling the Nassar case and allegedly lying to investigators. Simon earned a $2.4 million payout upon her departure and narrowly avoided criminal charges related to the Nassar case.
Engler, a former Republican governor, stepped into the role following Simon’s departure but quickly fell to his own scandal, resigning in the aftermath of controversial comments about Nassar’s victims enjoying “the spotlight,” even as trustees prepared to fire him.
Pushing Dr. Stanley out would lead to yet another presidential search. Such actions, experts suggest, would undermine the continuity of leadership, erode faith in the administration and complicate the next presidential search.
High presidential turnover “poses a number of problems for institutions,” said Terry MacTaggart, a senior consultant and senior fellow at AGB Consulting, an arm of America’s Governing Boards.
MacTaggart said there are typically three factors that push presidents out. First is friction with the board, which is often a result of board turnover that can lead to an expectations gap between new members and the president. The second is performance issues, whether that’s falling short in terms of metrics or in personal behavior. Finally, there’s what MacTaggart calls the “new politics of trusteeship,” a nod to political polarization that is common in many governing bodies.
While Michigan State—whose trustees are elected and serve eight-year terms—has seen new board members since Dr. Stanley was hired, it’s unclear where the point of friction emerged, though many news outlets have highlighted the rift over Gupta’s resignation. Some of the same board members who gave Dr. Stanley high marks last fall now seemingly want him to step down.
In the meantime, contract talks are ongoing as speculation regarding Dr. Stanley’s future swirls both inside and outside Michigan State.
The Association of American Universities president condemned efforts to remove Dr. Stanley. In an emailed statement, Barbara Snyder wrote, “As president of AAU, which represents Michigan State University and our country’s other leading research universities, I am appalled at reports of interference in MSU’s day-to-day operations by the university’s trustees, who are elected officials. If the reports are accurate, then this is inappropriate meddling by a board charged with governance, not management.”
Snyder noted that multiple universities have lost leaders in recent years due to “rocky waters between the interests of state officials and their academic missions.” She also charged the board with zooming in on its mission and backing off an overly hands-on approach.
“Governing boards of universities and the professionals those boards hire to lead those institutions must work together to advance their core missions: educating students to be citizens, workers, innovators, scientists, artists, and public servants and enriching the cultural lives and the economies of the towns and states where they are located,” Snyder said. “Micromanagement and partisan politics have no place on a healthy university board.”