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Why the heat on MSU has gone from “zero to 100”

michigan state university sign in front of a blue sky

It’s been a rough several days for Michigan State University and its president, Lou Anna K. Simon.

“We’ve gone from basically zero to 100 in the span of a week, in terms of the pressure on President Simon and the MSU board of trustees,” says Zach Gorchow,editor of Gongwer News Service in Lansing.

“I mean we basically went from nobody in a high-profile position talking about her resigning to, you know, the Lansing State Journal is calling for her to resign or be fired. The Speaker of the Michigan House has called for her to resign. You now have several people in high-profile positions very critical of Michigan State University.”

But why now?

When it comes to the substance of the issue, nothing’s changed here. Women have been saying for more than a year now that they told someone at MSU – a coach, trainers, the Title IX office – that Nassar was abusing them, only to have those concerns dismissed. Meanwhile, MSU has made no secret of the fact that they don’t plan to release their internal investigation, as Michigan Radio reported in October.

Yet suddenly both Democrats and Republicans are tripping over themselves to be seen as holding MSU’s feet to the fire.

“The moment is right, now that Larry Nassar has pleaded guilty and is being sentenced, that Nassar’s victims are stepping forward and claiming that the University is not forthcoming, and there are still revelations,” says Rick Pluta, state Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network.

"You know, things like the fact the University hired an outside legal counsel to do a review of the University’s handling of the Nassar situation, and in the course of that review apparently never wrote anything down … And now the Legislature is getting engaged in ways that aren’t good, at least for President Lou Anna Simon.”

Democrats and Republicans try to outdo each other in attacking MSU

In the last eight days, seemingly anyone in Lansing running for state office weighed in, starting with Attorney General Bill Schuette. On December 4th, the gubernatorial candidate asked Simon to release the school’s internal investigation. (A few days later, MSU’s hired legal gun Patrick Fitzgerald declined, saying that after a year of investigation, he hadn’t actually compiled a report.)

Just days later Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic lawmaker who’s also running for governor, called for an independent investigation into MSU’s handling of the Nassar allegations.

“She got in a couple digs about, well, why hasn’t this happened sooner?” says Gorchow. “So if Bill Schuette starts an investigation, you can see her saying, 'Well I’m glad he’s doing what I said he should do.'”

Still, Whitmer’s also got some vulnerabilities here. She was the interim Ingham County Prosecutor when the initial Nassar investigation started in 2016.

“However, there was something of a dispute between her and the chief of the Michigan State University Police Jim Dunlap about the exact strategy with which to investigation Nassar,” Gorchow says. “The police chief did send an email to Bill Schuette that implied that Gretchen Whitmer had not been an advocate for the victims in this case. He’s signaled some frustration. Gretchen Whitmer says that’s absolutely ridiculous … but you can just see, several months from now next fall, Bill Schuette’s campaign … going after her for this. … There’s a lot of politics involved here.”

Meanwhile, candidates with their eyes on the state attorney general gig have been joining the fray as well.

Republican State Senator and attorney general candidate Tonya Schuitmaker met with some of Nassar’s victims, and is calling for a legislative committee to investigate what MSU knew about Nassar, and when.

On Friday, Speaker of the Michigan House Tom Leonard – who also wants the attorney general job – did her one better. He called for MSU President Simon to step down and threatened to withhold state funds from MSU unless they coughed up some answers.

“[Speaker of the Michigan House] Tom Leonard can’t very well just sit back and say nothing about such a huge issue, where it seems everybody else who’s running for attorney general or high office is speaking out on it,” Gorchow says. “And he sort of said to Tonya Schuitmaker and others, ‘Well, I’ll see your 'we need an investigation,' and I’ll raise you a call for Lou Anna Simon to resign.”

So does anything actually come out of all this political fervor?

“We are almost certainly in 2018 are going to see legislative hearings [about MSU’s handling of Nassar], and people are going to be called in to testify, and they could be called in to testify under oath,” Pluta says, adding that civil lawsuits are now heading into the discovery phase, which gives plaintiffs’ attorneys the chance to get depositions from MSU employees.

“I think the odds are in favor of an independent investigation happening, at the state level,” Gorchow says. “We were told the FBI did some type of inquiry, but that of course can’t involve state charges. And I think there are more tools at the disposal of the attorney general here. I think there’s a very good chance that something will happen on that front.”

For historical parallels, both Pluta and Gorchow point to the ongoing criminal investigations in Flint.

“Michigan State may want to ask the administration of Rick Snyder how that’s gone for them, and what that might look like if the same thing happens here,” Gorchow says. “It will be an extremely difficult position for the University to be in.”  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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