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Bacon: Instead of worrying about damage control, Michigan leaders need to "start with the truth"

Robert E. Anderson pictured in 1967.
University of Michigan
Bentley Historical Library
Robert E. Anderson pictured in 1967.

This month we’ve learned the University of Michigan is facing a version of the same problem that has recently beset Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State: A former staff member has been accused of sexually abusing students.

Former patients have claimed Dr. Bob Anderson engaged in unnecessary exams and inappropriate contactwith male students. The complaints about Anderson were sufficient by 1979 for Anderson’s supervisor to relieve him of his duties at the University’s Student Health Services.

But the department allowed Anderson to resign, and apparently did not report his conduct to any other authorities. Anderson transferred to the athletic department, where he worked for 24 years. He retired in 2003, and died in 2008.

I’ve recently talked with former Michigan athletes, who had running jokes about “Doctor Drop Your Drawers.”

“Come in with a cold, ‘Drop your drawers,’” one told me, backed by others. “Come in with a bad shoulder, ‘Drop your drawers.’”

In most cases, it seems, that’s where it ended. In others, patients endured unneeded rectal exams and other violations – and haven’t forgotten them. The potential for lasting harm is obvious.

John U. Bacon

There can be no doubt that, if confirmed, Anderson’s conduct would represent a decades-long blight on Michigan’s record – but how bad it continues to be depends on Michigan’s response.

Michigan’s leaders have one big advantage: they’ve already seen their peers go through this. When I studied the crises at Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State, I did not find dysfunctional cultures. Far from it: the students, the faculty, and the alumni all “got it,” and wanted their leaders to do the right thing. But I found those very leaders pathetically self-serving and short-sighted, making already bad situations much, much worse.

If Michigan’s leaders are smart, they’ll heed the lessons learned, and minimize the damage to the former students and the University. Ultimately, though, this isn’t about investigation strategies or public relations tactics, but something much deeper, and finer: our basic morality, which should inform all that follows.

They can start by taking the advice of Bruce Madej, Michigan’s long time sports information director. Whenever Michigan faced a crisis Madej always said, “First, let’s start with the truth.”

Good idea. Instead of worrying about damage control, the impact on careers, and image over substance, Michigan should do what world-class research universities do best: pursue the truth, wherever it leads, without fear or favor.

If they try to cut corners, this could last for years – which is exactly what will happen if they drag their feet, deny the facts, or impugn the victims.

They need to interview Anderson’s patients and colleagues, dig up the files, and sort out whatever happened. They should answer Freedom of Information requests promptly, produce a clear report for the public, sincerely apologize for any damage done, make further amends where appropriate, and enact reforms to ensure this never happens again.

But the most important thing Michigan’s leaders can do is the simplest: treat the victims like human beings. Fail that, and nothing else will matter much.

John U. Bacon is the author of seven national bestsellers, most recently Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football.

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John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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