When President Lou Anna Simon spoke at Rotary of Lansing on Friday, she spent her time on painting the broad picture of campus issues and achievements, from the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams that is under construction to the arts and the challenge of maintaining quality in education in an era of declining state financial support. She took only one question, and I was fortunate enough to ask it. It was: You are the first female president of MSU. What are your thoughts on the Me Too movement and are there any personal stories you would share? Here, slightly edited and condensed, is her response. –BERL SCHWARTZ
I know of no woman my age who hasn’t been hassled in the workplace, up the ladder.
But I don’t know how to experience anything else, because I’ve always been a woman. So the question about what it’s like to be a woman president is really hard, because I’ve always been a woman.
If I were to look at this over time, both from a civil rights movement perspective and being a part of some marches when I was in college, to what we’re dealing with now, there have been really elements of progress, there’s no question. But there’s a fundamentalness about whether we really are able as a society to have people other than X or O.. Go back and look at a thing in the 1980s by Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard. It’s called “A Tale of ‘O.’” I’ve used it for 30 years. I used it this last weekend at leadership presentation. It talks about what happens to Os in a world of Xs.
O could be a man in the college of nursing and it tells you how systems affect people who are different. Both directly, inadvertently and whatever. And, what it says to you is people who are Xs need to speak out. It’s not the Os problem.
And, the Os story may not be always accurate. As an administrator of a system that I have a responsibility to administer whether I like it or not, I don’t get to choose. I’ve got laws. I’ve got internal processes. I don’t get to choose that system. I can argue for a change, but I have to administer it as if it is the system. That’s my responsibility because fairness requires it on all sides.
So, what I know is that lots of dynamics happen, which is why I was part of setting up a sexual assault support center 25 years ago. Why I was part of setting up groups like Rebecca Campbell’s who are in the paper now, supporting the Me Too movement. Because, those voices need to be heard academically.
But, no person, alone, can either be responsible for all society or fix all of its problems. It’s all of us together. And, right now, we haven’t been enough energy to get all of us together for Xs to speak out. And, so, I think it’s a good thing. Although, I get frustrated because there was a newspaper report that is out in the local media. A person tweeted out that MSU faculty member and assault. Turns out that the person was not at MSU when the allegation occurred. And the student wasn’t an MSU student.
So, that’s the collateral damage of getting more attention. And, it’s not fun to be part of the collateral damage. But, we’ve got to get through part of this in order to see if we have another reset of the system at a higher level.
And, all of you need to take responsibility for helping it. Because part of what we’ve been able to do, I think, over time, I’ve been part of more policies and more requirements and more whatever, so you all could check the box. When this is a fundamental respect of human beings. And, a fundamental respect that you wouldn’t want to happen to your daughter or your wife or whatever. Every woman has to decide every day what you take on.
I’ve talked to corporate executives. I’ve talked to people in the legislature over a long ... You make a judgment every day about what you take on. So, in the bowl game, I want to hand a coin to a person who was one of the big officials. Shake my hand. He says to me, kisses me on the cheek and says “Thanks, honey.” So, you know, what do you do, right? It’s a funny example.
But, I can go through those, for me, as a university president. You figure out what to do because if you punch out everybody … . And, you can’t keep telling people all the time the same thing. If you’re the one saying all the time, “Don’t do this.” Then that’s going to affect our capacity to work together and then people get into a disadvantage. So, we gotta have these different kinds of conversations that aren’t about, “this process is wrong.”
And, listening to people about what makes them more successful because we need everybody to be successful. And, we need more people to be successful. So, that’s my long-winded answer on a question that I think is at the moment. So, I think it’s a good thing. This was more fun when I was throwing rocks and big heavy rocks go at me. I mean, that’s, I mean, I’ve got a lot better along the way. And, I liked it a lot better when I wasn’t sort of the symbol of all the bad that people I can’t control did. That was fun too.
No, but I’m not. So, we’ll work through it. We’re gonna work through it in a way that tries to make everything a better place and do it honestly about what happens and what doesn’t. And, try to deal with it in a world in which people are in hyperspace. And, it’s easy to believe whatever you see in a moment. And, that’s not good either. So, we just gotta have a balance.