Last week, Lindsey Lemke attended the Michigan State University Athletic Gala, a dinner the university hosts for student athletes with GPAs above a 3.0.
The gymnast was thrilled and grateful for a night out to celebrate her academic accomplishments. After all, this year has been anything but easy. Lemke is a “Sister Survivor,” the moniker ascribed to the 256 survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse who have spent the last 18 months fighting — not just for justice for Nassar, but for accountability of those that enabled his crimes. She’s one of only a handful of Nassar survivors who is still a student at MSU.
But a night of celebration soon turned into one of frustration, when the host began by talking about how challenging the year has been for the Spartans, how the university won’t let one man — Nassar, it was implied — bring it down, and how hard it has been for Nassar’s survivors.
“I’m fuming at this point,” Lemke told ThinkProgress. “He’s comparing how hard of a time it’s been for Michigan State for the past 16 months with how hard of a time it’s been for the survivors — some for over 20 years.”
“I think you can ask any survivor at this point, that we’re just exhausted from fighting.”
For Lemke, it was the latest demonstration of how the university still doesn’t care about the victims. It came during the same week that Michigan State revealed identifying information about a Jane Doe —in possible violation of federal law — in response to a Title IX lawsuit she filed alleging she was gang raped by MSU basketball players; and the same week when 18-year-old Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz revealed at a Board of Trustees meeting that MSU interim President John Engler tried to pay her hush money during a private meeting. When she told the story of that encounter publicly for the first time, Engler warned her to “be careful.”
In other words, the university is still on the defensive. And it is so preoccupied with trying to portray the institution as a victim, it’s throwing the actual victims under the bus at every turn.
“It is frustrating, I think you can ask any survivor at this point, that we’re just exhausted from fighting,” Lemke said. “Waking up every single day just in complete exhaustion knowing that what we’ve done so far still has not made an impact is insane, because we have gone through so much.”
The Sister Survivors aren’t giving up. Ever. But they can’t fight this battle alone. Currently, the entire Board of Trustees at MSU is still in place; the national spotlight that engulfed the story during Nassar’s sentencing hearings in January has all but disappeared; many of Nassar’s enablers — including former president Lou Anna K. Simon — have been allowed to resign or retire with full benefits; and the university continues to enjoy a plethora of sponsors and donors. In fact, it is wrapping up a $262 million fundraising campaign to “take MSU athletics to new heights.” The motto of the campaign? “Empower Extraordinary.”
All of this despite the fact that, day by day, the school continues to make the worst sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history markedly worse through its words and (in)actions. Something has to give.
The university still hasn’t taken responsibility for its failures
We know that Larry Nassar worked as a doctor at Michigan State for 20 years, and that during his time there, the school paid him generously, provided him with an office on campus, referred student-athletes from across the athletic department and beyond to be treated by him, honored him with awards, and leveraged his work as an Olympic doctor as an advertising, recruiting, and fundraising tool.
We also know that between 1997 and 2015, almost a dozen girls and women raised concerns about Nassar’s “treatments” — which were, in fact, sexual abuse — to authority figures within MSU. As recently as 2014, when Amanda Thomashow filed a formal Title IX complaint about Nassar, MSU failed to protect its students in every way.
Yet the school is still hellbent on portraying itself as an innocent bystander — even collateral damage — to Nassar’s crimes, rather than taking any responsibility for its true role: as systemic enablers who allowed his abuse to continue unchecked for decades.
“We feel compelled to note MSU appears to defiantly and wrongfully maintain it did not mishandle this investigation.”
Earlier this month, the Michigan legislature released a damning report into MSU’s handling of investigations into Nassar, which concluded that Nassar exploited loopholes in substandard university policies to abuse his patients. The report concluded, with “absolutely no doubt,” that MSU failed to adequately protect students and patients who visited Nassar on campus. The report called out the 2014 Title IX investigation in particular, saying that MSU “failed to properly investigate Nassar” after Thomashow’s complaint, which “may have enabled the abuse of others which otherwise might have been prevented.”
Lawmakers were particularly alarmed that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, MSU maintains it did nothing wrong during that investigation.
“We feel compelled to note MSU appears to defiantly and wrongfully maintain it did not mishandle this investigation,” the report says. “It is incontrovertible that MSU arrived at the wrong conclusion in 2014 and failed to properly conduct its investigation, and MSU would do well to fully acknowledge that mistake.”
How is anyone supposed to have faith that MSU will properly conduct Title IX investigations in the future if it refuses to recognize — let alone correct — the deficiencies in previous investigations?
