From The Daily: Simon is only the beginning

Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 5:21pm

Over the past few weeks, all eyes have been on Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom as more than 160 survivors of sexual abuse by disgraced Dr. Larry Nassar have recounted their stories at the Ingham County Circuit Court. Last Wednesday, Dr. Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison. He has been accused of countless criminal sexual acts in his roles as a team doctor and athletic trainer for the USA Gymnastics team spanning over the last three decades as well as faces charges in Eaton County. 


These heroic women have showcased immense bravery in the face of great trauma. However, in spite of the heroism playing out in open court, accountability and justice seem to be missing. Failures on all levels must have occurred in order for Dr. Nassar to abuse patients for decades. But the pure lack of compassion and accountability that led to this serial abuse was evident on many levels in the last few weeks — first through the absence of Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University, on the first day of victims’ impact statements. Yet, the failures by Simon go beyond her lack of attendance in court. According to the Detroit News, Simon and up to 14 others at MSU knew of Nassar’s abuse at least as early as 2014. Even more alarming than this was the under-oath revelation that MSU still billed survivors of Nassar’s assaults. Since the testimony, a Univeristy spokesman has said patients with outsanding bills will no longer be charged. 


We find the failure to protect these victims disturbing and unacceptable, and while President Simon announced her resignation Wednesday night,  it is only the beginning of the institutional accountability that needs to be taken. Yet, in commenting on her decision to resign Simon stated, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.” While her resignation is a sign of needed change at MSU, her rhetoric again avoids taking true responsibility for the lack of institutional oversight.


Simon hid behind the MSU Board of Trustees, who also seem driven to ignore the pain caused by Nassar’s abuse, with Trustee Joel Ferguson noting to a local radio show, "There’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing." This rhetoric devalues the trauma countless survivors endured, trauma which occurred under the watch of people who knew, yet did nothing.


This motivation to preserve reputation shone through when MSU Basketball coach Tom Izzo was asked for comment on the Nassar case. He offered this in reference to President Simon: “That’s a woman who has dedicated over 40 years — and I’ve been here 33 with her, and I think I know what she stands for,” and when asked specifically about the call for a change in leadership, he answered with “you have to understand there is nothing I can say that is going to be right right now, and there is nothing that’s going to make anybody right. I’ll just stick by what I said.” Our own University President Mark Schlissel also declined to take a stance on the role that MSU played in the abuse, saying “I just can’t add to the debate because I don’t have any special information.”      

Izzo's response is indicative of a greater problem. Defending Simon may be the easier decision, especially given her long tenure at Michigan State. However, institutional accountability must come before their relationships with Simon and the need to maintain a reputation. If we allow complicity from those in power, there will not be any impactful change,  and systematic problems and ignorance will perpetuate.


This time in society is important; #MeToo has called great attention to sexual abusers in high places. However, abusers are not the only problem. The institutions that enable them deserve blame as well. This is not only a problem with MSU or USA Gymnastics. It is a societal ill and could have impacted on our own campus, or any other one. This case draws many similarities to what occurred at Penn State University in 2011. Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys for decades after head coach Joe Paterno was notified. This pattern is unacceptable. Those in positions of power at universities must prioritize the safety of their students, just as those in power in other institutions must prioritize the safety of their employees, members or citizens.


While this criminal case surrounding Dr. Nassar has now been closed in Ingham County, the pain and trauma he caused will remain for decades to come. While it’s easy to punish Nassar through his 60-year and 40 to 175-year prison,  it’s a lot harder to face the fact that those who were complicit in his reign of assaults are also guilty. The list of people who enabled Dr. Nassar includes MSU President Lou Anna Simon, but extends far beyond just her. Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committe and more will share the blame in civil court, but the true evil that allowed for Dr. Nassar to inflict so much harm is in the culture of denial and doubt that falls on sexual assault and harassment on all levels within institutions. It is the need to maintain a good reputation and avoid scandal  that enables abusers like Nassar to commit these acts for years. Immediate action once the first allegations are made is not only needed, but expected from universities, institutions and individuals. The time is up for this culture of secrecy, coverups and sexual assault, and in order for the next Larry Nassar to be stopped before he can hurt others, we all have to hold ourselves and our institutions accountable.