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Wednesday June 29th

Nassar sentencing raises questions about MSU's responsibility

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.
Buy Photos Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.

Lawrence G. Nassar, former physician of the American gymnastics team and Michigan State University doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison Jan. 24. In the highly publicized trial, Nassar was charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct with more than 150 young women.  

Hours after Nassar's sentencing, Lou Anna K. Simon announced her resignation as Michigan State University president.

Former Michigan governor John Engler will be named MSU's interim president, according to The Detroit Free Press.

Simon's resignation letter included an apology to survivors.

“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,” she wrote.

“As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable," she wrote. "As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”

Simon’s resignation raises questions about presidential culpability in widespread abuse within universities, and investigations have begun into what extent MSU knew about Nassar's conduct.

Despite the school’s previous statements saying otherwise, survivors have come forward stating they made members of staff and administration aware of the abuse. Nassar was a faculty member at the school and the team physician for two varsity gymnastics squads.

According to a report by the Detroit News, 14 people at MSU were warned of the abuse, and eight women reported abuse claims. One of these claims reached Simon in 2014.

In 2014, a police report and Title IX complaint brought against Nassar was communicated to Simon, according to a report by The Detroit News.

In a comment made in court after observing a sentencing hearing for Nassar, Simon said she was informed an unnamed physician was under investigation.

“I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth,” said Simon, according to The Detroit News.

Jason Laker is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at San José State University and an affiliated consultant for the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

He said the fact a president was informed about misconduct by a university physician should have been a red flag to her to ask more questions.

“One of the things that’s a reality of higher education is that there’s always litigation, there’s always investigation, there’s always complaints going on,” Laker said. “So for the president of such a major institution to have been informed at all, then to me, it looks more as a heads up related to reputation and liability risk.”

Nassar was not fired until 2016, when a victim filed both a Title IX complaint and a police report and brought her story to The Indianapolis Star.

As 14 people have been identified as having been made aware of the abuse previously, the effectiveness of university policies on sexual assault are being questioned.

Laker said the people victims report to can be caught in situations of bureaucracy, in which distributive administrative responsibilities lead to an atmosphere of, "if it’s everyone’s problem, then it’s nobody's problem.”

According to Jeni Cook, media relations manager at UNC's Office of University Communications, the University ensures assault and discrimination are properly reported through the assignment of responsible employees.

“While we encourage any member of the campus community to report suspected sexual assault, there are certain employees who, due to their administrative and/or supervisory role on campus, are designated as ‘Responsible Employees’ who are obligated to report suspected sexual assault or other misconduct that falls under our Policy,” Cook said in an email.

Laker said laws and policies are important, but they don’t prevent anything.

“Their ability to prevent something often is tied more to the questions of how the people involved regard liability and reputational risks and whether law and policy are compelling to them – and usually not,” he said. 

Laker said someone who has the responsibility of being a Title IX coordinator may have the authority to launch an investigation but doesn't have the authority to compel people to cooperate with them.

He said the most progress this tragedy will produce will come from the school’s business concerns, rather than any change in federal policy like Title IX.

“The thing that’s more likely to change things – which is already happening – is that they’re going to be embroiled in litigation for a decade over this, and it’s gonna be – with that many victims – it could easily be a billion dollar loss,” Laker said.

“While we’re in this period of accountability, the best thing that can happen is some of the accountability mechanisms become institutionalized."


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