The former president is still on campus, making $750,000 a year
Lou Anna K. Simon served as the president of MSU for 13 years, until the scrutiny over MSU’s handling of the Nassar case reached a fever-pitch during the sentencing hearings in January. At that point, she was finally forced to deliver her resignation to the board. It was seen as a sign of progress and accountability at the time, but her resignation has come with a few notable perks.
As part of her resignation, the board agreed to grant her an office in the Willis House, an historic building on campus that recently underwent a $1 million renovation. She works alongside her husband, Roy Simon, and two other top MSU officials.
Her very presence on campus is an insult to survivors, according to Morgan McCaul on Twitter.
Got nauseous driving by the Wills House, the multimillion dollar future home to Lou Anna Simon under whose watch hundreds of women and girls were sexually abused. @michiganstateu sure has its priorities straight, huh?
— Morgan McCaul (@fatherjuanmisty) April 8, 2018
Simon is currently taking a research year, and is allowed to continue earning the $750,000 base salary she received as president. After this year, she will be permitted to return to the faculty as a teacher, complete with an annual base salary of approximately $500,000.
This is a woman who was in charge while Nassar abused hundreds of girls. In 2017, as the scope and magnitude of Nassar’s abuse became public, she released a letter to the MSU Board of Trustees in which she said, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.”
She maintained a defiant attitude towards survivors up until the day she was forced to resign.
“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger,” she said in her resignation letter.
The new president is even worse than the former president
Former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler was named interim president after Simon’s ouster. Despite assuring the public that the would “move forward as though my own daughters were on this campus,” Engler has not improved the university’s relationship with the Sister Survivors. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Last month, he actively campaigned against a package of bills that a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers crafted with the help of prominent survivors of Nassar’s abuse. These bills aimed to, among other things, drastically increase the statute of limitations for victims of sex abuse, and make more authority figures mandatory reporters of child sex abuse.
Engler and other public university officials from across the state met directly with lawmakers to oppose the legislation, saying it was merely a way for the survivors to gain the upper hand in settlement discussions. He also argued publicly with Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to come forward publicly with allegations against Nassar.
Then last week at the trustees meeting, Engler publicly threatened Lorincz when she shared the story about his attempt to buy her silence. Lorincz also revealed during that meeting that Engler lied to her about his settlement talks with other survivors, and downplayed the sexual harassment charges against Nassar’s boss, Dean William Strampel, calling them merely a “slap on the butt.”
If this is his version of a victim-centric approach, then he has some recalibrating to do.
“They bring in John Engler who is another insider of Michigan State, not somebody from the outside,” Lemke said. “And to me, he’s worse than what Lou Anna Simon was doing because he’s trying to offer money to survivors to make them stop advocating for change.”
John Manly, who is the lawyer for many of Nassar’s victims, told ThinkProgress that Engler is a “bully.”
“When you’re a [large] man who is president of one of the largest universities in the country, and someone is speaking at a public meeting and you threaten her, maybe it’s time to get another president,” Manly said.
The Board of Trustees still in place
As the population and volume of Engler critics continues to grow, he has one important constituency at his back: MSU’s Board of Trustees.
“It doesn’t seem like they’ve learned anything. They seem so clueless. They’re still trying to protect the brand,” sexual assault survivor and activist Brenda Tracy told ThinkProgress.
“You’re part of the problem or part of the solution. You need to do some inward reflection — ‘what side am I on?'”
“You’re part of the problem or part of the solution.”
There has been zero turnover on the MSU Board of Trustees since the totality of the allegations against Nassar started to come to light at the end of 2016. At the last board meeting of this school year — the same one where Lorincz spoke — parents of survivors and other advocates for change flooded the meeting wearing #MeTooMSU t-shirts and teal ribbons to show support for survivors.
Many parents and survivors weren’t allowed to attend the meeting because there weren’t enough seats. Signs also weren’t allowed in the meeting, so parents held up photos and sayings on their cell phones.
The Board of Trustees meeting has moved into Finance Committee reports. The mother of a survivor is still holding up a photograph of her daughter. So are many others @thesnews pic.twitter.com/qy4rT8VuEP
— Mila Murray (@mila_murray) April 13, 2018
During this same meeting, members of the board actually reiterated their support for Engler — Board Chairman Brian Breslin went as far as to thank Engler for taking the position, and congratulate him for a job well done.
“I’m not bashful saying this, John Engler is the right person for this time,” trustee Joel Ferguson said.
