Michigan State University Is Botching Its Reputation-Rehab
School officials should be following the post-crisis blueprint from Pennsylvania State. Instead, they’re making things worse.
East Lansing, Mich.—The chairman of Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees said he had to get something off his chest.
It was the board’s first regularly scheduled meeting following the criminal-sentencing hearings of the former sports-medicine doctor Larry Nassar. And Brian Breslin, facing an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the university’s faculty, had already indicated he would not step down. But then he struck a different tone. Breslin’s “conscience would bother [him],” he said, if he didn’t speak his mind.
The crowd of hundreds gathered there—already quivering with anger over the Nassar debacle—seemed to perk up in anticipation of some further statement on the scandal.
Instead, Breslin touted the $550 million rare-isotope accelerator that the Department of Energy placed at MSU in 2008; the board had just received a progress report on the facility, which has been an economic driver in the state. The accelerator is a signature achievement of the longtime MSU president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in January amid criticisms of her handling of the Nassar scandal. Breslin recalled that the federal government had planned to locate the project in several different places but that Simon persuaded lawmakers to put it all in East Lansing. “So at some personal risk I take in saying this, whatever else her legacy may be, there would not be a Michigan State University without the leadership and organizational skills of Lou Anna Simon,” he said.
The chairman had more to say, but boos and hisses drowned him out. “What was he thinking?” one trustee said to me later. “We are in an existential crisis here. Now is not the time for the Lou Anna Simon reputation rehabilitation tour.”
The moment was emblematic of a key dilemma currently facing MSU leaders: How can they show the public that university administrators accept responsibility for their handling of the Nassar situation, improve the school’s systems for handling sexual-abuse cases, and heal the university’s battered reputation in the eyes of students, faculty, and the public? Nassar, once a highly regarded physician at MSU and the official doctor for the USA women’s gymnastics team, admitted to sexually abusing young girls under the pretense of giving them medical treatment. Weeks earlier, Nassar received two prison sentences of up to 175 years, one from each county judge who heard testimony from survivors detailing his abuse during grueling witness-statement periods.
On several occasions beginning in 1997, his victims complained to various MSU officials and were ignored or silenced; a 2014 internal Title IX investigation prompted by one such complaint cleared Nassar, concluded that his treatments were “not of a sexual nature.” It turned out, though, that Nassar’s accuser only received an incomplete version of the investigators’ findings. Their full report, which was provided to MSU’s top lawyers, warned the university that Nassar’s conduct may both create liability for the school and cause “unnecessary trauma based on the possibility of perceived inappropriate sexual misconduct.” The full report didn’t come to light until January 2018.
Nassar molested several more patients before being fired by MSU in 2016 amid a flurry of criminal complaints and civil lawsuits filed by victims. Later that year, he was indicted in state court on dozens of charges of molesting patients and in federal court on child-porn possession charges. The NCAA is now among several entities investigating the university’s mishandling of the case. Last week, lawyers for Amanda Thomashow, whose 2014 complaint launched the Title IX investigation, demanded that MSU re-conduct that probe.
The position MSU is in has only one clear parallel: the recent sexual-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University. In 2011, the school’s former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation involving boys attending a football camp. That scandal was possibly “the worst reputational crisis among major institutions in American higher education,” wrote Jeff Hunt, the consultant hired in 2012 to help rehabilitate Penn State’s reputation, in his book, Brand Under Fire.
Hunt is now revising that assessment. Michigan State, he told me, “has a much bigger problem than Penn State.” While the underlying issues of mishandling sexual-abuse cases are similar, Penn State’s response to Sandusky’s indictment was dramatic and public. MSU’s leadership actively avoided public scrutiny for more than a year after Nassar’s first indictment in November 2016—and continued to do so several months after he pleaded guilty one year later.
Michigan State’s most significant step in holding itself accountable—the hiring of former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald last fall to conduct an investigation into the university’s failures—is itself controversial. While the MSU board and Simon’s office insist that Fitzgerald’s probe was independent—and would ultimately result in a report— the contract with his firm, obtained via a public-records request by The Detroit News, indicated otherwise. The contract described Fitzgerald as having a responsibility to shield MSU from legal liability—not just to assess the situation.
