Michigan State Reform Efforts Off to Discouraging Start

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The local coverage of sexual assaults at Michigan State seemed to fly under the national radar for months, until hundreds of the victims of former sports doctor Larry Nassar spoke up in court. Now it’s a national headline, and will be for years.

The anger and outrage over Nassar’s two decades of sexual abuse, the scathing ESPN report on football and basketball players, and the role some employees allegedly played in protecting them, provided the dynamite needed to break these cases open, and force Michigan State’s leaders to take action.

But now is the time for cooler heads to prevail. MSU’s leaders need to stop circling the wagons to keep investigators out, while MSU’s most vocal critics need to stop screaming, “Burn it all down!” Neither approach helps.

The gravity of this situation requires strong leaders of integrity who can ensure justice is rendered fairly to all, and real reforms are enacted to make sure this never happens again.

But the first steps have not been encouraging. On Monday, five faculty members of Michigan State’s Steering Committee met with five Trustees to discuss how to transform Michigan State into “the nationally recognized leader in the prevention of sexual harassment and sexual abuse” — a noble goal. The Steering Committee urged the Trustees to conduct an open, thorough search for an interim president, to find an academic with experience addressing sexual harassment and abuse.

The Trustees took just one day to do the exact opposite, on every front, by appointing former Governor John Engler – who has a history of devaluing both assault victims and public schools. The faculty representatives are now preparing to hold a vote of “No confidence” – not a promising start.

But the problems don’t stop there. Engler has publicly endorsed Attorney General Bill Schuette’s bid for Governor. How tough can Schuette afford to be on Interim President Engler’s university when he wants Engler’s support?

Schuette appointed a special prosecutor, former Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth, whose retirement party two years ago was funded partly by Michigan State booster Peter Secchia. He’s the major donor who said, “if you don’t feel comfortable with your children at Michigan State, take them somewhere else.”

The problems are bipartisan. Former Ingham County Prosecutor, Democrat Stuart Dunnings, was convicted of 15 prostitution-related charges. Since most of the sexual assault cases at Michigan State fell under Dunnings’ jurisdiction, how he handled them is now a legitimate question for investigators. His replacement was Gretchen Whitmer, is now Schuette’s most likely opponent for Governor.

At this level it’s difficult to avoid all potential conflicts of interest. But it’s not this difficult.

Another Trustee, Joel Ferguson, boasted that the NCAA would never investigate MSU because it’s too incompetent. Ferguson is actually right about the NCAA’s incompetence, but not about its self-regard. The next day, the NCAA called his bluff. Easy guess: the NCAA, whose president was informed of sexual assaults at MSU back in 2010, will screw this up as badly as it screwed up the Penn State case.

The most important quality any reformers must have is the confidence of the community they’re trying to reform. And that’s something all these leaders lack.

Maybe I’m wrong – and I sincerely hope I am.

Perhaps Engler will prove a wise, strong, and apolitical advocate for the victims, and lead his alma mater out of this mess.

Maybe Bill Schuette will forget that he needs voters both inside and outside the MSU community and make impartial decisions going forward.

And perhaps special prosecutor Bill Forsyth will ignore his ties to former Governor Engler and booster Secchia and act independently; the Trustees will do what’s best for their community, not themselves; and the NCAA will come to its senses and realize the same organization that spends its time debating whether it’s a violation to spread cream cheese on a bagel is not up to the task of adjudicating actual felonies.

But I doubt it.



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9 comments Leave a comment  

  • Tom Blaske February 2, 2018 at 9:53 am

    Message (Required)
    Is there any evidence that any of Nassar’s victims were UM athletes?
    If YES, did any of them complain or question or infrom anybody in UM leadership?
    If YES, how did UM leadership handle it?

  • Dan streiffquired) February 2, 2018 at 10:32 am

    Message (Required)j
    John. As an Ann Arbor native, a Michigan fan with a MSU graduate degree I think the trustees realize this is serious and will not impede an investigation. Enjoyed all your books.

  • Phil February 2, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Hi John,

    Listened in on my way to work. Many thanks for an honest and candid assessment of this terrible situation. I’m surprised Joel Ferguson is still on the board following his obvious and ignorant interview blunder. As time passes this story grows more tails, not just with MSU but nationwide, “The Ranch”, USOC, USAG, Twistars, Holt Public Schools, Sue Carter, Shannon Smith, Diane Rork termination, and the miscues in appointing local political hacks as overseers/investigators of the entire matter. The courage of the victims is profound. Last I saw Nolan Finley(The Detroit News) estimates this could cost MSU up to $1B in damages!

  • johnubacon February 2, 2018 at 11:27 am

    I don’t think they’ll impede an investigation, but I don’t think it was wise to alienate the faculty and students with their appointment for interim. Here’s hoping it all goes well for everyone’s sake.

  • johnubacon February 2, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Much thanks, Phil. No doubt, this story is far from over. Let’s hope everyone does the right thing to get to the bottom of it all, take action, enact reforms, and go forward.

  • Bruce February 2, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Be interesting to find out if Dunnings or any other prosecutor or members of law enforcement got invited to the President’s suite for games or had tickets left for them at will call (ala Ed Martin)

  • David M. Fraser February 3, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Bull’s eye Mr. John U. Bacon, Bull’s eye!

    Thank you so much for your consistently fine work.

  • Tom Blaske February 5, 2018 at 10:30 am

    is there a Michigan entanglement with this fiasco?

  • Scott L. Gibson February 5, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    John: Many thanks for your very interesting and informative article on the issues confronting MSU. The arrogance of the Spartan Board of Trustees and the insensitive comments of Peter Secchira and Joel Ferguson are astounding. Is it too much to ask for a fair and impartial investigation of the alleged sexual assaults by Spartan athletes? And what about the lack of immediate action being taken when members of the school’s women’s gymnastics team voiced concerns to their coach about Dr. Larry Nasser? Virtually everyone involved in the so-called investigation is closely associated with MSU. Michigan State does not seem to understand (or care) that it is being tried in the courtroom of public opinion. The issues that confront MSU can’t be rationalized or covered up. Too many young women have already suffered enough! MSU is a great school. Its image need not be tarnished further by an by an investigation that lacks objectivity or credibility in the mind of the public.


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