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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.