MSU President’s Legacy on the Line
April 14, 2017
EAST LANSING, MI — Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon is a rarity in the world of university presidents. Not only has she served more than twice as long as the national average, she’s never worked anywhere else. The then-Lou Anna Kimsey arrived as a new graduate student in 1970, earned her doctorate, and progressed through a series of MSU administrative jobs. Much beloved, self-effacing, she has led the 50,000 student school since 2003, as interim, then full president.
But now, some fear her reputation could be threatened and her career ended by two sex scandals – one of them possibly the worst in the history of college sports. Nobody suggests she knew anything about either. But instead of moving quickly to get out in front of the scandals and demand accountability, she has said very little and done less to reassure the university community. And though they won’t say so on the record, even some of her strongest supporters are worried. Simon turns 70 this year, making her one of the older college presidents in the nation. “What nobody wants to see is her career ending over this, or this as how she is remembered,” said an MSU employee.
The news agency MIRS (Michigan Information and Research Service), asked a number of the state’s top PR professionals what they thought of the school’s handling of the crisis. The results weren’t pretty. “I’d have to give them a D-,” said John Truscott, of Truscott and Rossman. “They’ve avoided talking about what’s happening. There have been no explanations, no apologies. “Unfortunately, it’s had a very bad reflection on the university.” T. J. Buchholz, of Vanguard Public Affairs, was even harsher. “A negative number is about where MSU’s public reputation is at the moment.”
The biggest of the scandals involves former MSU sports medicine physician Larry Nassar, now in federal custody on child pornography charges. More than 100 women have alleged he sexually abused them, mostly when he was supposed to be treating them for gymnastic injuries anYep d pain. Usually, this involved him putting his bare fingers into their vaginas and other sensitive areas. Some apparently complained, and were argued out of filing charges. A few women did file charges, but they were mostly ignored. The university knew it had a problem; after charges were filed in 2014, he was told he had to have another person in the room any time he did “anything close to a sensitive area.”
But there was no indication that happened. Nassar, whose medical license was revoked April 6, was finally suspended by MSU last August and fired in September after women began filing police reports against him. Oddly enough, MSU authorities didn’t seem concerned when USA Gymnastics, which had taken Nassar to the Olympic Games four times, fired him the year before after similar complaints – and then notified the FBI.
If ever there was a time for MSU’s leader to speak out forcefully and take decisive action, this would seem to be it. Yet that hasn’t happened.
Nor has it happened over a second scandal, in which it was announced in February that three MSU football players were under investigation for alleged sexual assault – and that a staffer had also been suspended. Once again, neither Simon nor Mark Dantonio, the head football coach, had much to say. The coach finally broke his silence March 28 to say, “I hope everyone understands how serious we are taking this relative to our football program.” But he declined to identify the suspended players, or any specifics about what he thinks happened or should now happen.
Understandably, all of this has created outrage.
President Simon did say in February that. “We are committed to creating a culture of accountability, safety and responsiveness. There is no culture of tolerance of sexual assault or harassment.” This was during a Board of Trustees meeting at MSU. She also said that while the public, “may be frustrated or confused by recent developments,” the results of an internal investigation the school is conducting “will speak for itself.”
The question is whether that will be good enough – and whether MSU’s eight-person Board of Trustees, the body that hires and fires university presidents, may get increasingly restless – especially if lawsuits and potential damages mount.
John Manly, an attorney working with a number of Nassar’s accusers, correctly told a reporter for the MLive media group, “at this point, Larry Nassar has far more victims than Jerry Sandusky.” Sandusky, an assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University, was convicted of 45 counts of molesting young boys in 2012.
That scandal cost Penn State President Graham Spanier his job, as well as legendary coach Joe Paterno. Penn State was fined $73 million by the NCAA and the Big Ten. Additionally, it has paid nearly $100 million in settlements with the victims. That, obviously, has to be on the minds of university officials. Joel Ferguson, a longtime trustee best known for his ceaseless boosting of MSU athletics, was one of the few top officials talking, insisting last week that “MSU is going to look great,” when all the facts come out.
Not everyone is as optimistic, however. Nobody would equate Lou Anna Simon with Richard Nixon. But on another long-ago spring morning when she was an MSU grad student, a young lawyer told that president: “There’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’ve got. We have a cancer within close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily.”
John Dean urged Richard Nixon to get on top of it, fast. Nixon couldn’t, of course. But Dean’s advice was sound. Now, MSU has a creeping cancer of its own. The only question is whether it is too late to fix it.
is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.