The Moral Catastrophe at Michigan State

A new lawsuit accuses a current MSU trustee of helping the university conceal Larry Nassar’s abuses starting in 1992. And this is just one of the institution’s many recent scandals.

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As a sports doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar assaulted more than 150 young women. Much of this abuse, which spanned more than two decades, occurred in an examination room on MSU’s campus, in a building full of MSU staff. Long before the allegations against Nassar went public, multiple victims described their abuse—how Nassar touched their genitalia during physical-therapy sessions—to MSU coaches, therapists, and administrators. They were told not to worry, that what they’d experienced was “actual medical treatment.” A 2014 investigation into Nassar, conducted by MSU’s Title IX office, found no evidence of misconduct. He was allowed to continue working for the university, treating students on campus, until 2016, when two of his former patients filed additional accusations against him.

After Nassar was sentenced in January to 40 to 175 years in prison, the NCAA launched an investigation into the university’s handling of his case. Victims claimed that MSU had been complicit in the abuse, protecting a doctor well known for his work with the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. “MSU knew what was being done to these athletes and decided to turn a blind eye to keep their reputation strong and their pockets full,” Olivia Cowan, a former MSU student, said during Nassar’s January sentencing hearing.

Now a new lawsuit that was reported by The Detroit News on Tuesday contains allegations that are even more egregious than those in previous cases. For one, the suit contends that Nassar raped someone—a former MSU field-hockey player who was 18 years old at the time—in 1992 and filmed the act while doing so. For another, it alleges that MSU—and, specifically, George Perles, a current member of MSU’s board of trustees who served as the university’s athletic director at the time of the rape—went “to great lengths to conceal this conduct.” The suit is one of at least a dozen civil complaints filed against MSU and other defendants in federal court on Monday, which marked the last day victims of Nassar’s sexual abuse could sue the university. (State legislation passed in June allows people who allege they were sexually assaulted by now-convicted physicians to retroactively sue up to 90 days after the physician was convicted.)

In response to the lawsuit, MSU provided a statement saying that “sexual abuse, assault and relationship violence are not tolerated in our campus community,” and stressing that the actions cited in the complaint do not reflect university protocol. “We are taking the allegations very seriously and looking into the situation,” the statement continued. Before this flurry of new lawsuits, the university may have thought it was starting to put the Nassar affair behind it—the NCAA recently closed an investigation into MSU, concluding the university hadn’t violated any of the college-sports association’s rules. The university declined to comment on other matters included in this piece, and as of Wednesday, Perles hadn’t responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Since the university was made aware of Nassar’s actions, it has repeatedly bungled its handling of the fallout. Seemingly every other week there is a new development—and a new scandal. Looked at in aggregate, all of these developments—from staffing decisions to secret settlement meetings with Nassar’s victims—add up to a picture of a university in crisis, and show where MSU might go from here. Here is a primer on how that crisis has played out so far:

MSU claimed to launch an “independent” investigation into the school’s handling of the Nassar case—then assigned the case to a university lawyer.

The same team of lawyers assigned to investigate possible administrative wrongdoing, The New York Times reported in late January, were also responsible for defending MSU against civil lawsuits. “Michigan State led the public to believe that there had been an independent investigation,” Tom Leonard, the Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, told the Times. “And then as we continued to dig into this, we found out … it was an internal investigation to shield them from liability.” Robert Noto, Michigan State’s longtime lawyer, resigned after the Times publicized his legal team’s conflict of interest.

Many who are accused of enabling Nassar’s abuse continue to work at MSU.

They include Kristine Moore, the attorney who as a full-time MSU employee conducted the Title IX investigation into a 2014 complaint against Nassar. Moore, who was named in many of the complaints filed Monday, now serves as the university’s assistant general counsel. Title IX protocol requires that all parties receive a copy of the same report summarizing an investigation’s findings, but in January, The Detroit News discovered that Moore had given the victim who had filed the complaint a different report than the one provided to both Nassar and his supervisor at the time, William Strampel. While the report given to the victim cleared Nassar of wrongdoing, the internal version found that the doctor’s methods were inflicting “unnecessary trauma” on his patients. By neglecting to disclose the internal report, Moore effectively put Strampel, then the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, in charge of keeping the serial sexual abuser in check.

Strampel—who has also been accused, in a pending lawsuit, of sexually harassing MSU students, and was also named in many of the complaints filed Monday—allowed Nassar to continue seeing and molesting patients until 2016. When we called Moore’s office for comment, a staff member directed us to the university’s spokespeople, who declined to participate in this story.

Lianna Hadden, an athletic trainer who according to at least two victims was told of Nassar’s behavior but failed to report it, is another alleged enabler still employed by MSU. Hadden was named as a defendant in the federal civil lawsuits related to Nassar’s sexual abuse—lawsuits that MSU in May agreed to settle for $500 million—as well as several of those filed Monday. Another possible enabler still on the university’s payroll is Douglas Dietzel, who oversees the MSU sports-medicine clinic where Nassar served as a doctor. Dietzel—who was also named as a defendant in many of the lawsuits filed Monday, including that concerning Nassar’s alleged rape of the field-hockey player—told law-enforcement officials in 2017 that he was aware Nassar performed some kind of intervaginal procedure but knew few details. The state licensing department earlier this year investigated Dietzel for his involvement in the scandal but closed the probe after concluding he hadn’t violated any licensing policies. As of Wednesday, neither Hadden nor Dietzel had responded to requests for comment.

Many of those who did resign did not at first publicly take responsibility.

