As a childhood baseball fan and former athlete, MSU President Lou Anna Simon knows what an asterisk can mean.
In nearly 13 years as president, Simon has led the university through a transformation so thorough and multi-faceted that observers are beginning to compare her tenure to the epic 28-year reign of post-World War II president and campus icon John Hannah.
Fairly or not, however, the year 2017 put a serious crimp in her scorecard.
Attorney David Mittleman and his partner, Mick Grewal, represent 35 of 141 alleged victims who have come forward in civil litigation in Michigan’s western district, alleging sexual abuse by former MSU sports physician Larry Nassar.
The cases, tied up in criminal and civil litigation, have gained national notoriety for MSU, from The Washington Post to “60 Minutes,” and could cost the university tens of millions of dollars.
“We literally had to bulk up the size of the firm to deal with it,” Mittleman said.
Simon has drawn fire for a tepid response, at best, to the unfolding scandal. Despite the gravity of the matter, Mittleman gave in to the Spartan compulsion to put everything in terms of sports.
“Depending on how the largest institutional sexual assault scandal in modern history is handled,” Mittleman said Simon “will have, at minimum, an asterisk.”
Hold the retrospective
Simon is showing no signs of hanging it up yet. Not only did she decline to be interviewed for this story, but her spokeswoman, Jennifer Davis, declined to say what Simon considers to be the most significant parts of her legacy.
“That ”sort of retrospective … strikes us as more appropriate for someone who is planning to leave his or her position, which is not the case here,” Davis said.
In the head-hunting world of university presidents, Simon is an anomaly. Spartan to the marrow, Simon, 70, has never worked anywhere else. She has led the university since 2003, first as interim president, then as president.
“It’s a fairly long period of time for a presidency in this day and age,” former Associate Provost Robert Banks said. College and university presidents were serving an average term of seven years in 2011, down from eight and a half in 2006, according to the American Council on Education.
But Banks considers Simon’s longevity to be an asset.
“She knows where all the issues are, where all the bodies are buried,” he said. “She’s bright, energetic, smart, so she can deal with the staleness you can get into if you’re in one university for a long time.”
For sheer impact and magnitude of change during her tenure, longtime observers are starting to compare Simon to John Hannah — the Washington, Lincoln and FDR of MSU, all rolled into one. Hannah was president from 1941 to 1969, when the school shot up from its agricultural college roots to become a national research institution.
“John Hannah was here longer, and really built and developed the university, but she’s carried that on that tradition in a lot of respects,” Banks said.
Fred Poston, who served two terms as dean of the College of Agriculture, separated by 12 years as vice president for finance and operations, has worked closely with Simon.
“I’ve served a few of them, from DiBiaggio on, and I think she’s easily the strongest president we’ve had,” Poston said. “She has a better grasp of the university than anyone I know.”
Atoms and art Simon’s style is to yoke detail-minded, hands-on involvement with far-reaching ambition.
Two high-profile projects — one in the humanities and the other in the physical sciences — best show off that style.
MSU broke ground in 2014 on the $550 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, which is expected to be finished in three to five years. This year, the project reached the obscure but crucial benchmark of “beneficial occupancy,” meaning it is already in limited use.
FRIB is a massive, arcane research complex, the sort of project usually found at national labs such as Argonne or Oak Ridge, too far out to be tucked into the dorms and classrooms of a Big 10 campus. The creation of rare isotopes not found in nature opens up a window into the fundamental building blocks of the universe and promises a host of medical and other applications.
For Simon, pushing through projects like FRIB is not just a matter of cheerleading.
FRIB Project Director Thomas Glasmacher said Simon’s direct involvement with the U.S. Energy Department’s selection committee in 2008, including three-day sessions in Rockville, Maryland, and at MSU, were “critical” in convincing the feds to go with MSU instead of Argonne.
“We are building on the MSU campus a discovery machine for which there was no blueprint,” Glasmacher said. “Without President Simon’s personal support and encouragement, throughout good times and tough times, FRIB would not now be close to being a reality.”
