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The MSU/Nassar Scandal: Who Should Pay?

Larry Nassar at a hearing in Michigan in 2017
Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Here’s something those running Michigan State University have to know: The lawsuits stemming from former university physician Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse are likely to cost the school hundreds of millions of dollars.

The sexual assault scandals at Penn State cost that school a quarter of a billion, counting legal fees, and there are four times as many victims pursuing lawsuits here. Depending on whether MSU wants to fight these in court or settle them, the repercussions could last years.

Jack Lessenberry

But who should foot the bill? Klint Kesto, a Republican state representative from Oakland County, says he is going to introduce a bill to prevent Michigan colleges or universities from using taxpayer funds to settle any lawsuits related to sexual misconduct.

Well, that’s an idea that sounds good for about half a second. Until you do something like think about it. Yes, it’s tempting to ask, why should the taxpayers pay for this mess?

But the reality is that MSU is a state school. It was founded and chartered by the legislators before the Civil War. Another ongoing scandal, in my view, is that the taxpayers, thanks to our lawmakers’ priorities, have given our state universities less and less funding.

Forty-five years ago, state appropriations accounted for something like 70 percent of MSU’s budget. Now, it’s barely 21 percent. Where does the school get the rest of the money?

Nearly all of it – 71 percent – comes from tuition and fees. This is why an increasing number of students can’t afford MSU, and why others graduate $40, $60, even a hundred thousand dollars in debt with no high-paying job in sight.

Now, it might be a mistake to take Kesto’s bill too seriously. For one thing, he’s running for Congress. He’s term-limited out of the state house, and needs to get himself noticed in what’s expected to be a crowded primary field. This is for the congressional seat now held by Dave Trott, who decided that two terms were enough.

Well, fine. But who will then pay? Does MSU pay the inevitable costs by raising tuition on the students, most of whom are from Michigan and who are, or at least their parents are, taxpayers? Some may then have to drop out.

Others will suffer financially far more than they would otherwise. Now, if this really Kesto’s position, we need to ask him this: The taxpayers have been billed millions for outside counsel to shield Governor Rick Snyder from any potential lawsuits stemming from the Flint water poisoning scandal. Why should that be?

Isn’t the state attorney general’s office tasked with defending state officials who are charged with wrongdoing? Funny, but I don’t recall Kesto rushing to introduce legislation to prevent Snyder from sticking the taxpayers here.

There’s no denying that there’s a mess at Michigan State, and that there was insufficient oversight and accountability. I think it’s fair to say the way the place has been run is a scandal, and that a complete investigation and probably housecleaning is needed.

But it is a state institution, owned by the taxpayers, and that means we all, in some form, will have to pay. The focus should be on preventing this from happening again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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