Michigan State University is paying a ton of money for some of the best lawyers in the country.
Their job? Investigate how a former MSU sports doctor, Larry Nassar, could allegedly abuse dozens of young patients for years – and whether anybody at MSU knew about it.
They’re conducting “hundreds of interviews,” reviewing documents and emails, and taking what they find directly to the Board of Trustees.
MSU says administrators are actively using those findings to make the campus safer, roll out new policies, and defend the university in civil lawsuits brought by Nassar’s alleged victims.
But the school says the review was “never designed to end in a report,” and that there is currently no plan to release the findings in a report to the public.
“MSU is going to look great.”
That’s what Joel Ferguson, vice chairman of MSU’s Board of Trustees, told WXYZ-TV about the school’s internal review in March. “And MSU wants to get to the bottom of this also,” Ferguson added, referring to reports from several women who say they alerted MSU staff to the abuse years ago. “We’ll find out. That’ll play out.”
But we may never actually know what MSU looks like in this internal review – good, bad, or ugly.
“This internal review was never designed to end in a report,” says MSU spokesman Jason Cody. “So I don’t want to act like there is a plan to have some report. It’s what we’re referring to as an action-oriented review.”
This has been, one imagines, a very busy year for Cody. We met up one campus late this summer, on one of those sleepy, gorgeous days just before fall semester starts.
But just for a second, let’s jump to another campus: Back in the summer of 2012, former FBI director Louis Freeh released his eviscerating report of Penn State’s failure to stop former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky from abusing children.
A different university, a different investigation
“We are here today because of a terrible tragedy,” Freeh told a room full of reporters, TV cameras and photographers, before methodically describing the scope of his team’s investigation, how he had been hired by Penn State’s trustees, and how even his own clients didn’t see the final report until just hours before the rest of the world could read it online.
Today, in 2017, MSU has also hired a team of lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney and former White House special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, to pore over Nassar’s work at MSU.
Brought in last October, Fitzgerald’s team is doing “hundreds of interviews, within the college, within the administration, within athletics,” Cody says. “[They are] reviewing documents, emails, and they are reporting those findings directly to the Board.
“And during that process, we are very clear, if they uncover anything of a criminal nature, they don’t look into that,” he says. “That is immediately referred to law enforcement, to MSU police.”
The criminal investigation
The MSU Police Department immediately launched its own criminal investigation after getting a complaint about Nassar last summer. And that investigation, Cody says, would also have uncovered any criminal conspiracy in the school’s administration to cover up sexual abuse.
“If our police would have uncovered criminal activity that involved obstruction of justice, that involved criminal failure to report, child endangerment – those investigations would have been brought to the appropriate prosecutor,” he says.
“But there obviously could have been administrative things that don’t rise to a criminal level, but that the university wants to a) find out about what really happened here? And b) how do we address it?”
What about accountability?
Cody says he understands that not having those answers laid out in a public report can feel frustrating – not just for Nassar’s alleged victims, but for anybody who’s been following the story, seeing multiple women claim they reported the abuse years earlier.
“They want accountability,” he says. “They want to know, ‘Someone said this, that they told someone, is that true or not?’” But MSU can’t answer those questions, he says, because the university is battling dozens of lawsuits from Nassar’s alleged victims.
“We’re in the middle of litigation. That’s just not something we’re going to be able to discuss. We have to let the process play out.”
Still, Cody says, there is one way for people to see what kind of information MSU is learning: Look at their policy changes.
Here’s what MSU is doing with this internal review
MSU set up Our Commitment, a website outlining how the school is “fostering a culture of safety and respect” with a compilation of press releases, presidential statements, and timelines of efforts to prevent assault.
Those efforts, Cody says, are directly informed by what the internal review turns up, whether it’s “strengthening mandatory reporting compliance,” hiring an outside firm to review the school’s Title IX program, or posting “patient-friendly information on policies related to chaperones … in all exam rooms.”
That is a kind of accountability, Cody says. “I think that’s what will give people a sense of, ‘OK, I see what the university is doing and that’s what provides me that knowledge that, OK, they’re trying to make this place as safe as they can.'”
But others aren’t convinced.
“They have to be willing to be dissected in front of everybody,” says Patty Dailey Lewis, executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. As a former deputy attorney general for the state of Delaware, she helped prosecute one of the worst pedophile cases in American history.
“They have to be willing to have people [in MSU leadership] say, ‘Mistakes were made. We can’t undo them right now, but we can make damn sure it doesn’t happen again,” Dailey Lewis says.
Telling people what kind of policy changes MSU is making, she says, doesn’t help others understand how sexual abuse was able to stay hidden for years. Plus, it doesn’t exactly communicate transparency.
“You know anything that’s ‘only for us,’ you know what that makes people think?”
That you’re hiding something?
“Exactly. No further questions. So why wouldn’t you let everybody see this?”
MSU has a moment right now, she says.
What they’re going to do with that moment, we’ll talk about tomorrow, in part two.