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Creeping cancer at MSU

Apr 4, 2017

Forty-four years ago, in another early spring, a young lawyer went to the President of the United States and told him, “There's no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we've got. We have a cancer within -- close to the presidency, that's growing. It's growing daily. It's compounding. It grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”

Those were the words of John Dean to President Richard Nixon. We know exactly what they were, because Nixon bugged himself. The cancer of Watergate destroyed him, of course, and many other people. I thought of those words yesterday.

And I wondered this: Has anyone sat in the office of Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and said a version of those words to her? Because someone needs to do so, and fast, before the creeping cancer of twin scandals destroys all in its path.

Let me hasten to say that President Simon is not Richard Nixon. He was the architect of the paranoid scheme of clumsy dirty tricks that destroyed his presidency.

Lou Anna Simon is a self-effacing leader, dedicated to the school, someone I know slightly and admire. The average university president lasts barely six years. MSU has had only two presidents in the last 24 years.

Simon, who has been at the school since she arrived as a graduate student in 1970, was the handpicked choice of the man she succeeded, Peter McPherson, who I thought was the school’s greatest leader since John Hannah.

Yet the university is being rocked by two horrendous sex scandals, the problem is indeed compounding daily, and there seems to be little willingness at the top to engage with them.

Almost two months ago, Michigan State’s football team announced that three players, and possibly a staff member, were the subject of a criminal sexual assault complaint, and were being suspended. But this was overshadowed by what seems certain to be one of the most horrible scandals in the history of college sports.

So far, at least 78 women have joined in a lawsuit against Michigan State and its former physician, Larry Nassar, who they say sexually abused them during medical examinations.

There have been allegations of a massive cover-up, and a gymnastics coach was fired, supposedly for discouraging women from speaking out.

Four lower-ranking MSU officials have been named in one lawsuit, and it is only a matter of time before someone asks a version of the Watergate question that made Howard Baker famous:

What did the President know, and when did he President know it?

Inexplicably, Simon has not moved to get out in front of these problems, to be the voice deman ding accountability and justice. On February 17, she said “we are committed to creating a culture both of accountability and safety.”

And that was it. The football coach finally held a press conference a week ago and said “I hope everybody understands how serious we are taking this.”

In an attempt to prove that, he added that getting this cleaned up was more important than who his quarterback will be next year. Well, this isn’t a episode of the Simpsons.

Michigan State is a multi-billion dollar enterprise badly in need of some take-charge leadership. Some may think the trustees aren’t getting steadily more concerned.

But they would be wrong.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.