Freshman Trustee Dennis Denno will lead search for next MSU President
Two weeks ago, Michigan State University Trustee Dennis Denno, a Democrat elected by voters last November, was named chairperson of the search committee seeking a new President for Spartanland.
Denno said the full search committee includes a cross section of the university community, including representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student body, university faculty, support staff, alums, athletic coaches and state leaders. Included is at least one big name — legendary MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo (see below).
“The full search committee is reflective of the diverse voices and perspectives of those who care about Michigan State University,” said Denno. “Our commitment from the onset has been to ensure an inclusive process that leads us to a top candidate for the university’s 22nd president.”
The 53-year-old Denno has worked in communications, politics, and polling to help candidates and elected officials shape issues and communicate with constituents. He spent 17 years working in the Michigan Legislature as a senior staffer for state lawmakers from Detroit and Flint. In 2004, he founded his own company, Denno Research, which focuses on nationwide polling and campaign and media consulting. He also co-hosted the “Friday Morning Podcast” for more than three years. Plus, he’s been a civilian researcher for the Lansing Police Department Cold Case homicide unit. He earned his bachelor’s degree from MSU in 1992, and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1994.
Denno travels extensively with his wife, Raina (who has run 52 marathons covering all 50 states). Denno has visited every state capital except Alaska, and he himself has completed 21 half-marathons.
Early this year, the MSU TODAY radio show asked Denno: “Research and polling have taken a little bit of a beating the last few years. What’s the state of your industry?”
“I’ll be honest with you, I do less and less political polling and do more association and corporate polling. But it’s getting tough. People are getting overwhelmed with phone calls. People don’t want to answer calls on their cell phones that they don’t recognize. At least in Michigan, if you still have a landline and if you still answer a landline, you’re a solid voter. How do you get to those people who don’t want to answer a survey? I think part of the problem is some people in this business make their surveys way too long, and it’s got to be really short.
“The other thing is, when you look at politics today and you compare it to 10, 15, or 20 years ago, politics today is so much more fluid. If you look at past gubernatorial or a presidential campaigns, I would argue maybe there were one or two events throughout the campaigns that really swayed voters, really moved voters. Now, it seems like every week, almost every other day, there might be an incident or a quote-unquote “scandal” that moves the electorate. That’s part of the problem we’re seeing with polling. There are also a lot of fly-by-night companies that really don’t do a very good job. There’s no degree you need to be a pollster. Anybody could say they’re doing this.”
Denno was a Democratic nominee for the MSU board way back in 2010, but he fell short in the general election in a terrible year for Democrats, who lost all eight state educational board posts. But his determination to serve on the MSU board never waned, so in 2022 he ran again in a year that proved to be far better for this party.
Now he says: “I’m proud to be a Michigan State graduate. I’m proud to be a Spartan. We do amazing work every single day. We’re a world class university. We’re a top research university and I’m really proud of that, and I really want to help continue that mission. Michigan State touches every single corner of the state, all 83 counties. We have an Extension office in every single county. MSU does some incredible things. We’re changing lives, we’re saving lives every single day, and I wanted to help be part of that … Michigan State does incredible work in so many different fields. We need to do a better job talking about this. I want to see more about the great work we’re doing, the transformational work Michigan State University is doing, not just here in East Lansing, but literally all over the world.”
MSU TODAY also asked Denno: “What are some challenges and opportunities for MSU moving forward?”
“One is budget and finances. When tuition is your number one source of revenue, can we continue to go to that well? Do we need to look at other avenues? Obviously, we continue to go to our donors. We continue to look for new donors. There are a lot of financial pressures on Michigan State. We’re in a significantly better position than many of our public universities. I don’t mean that as a criticism of our other public universities, but there are places we need to grow and expand.”
As for why Denno chose MSU when he was ready to go to college, “I just thought Michigan State was a great place. It was a great opportunity for me to get away from home. I liked the idea of going to James Madison College because I felt like it was a small college within a large university. MSU gives students an opportunity to do a lot of different things, whether it’s being involved in student radio, being involved in athletics, having a Power Five sports program on campus, or volunteering in the community. There are just so many different things students can do on campus, and I just loved the thought of being able to do that. Michigan State University opened my eyes to the diversity of the world, both in people and ideas.”
MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 pm on WJR radio.
THE BALLENGER REPORT follows up with a few more questions for Denno, and his answers:
DENNO ANSWER 1): The Chair of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Rena Vassar, appointed me as Chair, Trustee Brianna Scott as Vice Chair, plus Trustees Renee Knake Jefferson and Dan Kelly (the MSU board’s lone Republican). The four trustees then met and picked the other 25 members of the committee.
DENNO ANSWER 2): We hired the search firm Isaacson, Miller to assist us. They have conducted major searches in academia for decades. They are a different firm from the one that got us Dr. Stanley but have worked with MSU to fill other high level leadership positions. The search committee will meet periodically over the next few months, review feedback collected from community and campus groups, and we are optimistic that we will have a selection by Thanksgiving, 2023. We would like that selection to begin as soon as possible. However, we realize we may need to be flexible and are taking this one step at a time.
DENNO ANSWER 3): I do not know if Dr. Woodruff will apply, but she is welcome to.
DENNO ANSWER 4): I don’t know of any previous mistakes because I was not a member of the board at that time. The goal this time will be to have the Search Committee narrow potential candidates down to a small, manageable number, and then the full MSU Board of Trustees will assume responsibility for the remainder of the process from there.
DENNO ANSWER 5): Any president that comes to MSU will need to join our universal commitment to improvements we have made and focus on relationship violence and sexual misconduct issues. The university has already made significant improvements in the past five years, but there is more work to be done and our future president will be continuing this focus.
TBR QUESTION 6): You say the next President will be MSU’s 22nd. That means there have been 21 permanent Presidents up to this point, including Dr. Walter Adams, Edgar Harden and Gordon Guyer, all of whom were originally appointed as Interim Presidents but later designated by the MSU Board as permanent after their tenures. Of all these, it appears MSU has had seven Presidents, including Acting and Interim, in just the last three decades. One-time Acting or Interim Presidents such as former Gov. John Engler, Professor Satish Udpa, former Athletic Director Bill Beekman, and, currently, Provost Teresa Woodruff have not been designated by the Board so far as permanent Presidents as were Adams, Harden and Guyer. Is this amount of turnover in a relatively brief period of time a hindrance to the Search Committee going forward, in your quest to find highly qualified candidates?
DENNO ANSWER #6: I can’t answer for what happened in the past. All we can do is concentrate on identifying the best candidates we can find and ultimately selecting the best President that MSU deserves.
The full Search Committee includes:
- Kate Birdsall, associate professor and director of the Cube in the College of Arts and Letters, president of the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty
- Sid Bogan, chief of security and safety, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department
- Kendra Cheruvelil, dean and professor, Lyman Briggs College, and co-director of the Data-Intensive Landscape Limnology Laboratory
- Jim Cotter, MSU alum and former director of admissions
- Prabu David, vice provost for faculty and academic staff development, interim associate provost for teaching and learning innovation
- Dennis Denno, MSU trustee
- Lupe Dominguez, office assistant, College of Music, and executive board member, Chicano/Latino Faculty, Staff, Specialist and Graduate Student Association
- Luis Alonzo Garcia, director and principal investigator of Migrant Student Services and senior specialist
- Emily Hoyumpa, president, Associated Students of Michigan State University
- Tom Izzo, men’s basketball head coach
- Jerlando Jackson, dean and MSU Foundation Professor of Education, College of Education
- Hannah Jeffery, president, Council of Graduate Students
- Dan Kelly, MSU trustee
- Karen Kelly-Blake, chairperson of the Faculty Senate and University Steering Committee, associate professor, College of Human Medicine, and associate director of academic programming, Center for Bioethics and Social Justice
- Leo Kempel, dean and Dennis P. Nyquist Endowed Professor of Electromagnetics, College of Engineering
- Renee Knake Jefferson, MSU trustee
- Christopher Long, dean, College of Arts and Letters and the Honors College, MSU Foundation Professor
- Cynthia Neeley, State representative, 70th House District
- Dave Porteous, attorney, McCurdy, Wotila and Porteous, PC, and chairperson emeritus of the MSU Board of Trustees
- Brianna Scott, MSU trustee
- Wenona Singel, associate professor and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, College of Law
- Leigh Small, dean and professor, College of Nursing
- Steve St. Andre, chairperson and founder, Shift Digital, and MSU alum
- Shawn Starr, Stock handler and president, AFSCME Local 1585
- Marty Vanderploeg, nonexecutive chairperson, Workiva Inc., MSU alum
- Lorraine Weatherspoon, professor and associate chair and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Sean Welsh, executive vice president/regional president, PNC Bank, and MSU alum
- Melissa Woo, executive vice president for administration and chief information officer
- Haitau Yang, incoming treasurer, Council of Racial and Ethnic Students and Council of Progressive Students; student adviser, Hmong American Student Association; and senior adviser, Asian Pacific American Student Organization
The university community and public can follow the search as it progresses at presidentialsearch.msu.edu.
