As more than 150 women and girls came forward in the last year and a half to describe the sexual assault they suffered as young athletes under the care of Dr. Larry Nassar, Michigan State University came under fire for how it handled the allegations against the former faculty member and team physician.
On Wednesday, after Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon announced she would step down. She spent her entire four-decade career at the university, and has been president since 2004.
With calls for Simon’s resignation intensifying, on Friday the university’s eight-member board of trustees opted to give her a vote of support. But two trustees eventually joined those calling for Simon to step down. “Unfortunately, through this terrible situation, the university has been tone deaf, unresponsive, unapologetic, and insensitive to the victims,” said trustee Dianne Byrum.
The resignation letter Simon released on Wednesday night helps illustrate that point. It starts with Simon mentioning her own anguish along with that of the victims: “The last year and a half has been very difficult for the victims of Larry Nassar, for the university community, and for me personally.”
Next Simon tells the victims she is deeply sorry that they were preyed on by Nassar, an “evil, evil person”:
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. I know that we all share the same resolve to do whatever it takes to avert such tragedies here and elsewhere.
But Simon devotes much of the letter to attempting to deflect blame from herself and the university. Simon says she’s pleased that trustees and the attorney leading MSU’s review have made statements “about my integrity and the fact that there is no cover-up.” She declares she’s proud of the work done by law enforcement and “I am proud of my support of their work even though the results have been very painful to all who watched.”
Then in an apparent reference to the rogue trustees and a bipartisan resolution from the state House of Representatives calling for her resignation, Simon suggests people are only angry at her because the scandal has been “politicized”:
As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me. I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement.
To be clear, the primary focus of the blame and outrage should be Nassar himself. But multiple women have accused MSU of failing to adequately protect them from abuse, even after several girls alerted school officials. A Detroit News investigation found that in the past two decades, eight women reported Nassar’s sexual abuse and at least 14 MSU representatives were aware of those allegations. That includes athletic trainers, assistant coaches, a university police detective, and Simon, who was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against a MSU physician.
The Title IX complaint concluded that Nassar’s behavior wasn’t sexual, though a young woman described him treating her hip pain by groping her breast and massaging her “with three fingers in a circular motion in her vaginal area.”
Simon said she was only informed that an unnamed sports-medicine doctor was under investigation, and she never saw the full report. “I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth,” she said while appearing in court to observe Nassar’s sentencing.
Nassar was allowed to continue seeing patients for 16 months as MSU police investigated the sexual-abuse claims, according to records obtained the Lansing State Journal. Despite a request from MSU police that Nassar be charged with sexual assault, he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office.
In 2016, Rachael Denhollander became the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, which eventually led to him pleading guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct in November. In her victim-impact statement, she said MSU and USA Gymnastics were also culpable:
MSU, we have been telling our stories for more than 18 months, and you have yet to answer a single question I have asked. Every time I repeat these facts about the number of women who reported to employees at MSU and were silenced, you respond the exact same way. You issue a press statement saying there is no cover-up because no one who heard the reports of assaults believed that Larry was committing abuse.
You play word games saying you didn’t know because no one believed. I know that. And the reason everyone who heard about Larry’s abuse did not believe it is because they did not listen. They did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 1999 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014. No one knew, according to your definition of know, because no one handle[d] the reports of abuse properly.
The NCAA announced this week that it has opened an investigation into MSU’s handling of assaults committed by Nassar.