By Leighah Beausoleil
President Nancy Niemi announced the resignation of former Trustee Mike Grilli and the date for an open forum with the Board of Trustees in a Sept. 30 community-wide email.
Grilli’s resignation went into effect Sept. 23 following community outrage over comments he made at a Sept. 14 Board subcommittee meeting.
At the meeting, Niemi presented the enrollment report, and in reference to the loss of approximately 1,000 white women over the last few years, Grilli made an “inappropriate” remark regarding the actor Jussie Smollett, Niemi said.
In 2019, Smollett falsely reported a hate crime that he had staged.
[Editor’s Note: See “Community outraged following comments at Trustee subcommittee meetings” in The Gatepost’s Sept. 23, 2022 issue.]
In the email, Niemi said she and Chair Kevin Foley will begin to search for a new individual whom they will recommend to the Department of Boards and Commissions for consideration.
In an email to The Gatepost, Niemi said, “The circumstances preceding Trustee Grilli’s resignation were unfortunate for the entire University community, and upon the news of his resignation, I thought that our community took a step toward a healing process.”
She said recent events will not change how she and Foley approach this search as the process is prescribed by the state.
Niemi added, “But Chair Foley and I can be good listeners when we do speak with potential trustees, and make sure that we convey Framingham’s institutional values.”
Ann McDonald, chief of staff, general counsel, and secretary to the Board of Trustees, said the Department of Boards and Commissions has an online application for anyone who wishes to apply for the position.
If the president and chair have an individual in mind, they will interview them and if seen fit for the role, that individual would apply online, submit a letter of interest, and the president would submit a letter of support, according to McDonald.
She said in her time working with the Board, there have been recommendations submitted that received no response at all from the Department of Boards and Commissions, but there have been some appointments based on recommendations such as with the recent additions of Trustees Mariel Freve and Lino Covarrubias.
McDonald added, however, “I think it's the norm versus the exception” for the Department of Boards and Commissions to choose someone the University is unfamiliar with.
The only exceptions are the alumni trustee and student trustee, who are chosen by the Alumni Board and the student body, respectively, she said.
A full Board would be 11 members, with eight of those selected by the Department of Boards and Commissions, but Framingham State’s Board has an additional trustee - a trustee emeritus - who “is not appointed by the governor, but he also doesn't have voting powers,” McDonald said.
The position is currently filled by Trustee Robert Richards, she added.
Trustees have a five-year term with a two-term limit, but if a trustee does not complete their term, the person who eventually replaces them finishes the previous trustee’s term and then is eligible for reappointment, McDonald said.
She said the difficulty of when terms expire is that they always expire in March, which is in the middle of the spring semester.
There are currently two vacant seats on Framingham State’s Board of Trustees.
Sociology Professor Benjamin Alberti, who presented the faculty and staff letter at the Sept. 21 Board of Trustees meeting, said he was surprised by Grilli’s resignation.
“It's kind of a dual response, right? On the one hand, you think, ‘Well, good. We don't want somebody on the Board of Trustees who openly holds those views, or holds those views in any form whatsoever,’” Alberti said.
“On the other hand, you think, ‘Well, now that the Board of Trustees is actually going to do some training, which I believe will be anti-racist training, then of course Mike [Grilli] really was the person who, to all appearances, needed it the most,’” he said.
Alberti added not attending the Board meeting and never issuing a statement of apology means Grilli was “unrepentant.
“How can we read it any other way?” he asked. “So the fact that he left is, on the whole, a good thing.”
Dara Barros, SGA president, who presented a statement at the Board meeting, said when she heard of Grilli’s resignation, “Honestly, I was happy.”
She said she does not want someone on the Board making decisions about her education “who thinks like that,” adding she is “excited” to see what happens next and hopes the next appointed Board member will be someone who looks like her.
McKenzie Ward, student trustee, said she was surprised to hear of Grilli’s resignation given the almost two weeks between his comments and this decision, “but I'm going to be honest - I am thankful that he has made the choice to resign because his values, in my opinion, don't completely align with the values of this University.”
Ward said the only way to have a “successful collaboration” between the University and the Board is if they share the same values and vision.
At the Sept. 21 Board of Trustees meeting, Foley announced a few actions he and the Board plan to take to become more educated on diversity and inclusion and the work the Framingham State community has been doing to become an anti-racist institution.
Among those was a plan to hold an open forum aimed at forming a dialogue between the campus community and the Board.
With a majority of the Board attending, Niemi said this is an opportunity to “exchange thoughts and perspectives on the University’s anti-racist goals and the Trustees’ roles in the support and understanding of them.”
This open forum will take place Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. Participation in this event will be available both in person in the Alumni Room and online via Zoom.
Barros said she hopes more than the same few students come to this open forum.
She added she wants this to be an opportunity for a conversation between faculty, staff, and students and the Board of Trustees, not just a listening session. Otherwise, “Are you truly getting what we are saying?”
Barros said, “I don't think that Foley should be the chair anymore.”
She added Foley has been the chair of the Board for some time now and she wants to see someone lead who is less reactionary and more proactive with the work they do, especially in regards to anti-racism.
Ward said she is “really glad” this special session is taking place because she believes there is a disconnect between the Board and students.
“Hopefully, in the future, we'll be able to have a better working relationship between the two groups of individuals,” she added.
Alberti said he hopes the open forum becomes “uncomfortable … in the way that acknowledges that what perhaps they thought they knew about anti-racism or racism on this campus is not perhaps how it is actually experienced by people on this campus.”
He added he wants to ensure the pain BIPOC community members had to experience and the work and effort they had to put in as a result is acknowledged.
“Even for me when I first found out about it, my response was exhaustion and anger, but just exhausted anger that we now have to spend our time doing this, and especially the BIPOC faculty who end up inevitably doing far more than everyone else to address these concerns, which they shouldn't have to,” he said.
In regard to the further training and education the Board plans to do, Alberti said, “It's not going to be finished once you've done the training, and the same with the open forum.”
He added, “It's not just a one-shot deal - ‘OK, we've said our piece. Now we can all go about our business.’ No, this is an ongoing process of education.”
[Editor’s Note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor for The Gatepost.]