LANSING - Gov. Rick Snyder is being called on to remove the president of Michigan State University over a sexual abuse scandal as he prepares to deliver his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday.
But Snyder's office says the governor does not have the power to do so, even if he thought removal was appropriate.
Dennis Lennox, a Republican political consultant, petitioned Snyder Monday to hold an inquiry to remove Simon, saying the university under her leadership "has brought great shame" upon the state.
The call for Snyder to act came with a majority of the MSU Board of Trustees standing firmly behind President Lou Anna Simon amid complaints that she and the university should have moved more quickly to stop years of abuse of young gymnasts by former MSU doctor Larry Nassar.
Snyder's spokeswoman said Snyder does not have the power to do so, partly because of autonomy granted to state university boards.
But state constitutional experts are split on the question and no Michigan Supreme Court case or attorney general's opinion directly addresses it.
Lennox cited Article 5, Section 10 of the Michigan Constitution, which reads:
"The governor shall have power and it shall be his duty to inquire into the condition and administration of any public office and the acts of any public officer, elective or appointive. He may remove or suspend from office for gross neglect of duty or for corrupt conduct in office, or for any other misfeasance or malfeasance therein, any elective or appointive state officer, except legislative or judicial, and shall report the reasons for such removal or suspension to the legislature."
Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said Simon is not an "elective or appointive officer" under the constitution.
"The president of MSU is hired by the board and can be fired by the board," Heaton said. "A university president is not elected by voters nor appointed by the governor."
The governor does have the power to appoint board members for universities other than MSU, U-M, and Wayne State University, whose board members are elected, and can fill a vacancy on an elected board until an election is held.
Robert Sedler, a law professor and constitutional expert at Wayne State University, said he agrees Snyder does not have the power to remove Simon or any other university president.
Another area of the state constitution, Article 8, Section 5, says university boards "shall have general supervision of its institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution's funds."
The Michigan Supreme Court, notably in the 1999 case Federated Publications v. Board of Trustees of MSU, has interpreted that to mean university boards have considerable autonomy in the operation of the institutions, he said.
"The governor has no control over them," Sedler said of university boards.
But Kelly Keenan, a former assistant attorney general who served as chief legal counsel to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, disagreed.
He noted the section of the constitution that spells out the governor's removal power makes exceptions for officers of the judiciary and the Legislature, but not for universities.
Keenan researched the governor's removal power before Granholm convened a hearing on whether to remove former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The hearing was called off after one day when Kilpatrick resigned as mayor.
"I believe the governor would probably have to conduct a hearing himself, as Granholm did with Kilpatrick," Keenan said.
"There would need to be some facts that come out at that hearing that would sustain scrutiny."
Keenan said university autonomy is generally restricted to matters related to education. For example, a university that argued it did not have to observe Michigan's prevailing wage law for public construction projects was overruled, he said.
Gerald Fisher, a law professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, agreed with Sedler.
A university board "represents an autonomous, constitutionally created body with express authority to select the president of the university," Fisher said in an e-mail.
"While not completely independent, the authority to govern its educational operations appears to be autonomous, and the president would fall within this operational sphere."
More than 90 women and girls have delivered victim impact statements during Nassar’s sentencing in Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom, which continued into its fifth day Monday. At least 144 women are expected to address the judge during the hearing, which started Jan. 16.
Nassar, 54, of Holt, pleaded guilty in November to 10 sexual assault charges split between Ingham and Eaton counties. The plea agreements set the low end of his sentence between 25 and 40 years in prison and the maximum sentence being up to life. The judge will set the high and low end. His Eaton County sentencing is set for Jan. 31.
Many speakers so far have been critical of MSU and USA Gymnastics, saying the organizations enabled Nassar's decades of abuse.
USA Gymnastics announced the resignations of its chairman, vice chairman and treasurer on Monday.
2018 State of the State address
Gov. Rick Snyder will deliver his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday at the Capitol. on Tuesday.
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: House of Representatives chamber, state Capitol, Lansing.
Can I attend?: All public seating at the Capitol during the speech is by invitation only, mostly for lawmakers and their guests.
How to watch/listen: The speech will be livestreamed at www.michigan.gov/snyderlive. It is also broadcast live on public TV and radio stations in Michigan.
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