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Knowing when to go

Jan 19, 2018

Credit Bike Ann Arbor / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I do not know Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon very well, but I did know her predecessor, Peter McPherson, whom she served as provost.

Once, I asked him how long a university president should stay in office. McPherson’s hero, the legendary John Hannah, had been MSU’s president for 27 years, and transformed the school from a small mostly agricultural college into a huge “megaversity.”

McPherson said the ideal was to leave one year before people wanted you to, so that in coming years, they would say “I wish President X would have stayed around for another year?” rather than, “thank God, at least Old X is finally gone.”

Sadly, Lou Anna Simon didn’t achieve that ideal.

I was hesitant to write this essay this morning, since it wasn’t at clear how long she could remain in office. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Michigan Senate can scarcely agree on the color of mud.

But both yesterday called on her to resign or be fired, as did much of the Legislature.

Simon has had the solid support of Michigan State’s board of trustees, which only weeks ago, voted to give her a raise as a mark of affirmation as the Larry Nassar sex scandal began to metastasize out of control.

Her situation was probably impossible even then.

And now we’ve learned that, as I’ve long suspected, many school officials had received complaints about sexual assaults by former MSU sports physician Larry Nassar, some going back two decades, and that nobody did anything.

If Lou Anna Simon knew what was going on, that is unforgivable. But if she didn’t know, that’s unforgivable too.

This was not an isolated case of abuse, but a serial molester who damaged the lives of well over a hundred women the school entrusted to his care.

I said nearly a year ago that her presidency was doomed, as it was clear neither she nor the university was moving fast enough to get out in front of the scandal.

Top heads should have rolled in the fall of 2016, after Nassar was finally fired and arrested and the magnitude of his crimes began to become clear.

It will take Michigan State years to recover from this, and they should hire a ruthless and skilled administrator to not only clean up the mess but change the culture.

Doing all that will take time.

But it is only fair to note as well that Lou Anna Simon is a good and decent woman who genuinely cared about MSU and its students.

She may be the only major university president who has really never worked anywhere else. She came to East Lansing in 1970 as a graduate student, moved into administration and worked through the ranks.

She was never flashy or flamboyant, and it was years before she was comfortable either with the media or as a public speaker. Simon also has a long history of either refusing raises or donating the money to scholarships or programs within the school.

Perhaps never having been a leader at another university was a weakness.

Her failure to move quickly is a cautionary tale. But I hope, Lou Anna Simon can also be remembered for stability and personal decency, and not just that she failed to deal with the monster within.

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.