I’ve been asked what I think about today’s explosive day in the news, and my answer to that is simple. We are no longer just #NassarSurvivors. We are #MSUsurvivors. We are a strong army of sisters, and we. aren’t. going. anywhere. BoT + Engler – resign.
— Sterling Riethman (@sterling_shea) April 13, 2018
None of this is surprising to Manly, who has seen the board come up short of their responsibilities time and time again.
“The trustees have the moral courage and the backbone of an amoeba. These are people who have utterly failed in their legal, moral, and fiduciary obligations to the state of Michigan,” Manly said.
“They’re just a bunch of vile people, that’s the only thing I can say. This is not open for debate. What they are doing is morally repugnant.”
The university’s sexual abuse problem goes well beyond Nassar
MSU likes to act like this is a Nassar problem, not an institutional problem — hence the rhetoric that Lemke heard at the gala, about MSU not allowing one person to bring them down. But while Nassar receives the lion’s share of attention due to the astronomical number of victims he abused, he’s hardly the only bad actor at MSU.
Over the past few years, sexual assault allegations against football and basketball players have been ignored or mishandled by the athletic department and administration at MSU. Investigations into allegations have been shoddy and opaque (if they happen at all), and victims have been encouraged not to come forward with allegations against high-profile players or coaches on campus due to potential backlash or retaliation.
This follows a pattern in the Nassar case, of survivors being discouraged from reporting because of the unwanted attention it would garner for everyone involved.
None of this should be breaking news for those in charge at MSU. In 2015, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that MSU had failed to meet multiple Title IX requirements, including notifying students of the name of the Title IX coordinator, conducting investigations within appropriate time frames, and following proper grievance procedures.
“We’re willing to go to the ends of the earth to try to make the change.”
And MSU showed last week that there’s no reason to believe they’ve learned from their past mistakes — a woman filed a lawsuit alleging that she was gang raped by multiple basketball players in 2015 at MSU, and was discouraged from reporting the crime by counselors on campus. The university responded to the lawsuit by calling her a liar, and released identifying facts about the Jane Doe in an alarming — and possibly illegal — breach of her privacy.
This is a big reason why the Sister Survivors are continue to advocate for change even though Nassar will spend the rest of his life beyond bars.
“I think the main thing that we all want to see is just protocols put in place where people feel safe about speaking up about sexual abuse on Michigan State’s campus,” Lemke said.
“We’re willing to go to the ends of the earth to try to make the change because I believe any person … deserves to have a voice about their sexual abuse. And I want Michigan State to be a campus where that is supported.”
Survivors demand true change and accountability
The local reporting on the fallout of the Nassar case by outlets like Michigan Radio and the Lansing State Journal has been phenomenal. But the case only really cracked the national media’s attention during a short period in January, when 156 women gave victim impact statements in court.
“We need these media outlets to keep helping us because we’re trying to make our voices reach across the world to try to change a culture,” Lemke said.
Unlike Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse at Penn State, which received around-the-clock attention for weeks, this case has gone relatively under-the-radar since Nassar’s sentencing. Manly has some theories as to why.
“I think it’s sexism, misogyny, and you know, it’s not college football, it’s gymnastics. And the audience for gymnastics doesn’t generate hundreds of millions or billions of dollars,” Manly said.
Tracy says increased media attention would help, but ultimately as long as MSU is financially healthy, change might be hard to come by. “It’s about the money, it’s about who writes the checks,” she said.
Wondering if the survivors can write another round of Victim Impact Statements considering our voices seems to have faded to the people and institutions that STILL have yet to accept accountability. That is, if they even existed to those people in the first place…
— Lindsey Lemke (@lindseylemke) April 8, 2018
One thing is certain — MSU has a long way to go if it intends to move forward after Nassar, and over the past few months, they’ve done nothing but take steps backwards.
“You’re going to have to clean house, get new people,” Tracy said. “It’s about transparency and accountability. Step up to the plate. Realize you’re going to lose money. If it costs money to settle the lawsuits, just do it. From there, maybe we could respect you. If you keep poking the wound, it’s not going to heal.”
MSU should probably act sooner rather than later, because Lemke and her fellow survivors aren’t going to go away until there’s proof of real justice and change. Ultimately, they’re doing it not only for other survivors, but out of a love for MSU — or, rather, for the MSU they once believed in.
“I have supported Michigan State my entire life, and at a time where you feel like they should be supporting you the most, they don’t,” Lemke said. “They fight and they fight against you.”