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MSU board asks Whitmer to weigh removal of Dennis Denno, Rema Vassar

Michigan state university entrance
(Focused Adventures /
  • MSU board members vote to refer two board members to the governor for possible removal from the board
  • The Sunday late night meeting follows a report that found two trustees exceeded their authority, violated ethics rules
  • New MSU president starts Monday

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will now decide whether to remove two Michigan State University trustees accused of participating in smear campaigns against the outgoing president and chair of the Faculty Senate.

Meeting late Sunday night, the MSU Board of Trustees voted 6-2 to strip Dennis Denno and Rema Vassar of board assignments and liaison positions and refer misconduct allegations to the governor for possible removal.

Vassar announced her resignation as chair hours before the meeting that started about 10:22 p.m. and ended after about 20 minutes.

Related: Report: Whitmer should consider removing two Michigan State trustees

The pair were the only dissenting votes. Denno denied wrongdoing, while Vassar said she was being held to a different standard. 

“I am fully human and I make mistakes, I lead with integrity, transparency and with transformative change at the center of my decisions,” said Vassar, who became MSU’s first African-American female chair in 2023 and intends to remain on the board. 

She later added that colleagues “invited me to the dance, and you told me you hate my outfit, my music and my style.”

The late-night drama came just hours before Kevin Guskiewicz is set Monday to become the fifth MSU president since Lou Anna Simon resigned in January 2018.

Whitmer, who like Denno and Vassar is a Democrat, has not publicly commented since  MSU on Wednesday released a 66-page report about board dysfunction from Washington, D.C. law firm Miller & Chevalier.

State law allows for the governor to remove board members, who are elected to partisan positions.

Michigan State Trustee Dennis Denno (Courtesy)

Prompted by a complaint by fellow Trustee Brianna Scott, the report found Vassar and Denno “engaged in conduct that exceeds the scope of their authority” and “created a fear of retaliation amongst administrators and other MSU personnel.” 

Among other things, the report found they provided students “confidential and inaccurate information” as part of an effort to “embarrass and unsettle” then-Interim President Teresa Woodruff, encouraged a “a campaign of personal attacks” against Jack Lipton, the Faculty Senate chair, and behaved inappropriately following last year’s mass shooting on campus. 

Michigan State Trustee Rema Vassar (Courtesy)

The report also found Vassar violated ethics policies by accepting a private jet and courtside tickets from a donor. 

“Without clear bright lines, we are subjected to bias that hold some accountable to ambiguous policies, unduly punishes trustees for inconsistent bylaws and excoriates some for uncommunicated expectations,” Vassar said before the board vote. 

With Vassar’s resignation, Dan Kelly, the lone Republican on the board, is now chair and Kelly Tebay will be the vice chair. 

The report also faulted Scott for violating ethics policies by sharing the letter with privileged information inside. The firm recommended the board censure Scott. Board members approved a resolution to do so on Sunday night. 

Vassar was the lone dissent. 

“I don't know what type of precedent we’re setting where someone who does step forward to showcase dysfunction and some improprieties has to be censured,” said Scott, who nonetheless voted for her own censure.

“It's hurtful to me that my legacy will be that I was censured as a trustee for doing what I felt had to be done under the circumstances.” 

Denno, meanwhile, released a statement earlier Sunday that disagreed with the report’s findings and claimed he ran afoul of the board for asking questions to ensure tax dollars and tuition funds are well-spent. 

I refute most of the allegations," he said, adding, "when I asked questions in a nine-page document about possible ethical and other violations by three other trustees, (the law firm) ignored it.

“By not reviewing all allegations against all trustees, the objective was not to investigate board misconduct, their objective was to target Dr. Rema, and they were paid handsomely by taxpayer money and tuition dollars.”

Denno said he and Vassar fought for the university to release documents related to former  Larry Nassar, a former MSU doctor convicted of multiple sexual abuse crimes against children.

The university previously held for years it would not release thousands of documents related to the scandal to the state attorney general.  But in December, board members unanimously voted to authorize the transfer of these documents. The university announced Friday it had begun that process and aimed to have the transfer complete by the end of March.

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