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A glimmer of hope at Michigan State as Nancy Schlichting joins the Board of Trustees

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Nancy Schlichting

When Nancy Schlichting arrives in East Lansing tomorrow for her orientation as the newest member of the Michigan State Board of Trustees, it will be the second time she’s ever stepped foot on the MSU campus.

For those of you reading this outside of the state of Michigan, you likely don’t appreciate how big of a deal that actually is. That’s because Michigan State University has a custom of promoting from within; a habit of moving people around within the university or bringing well-connected alumni in who think the same as everyone else in town.

And – to put it mildly – that hasn’t worked out so well recently.

With the appointment of Schlichting, it is the first time that I can remember – in recent history, anyway – a decision being made that truly is the best way forward for the university. Those who made the decision to appoint Schlichting showed real leadership in a town that has been a leadership desert over the last couple years.

Sure, there have been a few exceptions to the rule; most notably: Judge Rosemarie Aquilina (class of 1979), Detective Lt. Andrea Munford (class of 1996), and MSUPD Police Chief Jim Dunlap. But for the most part, MSU leadership has failed its campus, its community, its alumni, and – most dreadfully – they failed the survivors of Larry Nassar.

We can now add one more name to the list of exceptions – Brian Calley (class of 1998).

Confronted with a surprise opening on the MSU Board of Trustees in his last month in his last term as Lieutenant Governor, Spartan alum Brian Calley did something that most of us around here haven’t been used to lately – he made a good decision.

Let’s take a look back.

It was a confounding situation at first – why would a Democrat trustee resign only weeks before a newly-elected Democrat governor would take the place of an outgoing Republican governor? It didn’t make sense. It looked like we should brace ourselves for more political shenanigans.

Those thoughts were fair, of course, given the ridiculous decisions we have been subjected to around these parts lately – but they underestimated the leadership in the Lieutenant Governor’s office. Brian Calley isn’t new to this; he has been roundly praised by Nassar survivors for making decisions that focus on them and their needs – and he did the vast majority of it behind the scenes, out of the spotlight.

Here’s what Calley told David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press last week, after he quickly took himself out of the running for MSU trustee:

”I wanted someone with no affiliations at all. I wanted someone who would not be star-struck by anything or anyone at MSU. It was important to have people not connected in any way to people currently running MSU, including the president. We wanted someone outside of the regular political system. We were looking for someone coming in with no allegiances, alliances or historical baggage. Just fresh eyes.”

So he reached out to Nancy Schlichting. And she said yes.

Mission accomplished.

The only connection between Nancy Schlichting and Michigan State University was that her and former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon served together for a time on the Board of Directors for the Detroit Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Simon was aware of the work Schlichting had done in Detroit as CEO of Henry Ford Health System and invited her to East Lansing, several years ago, to meet with her team. Schlichting spent a day on campus and met with Simon’s cabinet, her whole leadership team, and all of the healthcare leaders. She talked about her leadership philosophy and what her team had accomplished in Detroit, against the odds.

And that is it – no other connection to MSU.

That is a good thing. A very good thing.

I had the opportunity to talk with Schlichting last week; and when our 16-minute phone conversation ended, I had – for the first time in a long time – a glimmer of hope for my alma mater.

It’s clear – Schlichting brings objectivity, legitimacy, and gravitas to her role as MSU trustee.

“When Lieutenant Governor Calley reached out to me – then I spoke to the governor – I was honored that they thought of me,” she told me. “I feel like I can make a difference. I’ve served on over 80 boards in my life; I’ve gone through turnarounds and culture change and I believe as a board member I can help.”

When I asked her what she would have done differently if she had been on the board during the Nassar situation, Schlichting answered by relating a story from her time at Henry Ford:

“We faced some very difficult challenges,” she said. “We had patient harm that happened and we had situations where patients were potentially exposed because of cleaning issues – this is many, many years ago now, it’s probably 15 years ago – but I decided that we were going to contact the press, we were going to go public, we were going to contact all the patients – against the desires of my internal leadership in some cases.”

“But I thought it was the right thing to do – so that’s what we did,” she continued. “I think as a leader, you have to do the right thing. I think humanity comes before finances. I’m a person who has always listened to attorneys and advisors but I also make my own decisions. So that’s the approach I take. I will act certainly with humanity, people first. That’s important.”

