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Political folks scratched their collective heads days before Christmas last year when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder tapped Nancy Schlichting to replace George Perles on the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.
As Lansing waited to see Snyder pick a Spartan from his inner circle — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley or his chief of staff, Dick Posthumus — to help steer MSU through the turbulent post-Larry Nassar times, the “One Tough Nerd” channeled his inner nerdiness.
He picked the former CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, someone with a wide swath of respect in the health care and business world. In the corporate world, Schlichting is a highly sought commodity — a razor-sharp, cutting-edge female executive in a highly male-dominated corporate world.
At the time of her appointment, she sat on the boards of seven different entities, including Duke University, her alma mater. She has honorary doctoral degrees from three different schools. Just as Snyder saw himself as the private-sector outsider who reinvented state government, with 11 days left in 2018, he likely saw Schlichting as a private-sector outsider who could help navigate Michigan State out of its problems.
With Schlichting’s sudden resignation this week — 310 days as a trustee — it didn’t work out.
Snyder didn’t give Republicans a third vote on the eight-person board, someone who would have survived a GOP convention — like 2012 and 2014 nominee Jeff Sakwa or 2018 nominee Dave Dutch. He picked a Democrat who wasn’t going to run to keep her seat in 2022.
He’s now given Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the chance to pick a Democrat who — in all likelihood — will run for election in 2022, giving the D’s an upper hand in retaining the seat.
Regardless, why did the Schlichting appointment not work out? Her public reason was that Michigan State’s trustees wouldn’t drop its attorney-client privilege for an independent review on Larry Nassar, the serial rapist who posed as the school’s gymnastics physician.
The board’s hesitation is understandable. With an attorney general investigation and numerous “phase two” Nassar survivors still looking to be compensated for damages, this would be the equivalent with playing euchre with your cards face up.
Everybody involved in any type of litigation is entitled to private conversations with their attorneys, and MSU is no different, despite how wretched the subject matter of a presumed coverup of a serial molester may be.
District Judge Richard Ball of East Lansing spent six months going over 6,450 documents and 47 text messages. In March, he ordered MSU to hand over 177 of them, and the school did. The rest, he said, were being properly withheld.
In deference to the Nassar survivors, Schlichting and a few other board members wanted all 6,450 documents released. She lost that argument. Now she’s taking her ball and going home to Bloomfield Township.
For someone as accomplished and respected as she is in her universe, Schlichting quit over this?
We may never know the full story since Schlichting grants few interviews and even fewer when she doesn’t have control over the environment.
But a review of her reputation as an unconventional leader and change-agent points to an almost unhappy arrangement from the start.
First of all, Schlichting isn’t a Spartan. She rarely, if ever, visited MSU before being appointed. Clearly, a Spartan diploma isn’t a prerequisite to serve, but the street cred helps.
Second, she was not in charge. Schlichting is used to either being in charge or her opinion carrying a substantial amount of weight. On the eight-member board, she was the rookie who wasn’t gifted any unique authority. Working the system and playing the long game, is not where Schlicting is in life. She likely figured she could make an impact and leave stage left in a few years.
Third, she’s not a politician. Snyder wasn’t when he started, but he learned to become one. Particularly at this point in time, the MSU board requires a political tactician to build consensus and advance an agenda.
Fourth, this is a time commitment with no pay. MSU board members can put in at least 20 hours a week. In busy times — like picking a president — it can be almost a second full-time job. It’s doubtful this type of commitment — particularly in her backbencher role — fit into her busy schedule.
Schlichting was a no-show at the trustees’ Sept. 6 and Oct. 25 meetings, leading one to question her level of participation in the non-public board activities.
Schlichting might fit in well at Duke or her other alma mater Cornell where her expertise is universally sought.
In this case, she was plugged into the wrong place at the wrong time.
(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)