This is it. Michigan State University’s trustees finally get it: they’re finally going to “fix the culture” at Michigan State University.
At least, that’s the message the board tried to send Wednesday at its first meeting of 2019.
“Change…will take a lot of focus, attention, and plain hard work, but you have that commitment from this board,” said Trustee Dianne Byrum, who was elected the board’s new chairperson. “I am excited to start this new year: we have a new board, we have a new year, and we will be writing new pages in the history of Michigan State University.”
Even some of the school’s harshest critics are “more hopeful than [we’ve] been in a long time for this school,” as one community member told the board, now that three new trustees are on the board.
Newly-elected trustees Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay both campaigned as alums who became deeply frustrated by the board’s apparent lack of compassion and incompetence in handling the fallout of the Larry Nassar case. They spoke publicly about their disappointment that the previous board shut down the $10 million Healing Assistance Fund last month. MSU established that fund about a year ago to cover counseling costs for Larry Nassar survivors.
The third new trustee, Nancy Schlichting, was recently appointed by the Snyder administration to fill retiring trustee George Perles’ seat. Her selection has been praised by those hoping her experience as a turnaround agent, as well as her outsider status at MSU, will allow Schlichting to be an effective voice for change.
“I approach this work with a very heavy heart,” Schlichting said at Wednesday’s meeting. “A heavy heart for the survivors, the students, the faculty, and everyone who loves this great university, for what we have endured these last few years.”
After backlash, opening a new healing fund for Nassar survivors
The new board’s first order of business: an unanimous vote to open a new fund to cover mental health services for survivors.
That’s after MSU announced in December it was redirecting the remaining $8.5 million in the Healing Assistance Fund toward its $500 million settlement with hundreds of Nassar survivors.
“The fund was intended to be a bridge from the point of creation to when the survivors would receive payments from a settlement with the university,” former board chair Brian Breslin said in a statement at the time.
But the backlash was immediate, as survivors pointed out that not all of them were involved in the settlement, and even those who were would be waiting a while to actually receive any of that money. Meanwhile, several said, their counseling bills were stacking up.
More than 1,600 people, including newly-elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer, signed a petition calling for MSU to reinstate the fund.
At Wednesday’s meeting, incoming trustee Brianna Scott told the board she “was very disheartened with the closing of the Healing Assistance Fund.”
Scott, who’s an attorney, also cast doubt on earlier statements that the fund was intended to be temporary.
“While I do understand that there was a settlement that was made, and there was the discussion that perhaps it was to be on an interim basis, in reviewing the Healing Assistance Fund, it didn’t have a term end date. Which is concerning to me, because it did not appear to me that it was only to be temporary.”
Still, Scott thanked the board for re-opening the fund. “Even though there is no legal obligation to do so…we have a moral obligation to do what is right for survivors and their allies.”
New trustee Kelly Tebay thanked members of the community for “the emails and the phone calls I’ve received about what needs to be changed at Michigan State.”
“And so I ask for your patience, as we try to change a culture. Which is not going to happen overnight,” Tebay said.
That cautiousness was shared by the group calling themselves Reclaim MSU, which released a statement on Twitter following Wednesday’s decision.
“We’re reserving judgment on the fund until we know more. Who will it cover? When will it be open, and for how long? Will it be restored to the full $8.5 million? The fund should be open as soon as possible, no later than Feb. 1. It should be available to all Nassar survivors and their families, not just those who were abused at MSU – since Nassar gained trust by using MSU’s name, MSU should help all survivors of abuse. It should also have a clear, accountable, and resilient management system.
“The vote today is a good step and it gives us hope. But it just takes us back to where we were one month ago, before the fund was closed, or six months ago, when the fund was put on hiatus to investigate fraud,” the statement reads, referencing the pause MSU put on distributing the fund after receiving reports of fraudulent claims on the fund. None of those reports involved Nassar survivors or their family members, the school’s spokesperson says.
Meanwhile, the group says, it’ll take more than this to convince MSU’s community that this is truly a new era. But more progress can be made by cooperating with the special investigation at the Michigan Attorney General’s office. At a press conference last month, then-special prosecutor Bill Forsyth blamed the board for using attorney-client privilege to “stonewall” the investigation into Nassar’s time at MSU.
“Our new Board needs to do much more to rebuild the trust that the prior board broke,” Reclaim MSU’s statement reads. “Two additional steps should immediately taken: require the university counsel to release the… documents that they have withheld from the ongoing special prosecutor’s investigation; and open the presidential search, through open forums with public finalists.”
The board is currently conducting a search to replace Interim President John Engler, with a timeline for selecting the new president this June.