I think humanity comes before finances.

Those words should have been shouted loudly from MSU’s president’s office; from the MSU’s Office of General Counsel; and from the entirety of the board of trustees. It should have been THE focus as decisions were made. It should have been the Spartan mantra.

And, to be fair, it was.

From MSU alumni.

From the faculty.

From the students.

From the local community.

From the 1600+ people who have signed their name to the website petitioning the Board of Trustees to reinstate the MSU Healing Fund for the survivors.

And now, it will hopefully become the mantra of the leadership at our university.

Schlichting lives in Bloomfield Township – about 90 minutes east of the Hannah Administration Building in East Lansing. It is in that building that she will have her first chance to make her voice heard on Wednesday as the newly configured MSU Board of Trustees convenes to elect its leadership and get started in their new term.

Schlichting joins two other women who were chosen by the voters of the state of Michigan on November 6, 2018 – Kelly Tebay and Brianna Scott.

These three women replace three men: George Perles, Mitch Lyons, and chairman Brian Breslin. A new chair and vice-chair will be chosen on Wednesday and I asked Schlichting if she had been approached by anyone to see who she would support.

“I’ve chatted with, not all the board members, but most of them – so I understand where people are coming from,” she said. “I want to wait and have an opportunity for more discussion before I cast my vote.”

All indications are that the chairmanship is a two-person race between Brian Mosallam and Diane Byrum. And since they are both Democrats, the board’s by-laws require the vice-chair to be a Republican. And that gives Schlichting an opportunity right away.

Even though she considers herself a Democrat, Schlichting was appointed by a Republican governor. Her nonpartisan status means she is qualified to be elected vice-chair of the board alongside either Mosallam or Byrum.

And given the fact that the chair and the vice-chair set the agenda for the board, it would be good for the MSU community to have her chosen by her peers as vice-chair.

I asked her if she would consider doing that. Her answer:

“This job is not about politics. It’s truly about responsibility, leadership, humanity; it’s about doing the right things.”

Right. Agreed. But would you do it?

“Yeah, I would probably do it, yeah.”

Schlichting is focused on the right things as she approaches her time on the board.

“[I’m] thinking about the survivors and all the young women and parents who have trusted the university to take care of their children,” she told me. “[I’m also thinking about] all the alums who I know who feel so ashamed of what happened. I am not afraid of that challenge and I hope that with my background and experiences I can be a positive help in this process, a positive force.”

“I have always had a strong voice on boards,” she continued. “I come with a lot of experience. You have to influence others and I hope that I have credibility because of what I’ve done. I hope that I’m thoughtful in my input. I always do my homework, come prepared, and I think I have good judgment.

I asked her if Interim President Engler needs to be removed.

“I think that is something that the board has to carefully talk about,” she answered. “We have a different board now. I think the opportunity in these first couple months is significant because there are three new board members and I think very talented people with different perspectives, different backgrounds. I think it is important for the board to get to know one another, to listen and learn, and participate very actively in the work and make those kinds of decisions. I think there are important decisions that are going to have to be made.”

While she doesn’t have any direct ties to Michigan State University, Schlichting knows many MSU alums – including close friends and some family; her two brothers-in-law are MSU grads – and she is gratified by the fact that so many of them have reached out to her, excited that she is going to be able to make an impact at their alma mater.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” she said. “I’ve had two years of retirement and – while I’m quite busy with other boards and teaching and mentoring young people – I’m ready for the next challenge. I’m ready to step into this situation with a lot of energy and a lot of commitment.”

She’s also very hopeful.

“I believe things can change quickly with the right leadership in place,” she continued. “I think this is a critical time – for the board, for the university, for all the supporters, all the people who love MSU. I think you can see when organizations go through crisis that they can emerge stronger and I think that is what we have to focus on – how we can learn from this horrendous situation. We can make it substantially better for the future. There have already been some things that have been done – from a compliance standpoint – that I think are positive; but I also think it’s about culture, it’s about consistent positive decision-making, about great leadership – and those are things I am going to focus on.”

I can’t wait for her to get started.