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How do you fix the mess at MSU?

Dec 12, 2017

Last week I talked about the sexual assault scandal involving sport doctor Larry Nassar at Michigan State University and its possible effect on next year’s campaign for governor. 

Gretchen Whitmer, the likely Democratic nominee, was Ingham County prosecutor when newspaper accounts reported that women were coming forth to charge that Nassar had sexually abused them.

The prosecutor’s office didn’t file charges against Nassar then. One prominent Democrat, a supporter of Whitmer’s, told me he was worried Republicans would charge that she was soft on crime because she didn’t do so.

After that, Whitmer called me and said the reason she didn’t press charges was twofold. Her office was working with the Michigan Attorney General’s office to pin down the case against Nassar, for one thing.

For another, Nasser had committed crimes in at least two counties – hers and nearby Eaton, where he was accused of molesting a six-year-old. Since there were multiple jurisdictions, she thought Attorney General Bill Schuette ought to prosecute the cases. 

That may well make sense. But it’s unlikely to be the end of the argument, since Schuette and Whitmer are likely to be their respective parties’ nominees for governor.

However, there’s a far bigger story that has nothing to do with partisan politics. It has to do with how badly damaged Michigan State eventually may be. Nassar has already pleaded guilty to multiple charges, possibly with more to come. He is unlikely to ever leave prison. But the world of hurt is just starting for Michigan State, its students, its leaders, and its alumni.

No fewer than 144 women have already filed lawsuits against the university for not protecting them. Compare that to the previously biggest college scandal, the one involving Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State who was convicted of molesting young boys, some on the school campus.

As I noted earlier, settlements and legal fees cost Penn State nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, and MSU has four times as many victims. MSU hired Patrick Fitzgerald, a former federal prosecutor, to review the case. He said that he has found nothing to indicate any cover-up and that somehow, “Nassar fooled everyone around him – patients, friends, colleagues and fellow doctors.”

But that’s not likely to satisfy anyone. Gretchen Whitmer thinks the attorney general’s office should have the Michigan State Police investigate. Others want an investigation by the Legislature. And the Lansing State Journal is calling for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to quit or be fired. The school’s board of trustees indignantly dismissed that idea.

However, it is hard to imagine her surviving, especially when she didn’t move early on to get out in front of this scandal. I have admired President Simon for years, but in one way she is an anomaly among large university presidents: She has never worked anywhere else since she arrived as a graduate student in 1969. The lack of outside experience may be a handicap.

What worries me is this. Graham Spanier, Penn State’s president at the time of that scandal, has been sentenced to jail for child endangerment. He’s still fighting his conviction. His senior vice president and athletic director have already done time.

I am not suggesting that could happen here. But nobody saw this coming there, either.

Those who aren’t deeply worried about MSU aren’t paying attention.

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.