In contrast, by the time Sandusky was brought to trial, the former F.B.I. director Louis Freeh had already led an independent assessment investigating what went wrong in PSU’s handling of the case.
“You had detailed actions being taken by the university to make sure they upped their vigilance, that they were investing in public education around sexual abuse,” Hunt said. “At MSU, they left a natural vacuum—and it gets filled by speculation and innuendo, or it gets filled by facts.”
In January, as Nassar’s sentencing hearings progressed—featuring testimony from nearly 200 victims—the calls from students, faculty, and alumni for Simon to be fired grew louder. The MSU Board of Trustees vice chairman, Joel Ferguson, said on a sports radio program that Simon’s job was safe because “this Nassar thing” was not as significant as her record as a prolific MSU fundraiser.
Ferguson’s remarks came on January 22. Two days later, Nassar received the first of his two 175-year prison sentences. Simon resigned the following day, and at an emergency meeting one day after that, each of the MSU board members—including Ferguson—apologized for neglecting to appreciate the weight of the situation.
“We failed you,” the trustee Brian Mosallem said at that meeting, appearing to choke back tears. “This board has come across as tone-deaf, emotionless, and lacking in compassion, and it is infuriating [to] me. We have a long road ahead of us to repair the damage that has already been done.”
In the six weeks since Nassar’s second sentencing, MSU and the Michigan Legislature have taken many steps to begin that recovery process. The board appointed as the school’s interim president former Michigan Governor John Engler, who quickly overhauled the leadership of the university’s health services and began the process of stripping Nassar’s former boss, the former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, of his tenure.
Engler also hired a New York firm, Kroll Inc., to conduct an independent probe into MSU’s failures to properly investigate sexual-assault and harassment claims under the federal Title IX statute. The school hired a crisis-management firm, Truscott Rossman, to deal with press inquiries. Finally, it established a $10 million “therapy fund” to pay for counseling for Nassar survivors, although that initiative has become controversial.
Meanwhile, several investigations have ensued, including one launched by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, one by the NCAA, and one through the Department of Education, plus possible inquiries brewing in Congress. And a bipartisan group of state legislators has introduced a suite of bills crafted in consultation with Nassar victims—some of which passed the Senate last week—that include expanding the list of those required by law to report suspicions or discoveries of sexual-assault or abuse allegations to include sports coaches, trainers, and volunteers. Another part of the package would change the state’s statutes-of-limitations laws on civil and criminal complaints on childhood sexual abuse, which are presently the shortest in the U.S., to allow for an underaged victim to seek criminal charges at any time until their 48th birthday.
“For MSU to recover, Michigan needs to step up our game,” said State Sen. Margaret O’Brien, a Republican and a sponsor of the legislation. “That’s how Penn State took responsibility, by creating a safer environment for all. That’s what Michigan State has to do.”
Another key way MSU can recover, O’Brien and others suggested, is by following Penn State’s lead in not fighting the sexual-abuse survivors in court. Yet MSU hasn’t exactly followed that advice so far: In January, the university’s attorneys asked a federal judge to dismiss lawsuits involving more than 140 girls and women who say they were molested by Nassar because, MSU alleged in a legal motion, as a state institution it “retains absolute immunity from liability.”
Far from throwing themselves at the public’s mercy, though, Engler on Thursday set off a new public-relations firestorm by warning the legislature that the reforms they are pursuing—especially one that retroactively strips MSU of such immunity from liability—will make it more expensive to settle with Nassar’s victims. “A number of the bills have nothing to do with supporting the survivors at all,” Engler groused at a hearing in Lansing. He also told a lawmaker that the reforms would, in fact, likely lead to higher tuition.
The next day, Engler again went on the offensive. At a press conference in Detroit, he attacked ESPN’s coverage of MSU’s sexual-assault issues—coverage that has questioned whether the Nassar mess reflects a systemic instinct to hide, deny, or cover up sexual misconduct in other sports. MSU officials had hoped the press conference would focus primarily on the Spartans’ performance in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, Engler said.
None of this, experts say, is helping MSU get its reputation back on track.
