At the end of January, Lou Anna K. Simon resigned from her position as the president of Michigan State University amidst the fallout from Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults conviction.
At the time, despite a tone-deaf statement from Simon, Michigan State seemed to finally be reckoning with its role in enabling Nassar’s sexual abuse of more than 250 victims, many under the guise of medical treatment, on MSU’s campus.
But less than two months later, it’s clear that Michigan State is far more focused on downplaying its own liability in a court of law and in the court of public opinion than it is on providing any accountability and resources for healing to Nassar’s victims.
MSU administrators have thoroughly botched the handling of the Nassar case at every turn. They simply don’t get it.
The first sign that Simon’s resignation wasn’t going to be the catalyst for real change came in early February, when the MSU Board of Trustees unanimously appointed John Engler as its interim President. Engler is a vocal conservative who formerly served as the governor of Michigan from 1991-2003. He is also a close ally of beleaguered Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
His appointment angered many in the MSU community — not only is Engler an undeniably political choice, he has no experience in academic administration, and when he was governor, he actively blocked an investigation into sexual assault at women’s prisons.
The trustees reassured the public by saying Engler will “reflect our desire to keep a focus on survivors and the victims,” and Engler comforted the public himself by saying he would “move forward as though my own daughters were on this campus.”
But if anyone gave Engler the benefit of the doubt, it didn’t take long for him to prove his critics right.
Earlier this month, prominent survivors of Nassar’s abuse worked with lawmakers in Michigan to write a package of bills that would, among other things, increase the statute of limitations for sexual assault victims and make more people mandatory reporters of child sex abuse. All 15 public universities in Michigan lobbied against the bill, but Engler took things a step further.
He met with lawmakers to forcefully oppose the legislation, saying that Nassar survivors were only supporting it in order to gain leverage in settlement talks. He also complained that litigation with victims had been hard for him, and suggested that the survivors were not interested in mediation, a claim that John Manly, a lawyer for many of the women suing Nassar and MSU, staunchly denies.
Watching Engler testify and lie that our team doesn’t want mediation or has been blocking it. We have been begging MSU for mediation for months. We have proposed mediators, dates and tried everything to get MSU to the table . He is not telling the truth but what else is new?
— john manly (@johnmanly) March 15, 2018
Then, through MSU spokespeople, Engler got into a war of words with Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to publicly come forward and accuse Nassar of sexual assault.
Denhollander, who has been called the leader of the Army of Survivors fighting for justice in the wake of Nassar’s abuse, issued a strongly-worded statement after she found out that Engler was pushing back against the legislation.
“I am appalled to know that MSU president Engler personally came to the Senate to try to stop this vital legislation,” Denhollander said. “He chose to stand against every child and every sexual assault victim in the entire state, to protect an institution. That is despicable and says everything we need to know about what he will value as a leader. Just as terrible, the MSU board let him do it.”
“We share the Senate’s concern for making sure nothing like the crimes committed by Larry Nassar ever happens again,” Michigan State spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said. “But opening the door to massive numbers of retroactive lawsuits and eroding governmental immunity has the potential for many unexpected consequences.”
Engler’s spokesman, John Truscott, responded to Denhollander’s statement by saying Engler was merely concerned about the economic impact of the legislation, and that he merely wanted there to be more research. Then, he attacked her knowledge on the subject.
“I think it would be inappropriate for somebody to try to cast an opinion on something they know nothing about,” Truscott told ESPN. “Here you have people who don’t have experience in legislative process making comment about legislative process.”
Denhollander is an attorney and used to work for a Michigan state representative. She has done an immense amount of research on these laws, and worked closely with lawmakers to craft them. She also noted on Twitter that because of Engler’s comments, more abuse was being heaped on survivors on social media.
Engler lied. I came to Sen OBrien about these bills, with the research to back it because I knew from years of researching abuse dynamics that these laws were archaic and damaging. This is about stopping sexual abuse for us. MSU doesn't share these values. #MSUshameonyou https://t.co/4WRANQMmbo
— Rachael Denhollander (@R_Denhollander) March 15, 2018
MSU Pres. Engler's choice to lie about survivors, legislation, and mediation yesterday – instead of blaming MSU leaders who covered up the abuse – means survivors and parents getting harassing, blaming messages today. WRONG. #MSUShameonyou
— Rachael Denhollander (@R_Denhollander) March 17, 2018
Thankfully, despite the pushback by Engler, the package of bills passed through the Senate with bipartisan support, and is now in the House.
Engler hasn’t showed any signs of quieting down, though. When an ESPN reporter asked him about cases of sexual assault at MSU — not only by Nassar, but also in the football and men’s basketball programs, according to reporting by the network — Engler snapped back by referencing a lawsuit against ESPN for sexual misconduct.
While Engler has more than earned his share of scorn for mishandling the Nassar aftermath, he’s far from the only representative of the university who has been dismissive of the concerns of victims the past couple of months.
During the Board of Trustee’s first meeting after Simon’s resignation, Brian Breslin, the chairman of the board, publicly praised the “leadership and organizational skills of Lou Anna Simon.” Despite a “no confidence” vote from the MSU Faculty Senate, no member of the board has resigned. Instead, the board has hired a high-powered law firm that charges $990 per hour to represent itself in any lawsuits.
A recent report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that in 2016, just weeks after Nassar was fired amid the accusations of sexual assault, his boss, Dean William Strampel, told students that he didn’t believe Nassar’s victims.
“Patients lie to get doctors in trouble. And we’re seeing that right now in the news with this Nassar stuff,” Strampel said. “I don’t think any of these women were actually assaulted by Larry, but Larry didn’t learn that lesson and didn’t have a chaperone in the room, so now they see an opening and they can take advantage of him.”
After his men’s basketball team was upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend, MSU head coach Tom Izzo, spoke about the damage — “Some of it for mistakes, rightfully so. Some of them, not rightfully so.” — the Nassar case and other sexual assault reports have had on his program, and what a tough year it had been for him.
It was, undoubtedly, a turbulent year for anyone associated with Michigan State. But Izzo and everyone at MSU could have made things a bit easier by making sure the focus remained where it should be — on the victims.
Engler said that would be his focus. It turns out, those were just words. At MSU, it seems that’s the playbook everyone is following.