The moral catastrophe at Michigan State
Most of the staff members accused of covering up Nassar’s abuse—or of failing to adequately investigate—are affiliated with the university’s athletic department. Nassar himself, of course, was a world-renowned Olympic sports therapist. So the board’s close ties to MSU athletics have raised questions about its members’ personal biases: the trustees Mosallam and Lyons are former MSU football players, and Perles was the head football coach for 11 years. The school’s basketball arena was named after the board chairman Brian Breslin’s father.
The trustees continue to be die-hard Spartan sports fans. MSU is one of the few colleges in the country that allows trustees to travel with school sports teams on chartered planes and buses, covering all travel costs for the trustees and one guest each. This kind of perk—which six of the eight trustees have taken advantage of at least once—can sow resentment on campus, said Armand Alacbay, ACTA’s vice president of trustee and government affairs.“It can lead to the appearance of favoritism,” he said. (As of July, the trustee Ferguson had traveled with the MSU football or basketball team 19 times.)
These kinds of close relationships are likely a direct result of long term limits, Poliakoff believes. Four of the current MSU trustees have held their position for 10 years or more—and Ferguson, MSU’s longest-serving trustee, was elected in 1986. With these long tenures, Poliakoff said, board members risk becoming too close with the administration. “They can become complacent about the actions of university personnel—and not inquire in the way that responsible fiduciaries should,” he said. When responding to a sweeping scandal like the Nassar case, he told me, trustees need to question every administrator who could have possibly been involved, regardless of how well they know them. That includes, as the Perles allegations have made clear, fellow members of the board. “Boards will sometimes say, ‘Oh, we know we can trust her, she’s been here for 15 years,’” Poliakoff said. “No. No, you don’t know that.”
When Simon resigned, campus leaders issued clear statements about the kind of person they thought should take her place. The faculty senate recommended they choose an interim president with experience both leading a university and dealing directly with cases of sexual assault and harassment. The board selected former Michigan Governor John Engler, who had neither—and who, as governor, was publicly accused of ignoring female inmates who claimed they were raped and sexually harassed by prison guards. The faculty senate immediately issued a vote of no confidence, calling on the entire board to resign.
Around the same time, several administrators organized a town hall, a public conversation with the board of trustees. More than 600 people—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—lined up outside the campus conference center. But of the eight board members, only one—Mosallam—showed up. Even after the Nassar case, Mosallam told me, the trustees still weren’t fully focused on what was happening on campus. “There are some that are disengaged; there are some that are afraid of litigation,” he said. “There are some who just want to put their heads in the sand and make sure it all goes away.” When I asked him why he spoke to the MSU community alone in February, he replied, hotly, “You would have to ask the other trustees.”