After more than three decades as influence-peddler-in-chief at Michigan State University, it’s time for Joel Ferguson to hang up his spurs as a member of the MSU Board of Trustees. Having lorded over MSU in subtle and not-so-subtle ways since he was first elected to the post in 1986, we think that when the Michigan Democratic Party convenes its nominating convention March 21 it should back a new candidate who brings a fresh perspective to the challenges MSU continues to face in rebuilding the institution’s tattered reputation and reshaping its campus culture.
Ferguson’s legendary penchant for micromanaging MSU’s internal affairs, from the selection of presidents to its athletic department, has worn thin through the years. Most recently, his gross insensitivity at the height of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, made clear by public statements that revealed his deep lack of empathy for the survivors of Nassar’s predations, simply can’t be forgotten — or forgiven. His pivotal role in handing John Engler the keys to the MSU kingdom, even on an interim basis, also was misguided and should give pause to Democrats now considering whether to renominate him for the post.
We grant that Ferguson has been an important and impactful figure in local, state and national Democratic politics. A trailblazer who was the first African American elected to the Lansing City Council, Ferguson has worked at the highest levels of national politics as a former member of the Democratic National Committee. He ran Jesse Jackson’s successful Michigan presidential primary campaign in 1988 and is a close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Ferguson’s indisputable business success speaks both to his savvy and his uncanny knack for leveraging his considerable political influence to win lucrative real estate development deals, most notably his successful effort to persuade former governor Jennifer Granholm to let him build a new headquarters for the Michigan State Police on the downtown Lansing riverfront, a less-than-optimal location that turned out to be an expensive boondoggle.
In any case, as MSU’s new president, Samuel Stanley, embarks on the herculean task of leading MSU forward and creating a new campus culture based on transparency, inclusion, diversity and respect for the survivors of sexual assault, the last thing he needs is an egotist puppetmaster on the Board of Trustees who clearly doesn’t get it and who played a key role in stoking the university’s downward spiral of public relations failures in the aftermath of the Nassar scandal.
Replacing Ferguson would also go a long way toward rebalancing alliances on the current MSU board. When Democrats last had the chance to fill two spots on the board and usher in a new generation of enlightened leadership, they nominated a relatively unknown attorney and assistant prosecutor from Muskegon, Brianna Scott, who was subsequently elected on the Democratic ticket led by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. After campaigning on a platform of transparency and reform, Scott’s tenure as a trustee has been a crushing disappointment. It doesn’t require a great leap of faith to believe Ferguson is responsible for that as well.
Scott immediately fell in with Ferguson and board Chairwoman Dianne Byrum in opposing full disclosure of 6,000 pages of university records sought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in her ongoing Nassar investigation, clinging to attorney-client privilege and the potential loss of insurance claims as their excuse for keeping the documents under wraps. She then joined Ferguson, Byrum and Melanie Foster in derailing an independent investigation of the Nassar case by an outside law firm. The recent revelation that Scott also has business dealings with Ferguson, having partnered with him to purchase and redevelop a building in Muskegon, adds to the perception that she is a wholly owned subsidiary of Joel Ferguson Inc. Getting rid of Ferguson and replacing him with someone who truly supports transparency and institutional reform is the shortest path to thoughtful reconsideration of these critical issues.
Democrats can and must do better this time around. The optimal candidate to replace Ferguson should have experience in higher education and the management of large-scale public institutions, a demonstrated commitment to diversity, inclusion, and transparency — and no ties to Joel Ferguson.
We also think it is a good time for state lawmakers to revisit Michigan’s party-based system for choosing university board nominees. The last two gubernatorial appointments to the MSU board, Nancy Schlichting by former governor Rick Snyder and Renee Knake by Whitmer, each brought impeccable credentials and much-needed gravitas to the board, a welcome departure from the usual party loyalists who secure their nominations by ingratiating themselves with partisan power brokers. It’s telling that Schlichting resigned less than a year into her term, expressing frustration with the board’s secretive culture and its failure to follow through with an independent investigation of the Nassar case. It’s not a stretch to consider her premature and unfortunate departure as yet another casualty of the Ferguson era.
In the runup to the Michigan Democratic Party nominating convention two weekends from now — and assuming he won’t voluntarily step aside — we encourage party leaders to turn the page and start a new chapter in MSU governance. This is best accomplished by bringing an end to Joel Ferguson’s reign of error.