Poston was with Simon in Rockville and heard her make the pitch for MSU.
“Lou Anna got up, put her earpiece in and away she went,” Poston said. “It was the best presentation I’ve ever heard anybody give. She was so knowledgeable and so smooth about the topic, everybody was sitting there with their mouths open.”
Bookend to the FRIB, on the north end of campus, is an even unlikelier addition to the former agricultural college — the Broad Art Museum, housed in a bold, angular building designed by Zaha Hadid, one of only two of her designs to be built in the United States. (The other is Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.)
Simon overcame an initial reluctance to push Sparty into the contemporary art world and embraced the biggest gift in the university’s history, $24 million from billionaire alumnus Eli Broad, to build the museum.
English Professor Jyotsna Singh called the Broad Museum “one of the best and exciting things that’s happened.”
Singh, a member of the English Department faculty at MSU for 18 years, was recruited from Southern Methodist University in Texas, where she already had tenure, and became a full professor at MSU.
“The campus of today is not the campus of 12 years ago, and she deserves the credit,” Singh said. “It’s moving in all the right directions. MSU has more recognition worldwide.”
‘Vibrant and vital’
The FRIB and Broad Museum are only the most dramatic totems of Simon’s push MSU onto the world stage in multiple disciplines.
Simon worked with the Board of Trustees to create a raft of endowed professorships expected to generate research in the physical and biological sciences. A new bioengineering facility was finished in 2015 and an $88 million medical research facility in Grand Rapids, opened this September.
For decades, MSU’s medical schools concentrated mainly on training M.D.s and D.O.s, according to Banks, and not on research until recently.
“The MSU medical environment is a very complicated one, with five campuses,” Banks said. “Some would say it’s an administrative nightmare. It’s challenging to get all those people working together across a broad set of missions and objectives.”
Simon has also devoted a lot of attention to the arts and humanities. The Broad Museum is only the most conspicuous example.
“She has handled a very difficult time, when the state has divested in its support of higher education,” College of Music Dean James Forger said.
Forger’s college and other programs have been subject to budget cuts, but they have also benefited from the spectacular renovation of Fairchild Theater and Cook Recital Hall.
Forger credits Simon with recruiting and retaining key faculty members with international reputations. When jazz studies director and renowned bassist Rodney Whitaker was wooed by the Juilliard School, Simon intervened personally to keep him here.
“That’s the way to build a university — to retain people with external offers,” Forger said. “That has made all the difference.”
Simon has also championed environmental initiatives such as putting a stop to the burning of coal at the campus power plant and building the nation’s largest solar carport array.
Singh credits Simon with expanding MSU’s international programs, showing a “genuine” commitment to diversity and making “good hires” such as College of Arts and Letters Dean Christopher Long.
“We all have these snobbish friends on the East Coast who say, ‘Are you still in Michigan State’?’” Singh said. “I always say very proudly that I’m part of a vibrant and vital English Department built largely during Lou Anna Simon’s time as president. I’ve had other opportunities and offers, and I’ve never left.”
Insult to hams Recent clouds on Simon’s tenure have not been limited to the Nassar scandal. When the city of East Lansing moved to put a new income tax on the Nov. 7 ballot, Simon dangled the city a lump sum to drop it, opening her offer at $10 million. East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows asked for $100 million. Simon came back with $20 million, which she called “extraordinarily generous” in a letter to Meadows.
Their epistolary exchange skirted the shoals of incivility, with Simon needling Meadows about alleged fiscal mismanagement in City Hall and Meadows calling the charges “offensive and misinformed.” MSU and East Lansing couldn’t come to an agreement before the deadline to submit the ballot proposal language.
Voters rejected the tax this month, but a testy, seven-figure poker match between two leaders of a much-vaunted “town and gown” relationship was unseemly at best.
Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner said that to call Simon’s handling of the matter “ham-handed” would be “like an insult to hams.”
“Her exchange with Mark Meadows would have seemed perfectly presidential, except that neither was playing the adult role,” Grebner said.
But the East Lansing skirmish was a minor dustup compared to the Nassar scandal and the attention it drew to what many observers see as an underlying culture of tolerance for sexual assault at MSU.
Simon was branded, fairly or not, as a hypocrite for condemning the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State as chairwoman of the NCAA executive committee, while the Nassar situation festered under her watch.
“People make mistakes, and some of those are purposeful and premeditated, and if you just take the Penn State experience, pretty pervasive,” Simon said in September 2012.
Sandusky, an assistant football coach at Penn State, was convicted that year of 45 counts of having molested young boys.
Penn State President Graham Spanier and iconic coach Joe Paterno lost their jobs over the scandal. Penn State was fined $73 million by the NCAA and the Big Ten Authority. The school has paid nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in settlements with the victims, according to the Washington Post.
Mittleman expects a replay at MSU of the severe “hammering” on NCAA violations administered to Penn State.
“Look at the sheer numbers — this is four times the size of Penn State,” Mittleman said.
Joined at the hip
However the Nassar case plays out, Simon’s defense has drawn fire from many critics, including some of the victims of alleged assaults.
Simon told the MSU Board of Trustees at an April 2013 meeting, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.”
After reading the remark in The Washington Post, Rachael Denhollander, who alleged than Nassar sexually assaulted her in 2002 when she was a 15-year-old gymnast, was moved to write an open letter to Simon May 1.
“Virtually impossible to stop a determined predator and pedophile?” Denhollander wrote. “If this is what you have been told, you need new advisors.”
Catherine Hannum, a former member of the MSU rowing team and a Nassar patient for four years, also wrote an open letter to Simon, excoriating the university for its slow response to complaints about Nassar.
“I want to know how things got so bad,” Hannum wrote. “I want to know who kept reports of his abuse private. I want to know why it took so long to figure out he was dangerous.”
Mittleman said there is written documentation that William Strampel, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, “knew or should have known that there was suspected sexual abuse of a minor going on.”
“There aren’t many levels between the dean of the osteopathic school and the top of the food chain,” Mittleman said.
“I don’t know what she knew,” Mittleman said of Simon. “We have requested it but we haven’t been provided that discovery. Everything has been stayed pending the mediation process, which is confidential.”
The scandal news in 2017 has not been limited to the Nassar case. In February, three MSU football players were charged with criminal sexual conduct. A fourth player was charged in April. All four were dropped from the team.
In April, City Pulse reported that a 2015 federal investigation found that MSU had failed in numerous instances to respond in a timely manner to allegations of sexual assault and harassment going back to 2010. The federal study found that “a sexually hostile environment existed for and affected numerous students and staff on campus at the University.”
Simon has argued that the problem is not unique to MSU.
“Sexual assault still plagues our campus and society at large,” she wrote in the April 26 letter to campus.
The April 26 letter outlined steps the university had taken “over the past few years” to “create a safe and supportive campus environment,” including beefing up the campus Sexual Assault Program, requiring students and employees to take an online training program and “accelerating the timeline” for a “top-to-bottom review” of the Title IX program.
But the letter took a defensive tone. Simon again pleaded that “determined sexual predators and pedophiles—people who often exploit positions of personal and professional trust—are very difficult to detect and stop.”
For all his praise of Simon, Poston acknowledged the potential of the Nassar scandal to taint her legacy at MSU.
“It can happen to any president,” Poston said. “You sort of live in fear of — you can’t watch everybody all the time, even though you are responsible.”
“But for this, her reputation is sterling at MSU,” Mittleman admitted. “I don’t want this to be her legacy, but by the same token, you know where the buck stops. If she flubs the resolution of this scandal, Larry Nassar and Lou Anna K. Simon will be much like Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky, joined at the hip forever.”