Robert Kran says
Is there any one with any connection to agriculture on the search committee for the leader of a land grant university?
LaRea Lea Kremhelmer says
FYI Michigan Farm Bureau has taken a position with a letter direct to the MSU Board requesting representation of Agriculture to recognize the significance of Agriculture to the history of this land grant university as well as the significance of Agriculture to the economy of the State of Michigan. It is difficult to watch a University write off its history in the search for a new president. Representation of the entire university areas of program should be considered!
Tim Sullivan says
Nice article, Bill. In looking at the size of the committee, it reminds me of the meme that tells us the Lord God so loved the world that He did not send a committee.
That said, Mr. Denno has his work cut out for him. A committee that size – which seems to want to check all the “appropriate” boxes for representation – seems too big to work. The fun will be seeing which members (other than the token Republicans) are essentially shut out, and if they have a fit over it.
The recent history of dysfunction (and I am being kind) of the MSU Board of Trustees has been so bad that it almost defies parody and will not help.
I am also surprised that none of the search committee seems to have much of an agricultural background. This seems to reflect on the state’s benign (or malign) neglect of agriculture and the communities that agriculture serves. Not very smart (editorial opinion).
If the search committee cannot agree on someone, maybe John Engler and Jim Blanchard could volunteer as co-Presidents. Say what you will about them, they both bleed Spartan green and deeply care about the school. It may not be real satisfying to the plethora of groups on the committee, but it would be fun to watch, not to mention forcing the committee – or its successor group – to find a president who can actually run MSU instead of trying to keep every group under the sun happy.
thomas Boven says
Tim, your comments are spot on. I graduated in 1965 and noticed a broadening in the curriculum offered to students, however MSU was founded by and noted for its Agricultural focus. While specialties and societal changes have to be recognized, MSU needs to continue to lead agricultural related teaching and research. If not MSU, then where…?? . Not at the U of M, and not at WSU. The other universities in Michigan are either education oriented, engineering, and some liberal arts programs.
Perhaps one of the selected members could volunteer to have a cohort/ex-official ag person advise the member on the real issues of Agriculture and the University: Feeding 8 billion people in the world, and having the land and seed inventory that is not disappearing before we humans succumb to virus and bacterial maladies. Thanks Tim..
John C Stewart says
Jack Shingleton, Placement Director 34 years MSU, was Interim President of MSU, 4 times (short) including after Hannah retired-also, Wharton, Mackey and Di Biaggio. When Wharton left MSU, he left a $9 Million debt on the Performing Arts Center with his name. John Hannah and Jack Shingleton went around and knocked on the doors of CEO’s who were MSU grads and PAID OFF this debt in 3 months in the mid-70’s. Quote of Jack Shingleton “The only man I ever met who ought to have been President of the United States, was former MSU President John Hannah, who served as MSU President from July 1, 1941 to April 1, 1969. Jack Shingleton was my Uncle.
The “Full Search Committee” looks like “Too Many Cooks”. In my opinion, the “KISS” principle should be applied wherever and whenever possible.