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150 MSU faculty: We need an outside investigation in sex abuse case

Mar 1, 2017

Professor John Kerr wants to be really clear: It's not that he thinks MSU police aren't doing a great job, or that the administration has anything to hide in its effort to investigate Dr. Larry Nassar, a former professor and sports physician at the school.

It's just that Kerr, and at least another 150 faculty members at Michigan State University who signed a letter detailing their concerns, are worried it looks bad if the university essentially investigates itself in a massive criminal sexual abuse case.

"If the MSU police are responsible for gathering the evidence, and the MSU police report to the university, then if other evidence comes forward that was not part of the investigation, we’re going to have a real problem on our hands,” says Kerr, a professor in the Department of Community Sustainability.

Kerr sent a copy of that letter, which you can read below. 

The criminal case: sexual abuse and allegations that MSU staff knew

Since this summer, MSU Police have taken the lead in the criminal investigation into Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar was a renowned USA Gymnastics doctor and a professor and sports doctor at MSU.

At least 80 women and children have come forward to the MSU PD, claiming Nassar sexually abused them, including digital and anal penetration, under the guise of medical treatment.

Several of those women also say they told their gymnastics coach and other athletic trainers about the abuse years ago – but that nothing was done.

A current student and gymnast claims a university official told the gymnastics team not to talk to police about the investigation, and that their cell phones would be checked.

“I’m actually really impressed by professionalism of the MSU police and what they’ve said,” Kerr says. “But what struck me is that, if there were to be information that were to come out, that emerged not from the investigation but from a separate source, that would like really bad.

"That would look like the university was trying to hide something. If the investigation was conducted by an outside source and that were to happen, nobody would jump to that conclusion."

Faculty, alumni worry about how this looks for MSU

Professor Emeritus Frank Fear, who spends the winters in Florida, says alumni in that area have been talking about the Nassar investigation.

“Among the alums here, it is a topic of conversation. And so people would share with each other their thoughts, and one of the things that came up, not always, but one was the appropriateness of the Michigan State taking the lead, and essentially investigating itself,” says Fear. “Not that it doesn’t have the capacity to do that, it does. The MSU police is a very good force. But the question is, given the circumstances, would it be better to pass the baton?”

Handing off the case to an outside agency, Fear says, would prevent any victims or onlookers from second-guessing the findings.

“[That] basically takes out of the picture any possibility of people saying: Michigan State University investigated itself, I wonder if certain things were not communicated? I understand that that’s offensive to anybody who’s investigating the case … because it may suggest that something is awry. That’s not what we’re saying.”   

MSU’s response: Our police will continue to lead this impartial investigation  

Kerr says he read the letter to President Lou Anna K. Simon at a faculty meeting on Tuesday.

“In response to our letter yesterday at the University Council meeting, President Simon said that most of the time, when MSU police are conducting interviews in the investigation, they have somebody else on hand, like for example from the FBI or another police force,” he says.

Asked to confirm that response, university spokesman Jason Cody, said in an email:

“As I wasn’t part of the conversation between the president and any faculty member, I can’t comment on whether what you are hearing is an accurate recap. What I can tell you is our police are the lead investigating agency on all aspects of the Nassar criminal investigation. That means our detectives handle the initial interviews with victims, witnesses, etc. In some cases, if it is part of the federal investigation, it’s possible that we may coordinate interviews with the FBI. Or, as we prepare a report to go the state AG, it is very common for an assistant AG to sit in on an interview as a case is prepared.”

Cody adds that “our police are the lead investigating agency in this investigation and will remain so,” pointing to a statement from MSU PD Chief James Dunlap last week addressing these concerns.

“Chief Dunlap will provide status updates [about the investigation] to leadership,” Cody says. “However, investigative details are not shared.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office has repeatedly expressed their full confidence in MSU PD.

“We never had concerns about MSU PD,” says Andrea Bitely, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, in an email today. “The officers and Chief Dunlap himself are certified law enforcement officers with years of experience in investigations and their first mission is to justice. Det/Sgt [Andrea] Munford has extensive experience in working with victims of sexual assault, and in the victim support community she has a tremendous reputation.”

For his part, MSU PD Chief James Dunlap addressed the conflict-of-interest-concerns head on in a statement last week, which you can read here.

“I want to assure you, and most importantly, the survivors, that we are all conducting a thorough and impartial investigation,” he says. “The MSU Police Department consists of 85 officers who have all received specialized training in victim centered/trauma focused investigations, including the neurobiology of trauma. The MSU Police Department has a Special Victims Unit with full-time detectives assigned to cases such as the Nassar investigation…. As a result of those investigations, 28 felony charges and indictments have been secured.” 

Here's the contents of the faculty letter that Kerr sent: 

"We, the undersigned faculty, want the best for Michigan State University--the institution, its people, and its image.

Like many others, we are concerned about the allegations, investigations, and legal proceedings Associated with the Dr. Larry Nassar case. While we are confident that University leaders are engaging capably in addressing this matter, there is an issue that prompts this letter. 

We believe that a body or bodies external to the University should take the lead in the Nassar investigation. That recommendation applies to both the Title IX and criminal investigation. For us, it is not a question of whether MSU Police can take the lead competently. It is a question of ensuring investigative independence. Hiring external consultants is not sufficient. 

The guilt or innocence of an accused is not the only matter at hand.  Public perception is critically important. MSU Police are accountable to the MSU administration and that portrays a lack of investigative independence. Moreover, that could give the appearance that MSU has something to hide, even if it does not. 

Regardless of who leads the investigation, eventually the truth will come out. MSU will be far better off for having allowed external investigators to uncover whatever truth remains to be revealed. 

We know that the University is not obligated legally to make an investigative shift. But we believe that voluntarily passing the baton will reaffirm public trust in Michigan State University. "