MSU president resigns in wake of Nassar testimony

Michigan State University’s president, Lou Anna K Simon, resigned from her post on Wednesday night over allegations that the university failed to act on allegations of abuse by disgraced USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who also worked at Michigan State University (MSU) from 1997 to 2016 and before that studied for an osteopathic medical degree at the university.

On 24 January Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison for seven counts of felony criminal sexual conduct involving abuse of athletes in his care. He had pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree sexual misconduct in two counties.

He still faces 150 civil suits, some of which involve MSU.

In a statement on 24 January, Simon said: “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements.

“I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president, according to the terms of my employment agreement.”

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Friday that her agency is investigating the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal and will hold Michigan State University accountable for any violations of federal law.

She said in a statement that what happened at the university is "abhorrent" and "cannot happen ever again – there or anywhere".

During Nassar’s sentencing hearing 156 girls, including former MSU athletes, gave impact statements on the effects of the abuse they had suffered at his hands. Another two dozen submitted private letters to the court to be taken into consideration.

A number of them directed their anger not only at Nassar, but also at MSU for its handling of the case. Several victims stated they told MSU coaches, trainers and officials about the abuse at various points over the years but felt pressured to drop the matter or angry at the lack of action taken.

Lindsey Lemke, a former MSU gymnast who alleged that her coach had dismissed her allegations of abuse by Nassar, was applauded when in court she turned to Simon and said: “I don’t know how you can still call yourself a president, because I don’t.”

On 22 January Clasina Syrovy, a former club gymnast who said she was abused by Nassar at the MSU facility, rebuked MSU for doing nothing to halt his crimes and called on Simon to resign, CNN reported.

"I would like to call out Lou Anna Simon for her cowardly behaviour," Syrovy said in court. "She ... doesn't deserve to hold the title of MSU president. Her recent behaviour and comments are a joke. The least she could do is step down from her position and show us a little courtesy."

Their statements added to increasing criticism of the university’s handling of the scandal.

A number of victims said they reported Nassar’s abuse to the university years ago but alleged they were pressured to keep quiet about it and the university failed to prevent further abuse.

A Detroit News investigation found that misconduct allegations against Nassar reached at least 14 MSU representatives in the two decades before his arrest, with eight women reporting his actions. The first person believed to have told someone at MSU about Nassar reported him in 1997.

Simon told reporters on 17 January 2018 that she was first notified of an investigation into an unnamed sports medicine doctor at the university in 2014. That investigation cleared Nassar of sexual assault allegations, but MSU brought in guidelines, including having someone else in the room and restricting skin-to-skin contact in sensitive areas, CBS reported.

“I was informed that a sports medicine doctor was under investigation,” Simon told reporters. “I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth.”

However, MSU allowed Nassar to see patients for 16 months while the MSU police conducted a criminal investigation into the allegations, CBS News reported.

At least 12 reported assaults occurred after the investigation ended, according to a university police report.

MSU, in a statement in December 2017, said any suggestion that it engaged in a cover-up was “simply false”. It maintains that no official believed allegations against Nassar until they were reported in the media in 2016, CNN said.

Legislators demanded resignation

On 18 January 2018 students and state legislators demanded Simon’s resignation but in a closed session on 19 January MSU’s board of trustees gave her their full support. But shortly afterwards one trustee dissented.

The university is facing civil litigation involving multiple cases filed by the victims. MSU lawyers have filed motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims but as litigation progresses there could be a lengthy review of documentary and witness evidence ahead, and with it continued reporting of details of various allegations to the media.

On Tuesday the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, sent a letter to MSU regarding potential NCAA rules violations related to the assaults Nassar perpetrated against girls and young women, including student athletes at Michigan State.

Simon was heavily criticised for not attending the first day of the impact testimonies, but said she did not want to distract from the testimony. She attended the whole of the second day.

Her resignation followed the decision by a second trustee to call for her resignation and the passing of a resolution in the Michigan House of Representatives calling on her to step down.

On Wednesday, trustee Dianne Byrum in a written statement accused MSU of being “tone deaf, unresponsive, unapologetic and insensitive to the victims”. She said: “It is clear that the public has lost confidence in the current administration of Michigan State University, and changes are needed to move the university forward. I support the resignation of President Simon, effective immediately.”

President says sorry

In her resignation statement on Wednesday, Simon said the victims’ accounts were horrific, tragic, heartbreaking, and “personally gut-wrenching”.

She said: “To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment. I know that we all share the same resolve to do whatever it takes to avert such tragedies here and elsewhere.”

The MSU board has asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to review the events surrounding the Nassar case.

Simon, who has led the university since 2005, had originally planned to retire in December 2016. But retirement was postponed when the Indianapolis Star published an expose of what is now regarded as the worst sex abuse scandal in US sport and one of the victims contacted MSU police to file a complaint. The investigation began and Nassar’s employment was terminated and, given the challenges looming, the planned transition to another president was shelved.

Simon has spent her entire professional career at MSU and will leave a gaping hole behind her.

‘Served with distinction’

Brian Breslin, chair of MSU’s board of trustees, in a statement, said Simon had served with distinction as MSU’s president for 13 years and has been a constant presence at the university for more than 40 years.

“She literally has devoted her entire professional life to this institution, and more than anyone else has helped make MSU a national and international leader in higher education.”

On Friday MSU’s athletic director, Mark Hollis, announced his retirement, but said he would cooperate fully with investigations into the athletic department.

In a statement, he said he was brought to tears as he listened to the statements of survivors of Nassar’s abuse and there were not the right words to express sympathy.

“Our campus, and beyond, has been attacked by evil, an individual who broke trust and so much more. As a campus community, we must do everything we can to ensure this never happens again; to make sure any sexual assault never occurs. But to do so, we must listen and learn lessons. Only then can we truly begin the process of healing.”

The MSU board announced on Friday that its vice-president, Bill Beekman, would serve as acting president until an interim president and then a permanent president is appointed.

The MSU board announced in December that it was establishing a US$10 million fund to support counselling and mental health services on the campus, which would support survivors.

In her 19 January statement, Simon said the FBI and MSU Police Department conducted a joint investigation earlier this year into whether any MSU employee engaged in criminal conduct relating to Nassar’s actions and no charges were filed.