Most notably, former MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned the same night Nassar was sentenced. For months she had refused to do so, despite calls for her removal from students, faculty members, and advocates of sexual-assault victims. In her resignation letter, Simon did not implicate herself, often resorting to the passive voice: “I am pleased that statements have been made … about my integrity and the fact that there is no cover-up,” she wrote. “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable.” She later apologized, saying at a June Senate hearing about abuse in athletics: “To the survivors of Nassar’s abuse, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician turned out to be an evil predator, and I am sorry that we did not discover his crimes and remove him from our community sooner.”

Another resignee who declined to take responsibility was Mark Hollis, who served for a decade as MSU’s athletic director after Perles. He resigned in late January, shortly after the NCAA began its probe into the university and just before the publication of an ESPN report that documented an institutional culture in the athletic department that enabled Nassar’s decades-long abuses. In his resignation letter, Hollis wrote: “I am not running away from anything, I am running toward something. Comfort, compassion, and understanding for the survivors and our community; togetherness, time and love for my family.”

Then there is Scott Westerman, MSU’s former associate vice president for alumni relations and the former executive director of the university’s alumni association. Westerman announced his resignation in April amid a pending investigation by the university into his role in the Nassar scandal. It’s not clear whether that contributed to his resignation—he denied that it did—but the timing is noteworthy. “I was recently surprised to learn that I am the subject of an [Office of Institutional Equity] inquiry,” he said in a statement cited by the Detroit Free Press. “It covers a brief period near the start of my tenure, is not a police matter, and, naturally, I am fully cooperating with with investigators.”

The board of trustees has disregarded the wishes of MSU students, faculty, and staff in its handling of the case’s aftermath.

After former President Simon resigned in late January, the school’s board of trustees was charged with finding an interim president to take her place. When asked to weigh in, the faculty senate, a group that represents the MSU faculty, took a vote and recommended that the board select someone with experience both leading a university and handling issues of sexual assault and harassment. One week after Simon’s resignation, the board chose John Engler, the former governor of Michigan, who has neither. (He has also been accused of ignoring incidents of sexual assault at a women’s prison as governor.) “Every single piece of criteria we provided was ignored,” says Anna Pegler-Gordon, an MSU professor and a former member of the faculty senate. “The board is extremely isolated from the faculty and the students.”

In response, the faculty senate passed a vote of “no confidence” in the board of trustees in mid-February. Around the same time, MSU administrators invited students, faculty, staff, and alumni to air their grievances before the board in an open “listening forum.” Hundreds of people came. But of the eight MSU board members, only one showed up. “It was a cathartic night, opening the floodgates to a lot of frustration and anger and pain,” says Amy Bonomi, a family-studies professor at MSU who attended the event. “But everyone asked, ‘Where are the rest of the trustees?’”

Interim President Engler allegedly asked Kaylee Lorincz, one of Nassar’s victims, to settle with the university in a private meeting.

Lorincz claims that, in a one-on-one meeting in late March, Engler offered her $250,000 to forgo a formal settlement hearing, one month before mediation proceedings between MSU and victims were scheduled to begin. “When I explained that it’s not about the money for me and that I just want to help,” Lorincz told the MSU board of trustees, “he said, ‘Well give me a number.’” Engler also allegedly told Lorincz that Rachel Denhollander, another Nassar victim, had suggested the $250,000 number, which Dollander denies. In May, MSU agreed to pay Nassar’s victims a lump sum of $50 million.

In the months following the trial, another MSU employee with ties to Nassar was accused of sexual crimes.

That employee was Strampel, who as dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine served as Nassar’s supervisor. In March, Strampel was arrested on four charges, including criminal sexual conduct and willful neglect of duty. The sexual-misconduct charges respond to allegations that the former dean, who resigned in December 2017 citing “medical reasons,” used his position of authority to proposition and sexually assault young women, including by groping female students. A court affidavit also contends that Strampel stored nude student selfies on his MSU computer. And according to The Detroit News’s summary of a 2015 internal performance review of the dean that the newspaper obtained this past spring, evaluations from multiple female faculty and staff suggest he frequently made comments about women’s appearances, sometimes asking them to wear low-cut shirts to meetings, or otherwise leered at their breasts.

The criminal charges against Strampel were the result of a larger probe by the state attorney general into actions by university officials that may have enabled Nassar’s abuse. Strampel announced in July that he was formally retiring from MSU as part of a settlement with the university that included a payment of $175,000; he denied the criminal accusations when arraigned by video in March. Strampel is also named as a defendant in many of the civil suits filed Monday. The attorney representing the former dean in the criminal case did not respond to a request for comment.

A new lawsuit alleges that Nassar raped a student—and MSU covered it up—back in 1992.

Nassar has been accused of inappropriately touching more than 150 young women, but this latest lawsuit, filed on Monday, is the first accusation of rape. Nassar allegedly drugged Erika Davis before he raped her, and asked a cameraman to film the assault. Davis, a former MSU field-hockey player who was 17 years old when she first met Nassar, says she reported the rape to her coach, who then brought the allegation to other administrators. But Perles, who was then MSU’s athletic director, “intervened” and covered it up, the lawsuit alleges. According to the court documents, “Michigan State University could have prevented hundreds of young girls and women from being sexually assaulted by Defendant Nassar had they only acted appropriately, decently and lawfully in 1992.” At the time, Nassar was an osteopathic-medicine student at MSU working at the university’s sports-medicine clinic, according to the lawsuit and a timeline published earlier this year jointly by the Lansing State Journal and the IndyStar. If these new allegations are true, Nassar’s predatory sexual behavior began even before he graduated and was hired as a physician and assistant professor by the university.

The MSU campus remains bitterly divided by the Nassar case. As the board moves forward with selecting a new president, students, faculty, and staff worry that their feedback will once again be ignored. Whatever happens at MSU next, the university’s handling of the fallout following the Nassar scandal—and of the internal investigations leading up to it—offers a blueprint for the mistakes higher-education institutions can avoid when responding to sexual assault on their campuses.