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Michigan State needs cultural, systemic change

"Spartan Pride" fence in the snow near the MSU football stadium.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

You might think the worst was now over for Michigan State. Larry Nassar is in prison, presumably for life. The university president who failed to get control of the scandal has been driven out of office, and one of the most powerful political figures in Michigan history is in charge of cleaning up the mess and moving on.

Unfortunately, that may not be the case. Since the Nassar case ended and Lou Anna Simon left, horrendous new charges have surfaced against William Strampel, Nassar’s former boss and the former dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Nobody has the slightest idea yet how much settling with the Nassar victims alone will cost. And another woman filed a lawsuit against MSU earlier this week, alleging she was raped by three basketball players in 2015, but that the university counseling center discouraged her from going to the police. The university denies this. But I suspect there’s going to be very little public willingness to give State the benefit of the doubt.

It’s now clear that for years, multiple women went to authorities with complaints about Nassar, and they were systematically ignored. What’s not clear is how a huge institution like MSU recovers from scandal and mismanagement of this magnitude.

What seems clear is that nobody has yet taken the right steps. There’s an excellent long story about this by Emily Lawler and Julie Mack that appeared on MLive yesterday, under the headline: “How Michigan State’s culture fostered a sexual predator and masked assaults.”

What it reveals is a remarkably insular culture in which the president, the provost, and many of the deans had earned their final degrees at Michigan State. Most remarkably and most appallingly, President Lou Anna K. Simon never really taught or worked anywhere else.

The article quotes a number of university officials who say that Simon surrounded herself with loyalists, did not want to hear criticism or contrary opinions, and created what one professor called “an entrenched, top-down structure,” a closed, feedback loop that an administrator at another university called an echo chamber in which dissent was discouraged.

Nor was the administration ever challenged by the board. The United States may have a government based on a system of checks and balances, but Michigan State had few or none.

Twenty-five years ago, the school did hire a woman athletic director, Merrily Dean Baker, to shake things up and enforce Title IX, the federal civil rights law designed to outlaw discrimination based on sex. She’d actually helped write the law. But Dean Baker lasted only three years. She is quoted in the MLive story as saying the school had little interest in Title IX and an insular culture that led to the current disaster was already fully in place.

So what does the future hold for MSU? Well, after defending Lou Anna Simon to the last, the trustees then picked another loyal alum, John Engler, to run the place – supposedly temporarily, though there’s no sign yet of a search for a permanent leader.

Governor Rick Snyder has the power to remove and replace members of the MSU board, who utterly failed to exercise oversight. But he hasn’t.

Einstein supposedly said insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But then, he never went to MSU.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.

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