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MSU’s fiscal reckoning exposes governance void

May 19, 2018

Now we know what incompetent governance cost at Michigan State University.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Half a billion dollars. That's the price to settle with 332 women sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar and a reserve fund to compensate women who still might come forward. It’s the prospect of a 2.5 percent budget cut to free up cash to make good on the settlement. It’s untold damage to the university’s reputation, to its attractiveness to would-be students and, yes, to the state.

A lot more people will pay for the sins of Nassar for the lax oversight exercised by MSU’s politicized board of trustees and for what passed for leadership under former President Lou Anna Simon and her athletic director, Mark Hollis.

Students will pay – if not in inflated tuition, then in diminished programs. Faculty will pay – in budgets diminished more than they otherwise would. Athletes will pay in programs tarnished by the stain of Nassar. The university itself will pay in higher borrowing costs and probably lower donations from disgusted alumni.

Who would blame them? The indifference MSU leadership showed to the mounting Nassar evidence and the lives affected is stunning. Even more stunning is the institutional bias for self-protection to make consequential decisions out of the public eye whenever possible.

That’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Interim President John Engler says the aftermath of the whole mess offers MSU a chance to be a laboratory for developing processes to ensure someone like Nassar can never again operate unmolested within a university. He’s absolutely right, in theory.

In practice, it’s hard to see how the necessarily self-critical exercise could flourish in the MSU’s butt-covering culture, starting with its trustees. How they’re still occupying their respective seats is a marvel – of what? Arrogance? Cluelessness? A total lack of accountability?

Culture is shaped by leaders and their values. And real culture change can’t be delivered by creatures of the culture needing change. That’s why MSU needs a new slate of trustees as badly as it needs to find a permanent replacement for Simon. They’re part of the problem that made Nassar possible.

And yet, they’re still there. I recently heard Trustee Brian Mosallam on Michigan Radio detailing his plan to inject accountability at senior levels of the university. He said all the right things – until the host suggested the trustees might be part of the problem and might need to go.

He naturally sidestepped the question, and essentially suggested that’s not necessary. Now, that may be true in some situations. But this is not one of those situations.

The cultural change we’ve seen in the leadership behavior of General Motors and the city of Detroit is because the crises they both endured (courtesy of bankruptcy) also delivered new kinds of leaders who don’t just talk about accountability. They deliver it.

Thinking MSU’s trustees will, quote, “learn” from the hugely expensive Nassar debacle is the triumph of hope over a whole lot of common sense. It won’t work.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. 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.