“Naturally, administrators and politicians think first and—incorrectly—foremost about making sure legally everybody’s covered,” said Scott Sobel, whose crisis-management firm, kglobal, consulted on the Penn State case. “Think about parents whose kids will apply to the university in the next few years. They certainly care about the legal outcome, but they care more about what is going to be done to protect their kids.”
In Penn State’s case, the university settled in October 2013 with 26 of the Sandusky victims and in 2015 with six others, agreeing to pay out nearly $100 million in total. The school also accepted severe sanctions from the NCAA that included a $60 million fine and a four-year post-season ban for the school’s football team; the NCAA would go on to lift the post-season ban two years early in recognition of the school’s cooperation and earnestness in reforming its policies.
“Everybody thought [interim president Rodney] Erickson gave in way too early, but it turned public perception,” said Hunt, the consultant who also worked with Penn State. “There tended to be more empathy for Penn State because they were willing to be courageous and go what people thought was the extra mile toward accepting the responsibility and the punishment for their shortcomings.”
Indeed, Senator O’Brien suggested that MSU’s efforts to dodge legal liability will only do further damage to the university’s image. She’s also skeptical of MSU’s immunity claim, describing it as “reprehensible.” O’Brien believes Michigan State should follow Penn State’s lead. “I would like to see Michigan State settle with these young women. They could be right in the court of law, but in the court of public opinion they’re going to look like bullies who took advantage of young girls who through no fault of their own were sexually assaulted,” she said.
Perhaps MSU’s biggest challenge, though, comes in the form of the general public’s outrage over the scandal. All of the trustees, each elected in statewide votes for staggered eight-year terms, have resisted calls to step down from students, legislators, faculty, and newspaper editorial boards. Two whose terms end this year, including Breslin, are not running again.
Engler’s abrupt hiring is among the most controversial decisions since Nassar’s sentencing. (A national search for a permanent president is being planned and could take more than a year.)
“I was called into a meeting where they asked us [student leaders] what would we like to see in the next president,” the MSU student president Lorenzo Santavicca recalled. “We had said we needed someone who is a listener, a healer, and someone who is going to be actively engaged in this community. Those comments, we thought, would go into consideration. And lo and behold, hours later they already had their decision made up who they were going to bring in—John Engler.”
Critics also pointed to Engler’s controversial history of handling sexual-abuse claims in the state of Michigan. The appointment struck a particularly poor note with the student-activist group #ReclaimMSU, formed in the aftermath of the Nassar debacle, because Engler, while serving as the governor of Michigan in the 1990s, worked to squelch investigations into sexual improprieties by male guards at Michigan’s women’s prison. Those probes eventually resulted, years after Engler’s tenure, in lawsuit judgments against the state and payments of about $160 million from the state to more than 500 inmates who had been raped, abused, or harassed.
“To choose someone like John Engler, it tells us that they’re learning nothing from what’s going on,” said Natalie Rogers, a sophomore and co-founder of #ReclaimMSU. “They’re still just worried about protecting the brand and reputation of Michigan State and working with the higher-ups, working with the people in power, and just ignoring us.”
Working with activists was a potent step forward at PSU, where alumni formed a group that grew to 50,000-strong called Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship. No similar organized MSU alumni effort has taken shape following the Nassar debacle, but O’Brien, herself an alum, said many graduates are watching carefully to see if the school takes responsibility and makes changes.
It’s too early to tell if the Nassar scandal will make a long-term dent in donations to MSU, although total donations fell by 25 percent in the second half of 2017 as the Nassar story picked up steam. Moody’s Investor Services in January placed MSU’s credit rating under review for a potential downgrade, in anticipation of donors turning away at the same time as the school is likely on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. A lower credit rating would affect the university’s ability to borrow money in the future.
Members of the MSU community seem to agree that the Nassar scandal will tarnish the school for several years—and that it will take longer for MSU than it did for Penn State to put the scandal behind it. “These things are going to be an undercurrent for the next decade at Michigan State,” said Santavicca, the student body president, who graduates in May.
#ReclaimMSU activists say the aim now must be to turn the school into a model for dealing with campus sexual misconduct.“MSU has to take what has happened and use that to make positive, progressive change and to be a leader in sexual-assault prevention and supporting survivors,” said Rodgers, the group’s co-founder. “If we really commit to that, we can lead the country on this.”