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MSU made tragic mistakes in a story that needs no more tragedy

The "Sparty" statue on the MSU campus
Betsy Weber
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I’ve been wondering aloud for more than a year why the Larry Nassar case was not getting national attention. Well, it finally did, and it wasn’t pretty.

Dr. Nassar pled guilty to sexually assaulting ten girls and young women. But his victims numbered more than 100, many of them athletes at Michigan State University.

Credit John U. Bacon

Let’s be clear: Michigan State is not merely a good school. It is a world-class research university. Everyone I know who went there loved it.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that at least 14 Michigan State employees, who had been told by the victims what Nassar had done, proceeded to do little or nothing about it. Worse, they almost all claimed not to recall those conversations at all. What feeling person could possibly forget?

That brings us to President Lou Anna Simon, who told The Detroit News she had been informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report were filed against an unnamed doctor.

“I did not receive a copy of the report,” she said. “That’s the truth.”

She must believe this exonerates her, instead of raising the question of why she never asked to see the report, ask for a follow up, or even ask for the doctor’s name. The university allowed Nassar to continue practicing for 16 months, provided someone else joined him in the examination room. Nassar ignored that suggestion, without consequence, and continued to assault victims. One of them, 15-year old Emma Ann Miller, was abused a week before MSU finally fired Nassar in 2016.

This sadly fits a pattern described by Michigan Radio reporters of her administration’s passivity about sexual assault, and reluctance to make any changes until publicly pressured to do so.

What Simon knew, when she knew it, and what she did about it, will be for the courts to decide. But what Michigan State had to determine this week was straightforward: Did Simon have the confidence of the community to oversee an honest, objective investigation, and create meaningful reforms?

To its credit, the Michigan State community answered loudly and clearly, from student protests to the student paper, from outraged faculty, staff, and alumni, many doing noble work in the media, to the victims who told their stories in court.

They were uncommonly honest, strong, and brave – the opposite of the leaders they relied on to protect them. Their courage finally brought the national spotlight to the worst pedophile scandal in American history.

Yes, worse than Penn State. Jerry Sandusky was a former Penn State football coach, working with a local charity while preying on the young boys enrolled there. When the story broke, the Penn State players I talked to had no idea who Sandusky was.

The Michigan State athletes not only knew Nassar, they were his victims. Yet several Michigan State employees helped keep Nassar on the faculty until 2016. Michigan State owns this one.

The University’s leaders could have stopped the bleeding several times during this tragedy. Instead, the Trustees held an emergency, five-hour meeting last week – even as the victims told their stories in a courtroom across town. Instead of demanding President Simon’s departure, most trustees expressed their confidence in her, doubling down on the disaster.

Three days later, longtime Trustee Joel Ferguson dismissed the scandal as “this Nassar thing,” said Simon was “by far the best president we’ve ever had,” and boldly proclaimed the NCAA would never investigate Michigan State because, “they're not competent.”

If Ferguson was trying to sabotage his alma mater, mission accomplished. The next day, the NCAA announced it would be investigating Michigan State.

Two decades ago, former Michigan athletic director Don Canham gave me the smartest take I’ve ever heard on crisis management: Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.

This is not to suggest that Michigan State's primary problem is public relations. Far from it. It is to say that when leaders are presented with a crisis, their first task is to not make it worse. In that, Michigan State’s leaders have failed almost every time they open their mouths. They seem determined to turn a two-decade story into a three-decade story.  

Finally, on Wednesday night, President Simon resigned, but not before releasing a statement that revealed far more than she intended.

She opened by stating, “The last year and a half has been very difficult for the victims of Larry Nassar, for the university community, and for me personally.”

She added, "As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger."

And she closed by saying, “I will continue to do whatever I can to help MSU… in whatever role I may play.”

Based on Simon’s letter alone, the smaller her role is, the better for everyone.   

John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

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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