LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday named an ethics expert to Michigan State University’s governing board, filling a vacancy left by a trustee who resigned over the board’s decision to drop a promised independent review of Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults.
University of Houston law professor Renee Knake previously taught at Michigan State’s law school for a decade and still lives in East Lansing. Whitmer, a Michigan State alumna, said it was important to add someone who is “seeped in ethics” to the eight-member board as it continues to confront the Nassar scandal.READ MORE: Interest In Unionizing Grows Among Michigan Starbucks Workers
“We all need this university to be successful. Someone who has an understanding of and expertise in ethics is one way of giving people confidence in the leadership of the university,” Whitmer, a Democrat, told The Associated Press. “Also, Renee Knake is not a known commodity and doesn’t walk in with alliances. She comes in having strong progressive values but also some independence. That’s something that is a strength and something I value as well.”
The appointment came more than five weeks after the resignation of trustee Nancy Schlichting, who said four trustees did not share the commitment by her and three other trustees to the independent investigation backed by Nassar’s victims, including the release of documents protected by the attorney-client privilege. A criminal probe led to the conviction of Nassar’s ex-boss at the College of Osteopathic Medicine, while a former university president and ex-gymnastics coach have been ordered to stand trial.
Whitmer said Schlichting’s critique was “serious” and a reason she picked Knake, whom she described as a friend, despite “a lot” of people wanting to be considered. Some at the school proposed ex-Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, while groups allied with Whitmer pushed former elected officials and other political favorites. Former trustees and past candidates also expressed interest.
Asked if she had confidence in the board of trustees, Whitmer said: “There have been a lot of missteps, and that’s putting it lightly. … In this moment, it’s really important that we’ve got strong critical thinkers who live their values and are going to insist on a high level of ethical conduct.”
Whitmer declined to say if the board should waive privilege and release 6,000 documents. Some trustees have said doing so would jeopardize the school’s lawsuit against insurers to help cover a $500 million payout to hundreds of victims and related legal costs.
“There’s a lot of information that I’m not privy to,” Whitmer said.
Former sports physician Nassar is effectively serving life in prison for possessing child pornography and sexually assaulting athletes, mostly female gymnasts, under the guise of treatment at Michigan State and a Lansing-area gymnastics club. Olympians said he also molested them in Texas and overseas while he worked for USA Gymnastics.READ MORE: Delta Unveils New Face Recognition Screen That Displays Personalized Flight Information
Knake, 46, will serve on the elected board through 2022 when she could run for election to a full eight-year term if she is nominated by the Michigan Democratic Party. She joined the University of Houston Law Center, where she is the chair of legal ethics, in 2016. That followed 10 years at Michigan State, where she got tenure at the College of Law.
Knake said she was honored that Whitmer asked her to take the role.
“It’s really important as a member of the board of trustees to be listening to the survivors and showing them respect,” she said in an interview. “I’m committed to making sure that the university is acting more thoughtfully and working with … the community to create solutions that will lead to a safer and more secure environment for students, for faculty, for alumni, for anyone who is on the campus.”
Knake last year weighed in on proposed changes to the code of conduct and rules for federal judges, pushing committees to go further to prevent sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior.
She said she values “accountability and transparency” and, as a lawyer, wants to learn more about the dispute over the documents sought by the state attorney general and which Nassar victims want as part of an outside review, including the conditions under which they would be released.
“Claiming attorney-client privilege shouldn’t be misused to cover up what would otherwise be discoverable information,” she said.
Knake previously worked as a corporate lawyer in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia, and as a city attorney in Charlottesville, Virginia. She earned her law degree from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree at North Park College.MORE NEWS: Highland Park Shooting Suspect Bobby Crimo III Charged With 7 Counts Of First-Degree Murder
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