Poor governance to blame at MSU

 Mike Sarafa

Mike Sarafa

Two are older than 80 years. One of them coached the 1988 Michigan State Rose Bowl Championship football team.  I was in Pasadena that year as a 21 year old. The other octogenarian has served in this capacity for over 30 years. Two others are former MSU football players. One of them played professional football. Another is a lobbyist; another a former legislator.

None of these people’s career paths necessarily would prepare them to be good university trustees. But there they are—introducing the Michigan State University Board of Trustees. Apparently, being a fiduciary of the state’s largest university is not that important of a job. It seems to be more of a perch to keep one’s retirement years interesting, enjoy Big 10 sports perks such as travelling with the team and a tool of political patronage.

Shame.

Board work, when done correctly, is serious business and can be difficult and time consuming. You have to read, you have to think critically, and you have to stay relevant and try to provide value. It, in fact, requires a specific skill set beyond being connected, wealthy, black, female or an ex-football player or coach. 

I have served on a dozen boards, for profit and not-for-profit. I have served with many qualified people and some not so much. I have served with people that never read a single set of board material items. I have served with people that stayed on board for more than two decades even though the continued value proposition of their service was questionable. 

These failings usually don’t matter much to organizations that have strong full-time leadership and at least a few qualified board members. In fact, poor boards are mostly without negative consequences, until they are. Then, it usually means trouble.

The primary responsibility of any board, including university trustees, is to hire the President or CEO. The MSU Trustees seemingly did a good job when they hired Lou Anna Simon as the University’s first woman President well over a decade ago. She had already served as provost for the previous decade and a professor before that. 

Simon worked at MSU for over 40 years. That is an indication of tremendous depth, knowledge, commitment and loyalty. Yet, the average tenure for university president’s nationwide is about six years. Very rarely do major universities hire the President from within. There’s a reason for this. Fresh eyes and ears, no established allegiances, independent thinking, etc.

So, Joel Ferguson and George Perles, the two 80-year-olds, worked with Lou Anna Simon for more than 30 years each. As a professor and provost, Simon most certainly would have enjoyed a strong relationship with Jack Breslin who held a number of senior positions at MSU. His son, Brian, is the current chair of the MSU Trustees.

Get the point?

Add the arcane process of selecting the nominees for Wayne State, MSU and U of M trustees through the political party convention process and we are, ultimately, inviting disaster--unless you’re lucky, which MSU was not. Nor were the victims of over two decades of abuse at the hands of one man.

With full confidence and clarity, I submit that the chief accomplice to these crimes was poor governance and weak oversight by the MSU Board of Trustees. 

That should not have been and should not be. This group must go. The situation does not warrant a second chance.

Michael Sarafa is Co-publisher of the Chaldean News.