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Who should investigate MSU?

Jan 22, 2018

When I heard Friday that Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees was meeting behind closed doors with President Lou Anna Simon, I assumed this was to accept or compel her resignation. After the revelation that she had known at least something about the allegations against sports medicine Dr. Larry Nassar for years, I thought there was no other option.

But to my surprise, she emerged to announce not her resignation, but news that the trustees were instead asking Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to “undertake a review … to answer questions that persist concerning MSU’s handling of the Nassar situation.”

Suddenly, my mind flashed back to the final days of Watergate, when Richard Nixon, following the revelation of the “smoking gun tape,” called a cabinet meeting to bizarrely propose a national summit meeting on the economy. Attorney General Bill Saxbe interrupted and said he didn’t think that made sense because they weren’t sure he had the ability to govern. With that, the Nixon presidency came to an end. But there were apparently no Bill Saxbes in that MSU meeting.

I was further flabbergasted when, in her message about asking for the attorney general’s review, Simon added that MSU’s lawyers were working to deny the right of Nassar’s victims to sue the school for compensation for what they suffered. And she claimed this was “in no way a reflection of our view of the survivors, for whom we have the utmost respect and sympathy.”

Well, within hours, I heard from a very senior member of the judiciary. He has no connection to MSU and no opinion about Lou Anna Simon. But he thought asking the attorney general to look into the case was absolutely the stupidest thing Michigan State could do.

“For one thing, he’s a politician running for governor,” he said.

But beyond that, he told me that the only way to do this properly would be to appoint a one-person grand jury. “Whoever investigates this needs three things: First, the power to compel testimony. Second, the ability to put witnesses under oath and make them tell the truth. Finally, the power to grant immunity from prosecution in the rare case where that may be necessary. The attorney general has none of those things,” he noted, lamenting that grand juries are seldom used any more, though Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge who forced Nassar to listen to his victims, did serve as a one-person grand jury in an investigation of former Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger five years ago.

My judicial expert also advised that beyond worrying about whether laws were broken, the MSU board should demand a full investigation by an outside body, perhaps an institution that accredits universities, into how MSU handled this scandal from an ethical standpoint.

“And nobody on that commission should be from Michigan or have any ties to Michigan State,” he said.

All that makes a great deal of sense to me. We do not know how much money MSU is losing every day from angry former donors, or how many superior students are deciding this is no place they want to apply. I don’t much like the phrase “draining the swamp.” But that’s what needs to happen in East Lansing, if Michigan State is ever to regain the reputation it has so sadly lost.

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.