With a half-dozen federal lawsuits targeting Michigan State University over sexual assault cases, combined with federal, state and NCAA investigations, the campus leadership is relying on its predictable response: Deny, delay and silence.
Those lawsuits and investigations will likely reveal that the university juggled a long and unacknowledged history of sexual violence on campus while working to preserve MSU’s reputation.
The board of trustees last week imposed a gag order on its elected members, in an attempt to limit their often bungled attempt to shape the crisis. That alone is unlikely to affect the breadth of investigations or stanch the leak of details emerging about the university’s handling of sexual assault cases.
In just the past week, reports have emerged that:
— Emails from 2010 show MSU Athletics program leaders were notified of the sexual assault allegations against two basketball players, and that President Lou Anna Simon directed a review of sexual violence trainings programs. MSU is refusing to answer questions about that review.
— In the wake of that same allegation, MSU’s administration clamped down on sexual assault counselors and advocates, controlling when and if they did media interviews.
— Despite knowing about serious sexual assault allegations against players, MSU promoted accused assailants through social media, undermining the message that the university took sexual assault allegations seriously.
— Responding to reporting of the sexual assault allegations against two high profile basketball players in 2010, the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office stopped participating in the Capital Area Sexual Assault Response Team (CASART).
All of these investigations are playing out in response to the Larry Nassar scandal, and are proceeding alongside a chorus of demands for broad overhaul of MSU’s governance.
In the past week, editorials in the Detroit News and New York Times have called for the resignation or removal of the MSU Board of Trustees. The university’s faculty is expected to oppose the appointment of Interim President John Engler with a “no-confidence vote” and call for the resignation of the board later this week.
Investigators will probe a university culture where blame and accountability are shifted among its units and often seem tone-deaf to a deepening crisis that has entangled MSU’s prominent basketball and football programs.
Recently, head basketball coach Tom Izzo said he hoped the justice system had the right guy in reference to Nassar, a disgraced doctor at the university who pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and state criminal sexual conduct charges.
Izzo’s silence on the allegations against his 2010 standout freshman players Keith Appling and Adreian Payne contrasts with the program’s aggressive promotion of Payne’s bond with 8-year-old cancer victim Lacey “Princess” Holsworth.
For his part, football coach Mark Dantanio claimed in June that it was the first time his program had handled sexual assault allegations amongst his players. An investigation by ESPN disputed that.
Trustee Brian Mosallam expressed shock following a town hall meeting Thursday when many women stood and told stories of being sexually assaulted and being met with indifference by the administration -- whether the perpetrator was a member of a fraternity, a sports team or just another student. And even with a gag order in place, some trustees couldn’t help but paint the victim of an alleged 2010 assault involving two basketball standouts as a woman simply regretting their actions.
Despite calls for the resignation or removal of the board, state officials have backed off the idea of impeachment, while Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has said it hopes to avoid a full removal.
“It would be a long and drawn out process, and he hopes to avoid that,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton wrote in an email. “He wants to see the board listening to survivors and moving forward swiftly on how to help them heal.”
“I think there is an effort to minimize what some people have done or are capable of,” said Karen Truszkowski, a Lansingarea attorney. “I don’t see a reasonably aggressive effort to make sure that these MSU students at large are protected.” She filed suit on behalf of a former MSU student in November, alleging the university failed to follow its own findings in a Title IX case involving MSU football player Keith Mumphery in 2015.
The suit alleges the Office of Institutional Equity Title IX investigation found the sexual episode was not consensual and Mumphery had violated MSU policies.
He was banned for life from enrolling at MSU and threatened with arrest until the end of this calendar year if found on campus. The suit noted that days after the June 7, 2016 notification to Mumphery, MSU football media officials tweeted out with excitement that Mumphery would attend a football camp in the following weeks.
It’s just one of a half-dozen lawsuits MSU is defending against in federal courts right now.
State lawmakers have begun to rattle their budget pens, threatening to cut the $275 million in allocations or place restrictions on how they could be used. Within hours of his appointment, Engler seemed to have tamed the Legislature, although State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said Friday that MSU’s funding was not entirely off the table.
Lauren Allswede worked with sexual assault survivors at MSU for seven years, but left in disgust because of the university’s failure to address the epidemic. She says the university’s actions were aimed at protecting its reputation.
“Whenever we tried to raise the issue, they said they were working on it,” she said in an interview in her office in Lansing last week. “But they put people from the administration on it, people who were not on the front lines, people who were not survivors.”
When sexual assault made headlines, as it did in 2010, the administration effectively gagged the sexual assault counseling team and its affiliated student group, she said. All media calls were to be directed to then-spokesman Jason Cody. Cody, in turn, would determine what, if any, media outlets counselors or student group members could talk to.
That control was not limited to just the administration, Allswede said. When the online news outlet Michigan Messenger broke the story of the Appling/Payne sexual assault allegations, staff in the MSU Counseling Center demanded a printout of the report be removed, she said.
“Co-workers were upset by the allegations against the basketball team,” she said.
Allswede’s boss, Shari Murgittroyd, questioned why Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III had not brought charges in a case she called “a slam dunk.” Allswede said the prosecutor’s office began skipping monthly meetings of the Capital Area Sexual Assault Response Team (CASART) in protest.
Ingham County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McCormick said in an email that the office “never withdrew from CASART.” She did not respond to a follow-up question as to whether the office did not attend meetings.
“They didn’t leave the team, but they stopped participating for a while,” Allswede said, countering McCormick’s statement. “We had to rebuild relationships.”
Allswede said MSU’s roadmap for change is clear. “The answers are contained in the victim impact statements,” she said.
“Survivors of Nassar and everyone else have already gone through too much. They shouldn’t have to step up again.”
Allswede said that the university administration is going to have to engage the front line workers combating sexual assault to design educational programs to decrease the incidents of assault, increase reporting and ultimately create a culture where it is rare that it happens at all.
Ultimately, the answer is not found in one new policy, or one new training programming, she said.
“There has to be accountability,” Allswede said. “Policies don’t mean as much if people know there are no consequences for violating them.”