Commentary: After Nassar, MSU Moving Slowly Toward Change
It is hard to be affiliated with the Michigan State University community and not be familiar with the Larry Nassar scandal. Just one Google search returns hundreds of articles from every major publication in the country, all detailing the horrific crimes of the former USA Gymnastics team doctor and MSU faculty member.
After accusations from 332 women and testimonies from 156, Nassar will first serve a 60-year sentence in federal prison for child pornography charges, followed by concurrent sentences for sexual assault charges from Michigan’s Eaton and Ingham counties of 40 to 125 years and 40 to 175 years in prison, respectively.
The Nassar case began publicly unfolding as early as 2016 and, by January 2018, the university community’s response spanned shock and rage and everything in between. Students, faculty and alumni were appalled at the lack of accountability and blatant disregard the administration had expressed when presented with reports of Nassar’s behavior. Survivors had been reporting Nassar’s crimes since 1997, some to coaches who provided referrals to his medical practice, some to local police and some to the MSU Title IX Office, among other avenues.
Campus advocates had been calling for more comprehensive services for assault survivors for years, as MSU’s Counseling Center and the Sexual Assault Program have been routinely underfunded, unable to consistently meet high student demand. Students often have to wait multiple weeks for intake appointments and then face a shortage of therapists with over-booked schedules. Many are referred to off-campus resources altogether.
While the Nassar scandal horrified the community, it publicly solidified the necessity for campus reform. Multiple MSU entities, including the varsity football and basketball programs, have previously faced backlashes for mishandled sexual misconduct; however, the Nassar case was the first to garner prolonged national attention and a critical evaluation of the university administration.
It is disheartening to realize it took something of this magnitude to begin processes for meaningful conversation and, unfortunately, as has been illustrated in recent months, it does not necessarily lead to immediate meaningful change.
Several town halls, forums and open meetings have occurred, allowing thousands of community members to express their disappointment with the university and board of trustees. At these venues, students have shared their experiences about campus sexual misconduct and the administration’s dismissive tendencies, as well expressed their frustrations with the utterly non-transparent appointment of Interim President Engler.
Among the demands for justice for the Nassar survivors, students have passionately advocated for funding reallocation, faculty inclusion in the administration’s initiatives, reinstatement and expansion of campus services for women, and a transparent presidential selection process. Several undergraduates have also threatened to transfer or look elsewhere for graduate school.
As I was applying to a graduate program at MSU myself, I was conflicted. I questioned the potential hypocrisy of studying therapy, gender and sexuality in a place with a climate of victim-shaming and lack of institutional accountability.
The fallout from MSU’s crumbling reputation distracted from the efforts of students and faculty engaged in the important work of survivors’ healing and justice, many still awaiting the recognition they deserve. I ultimately decided to pursue my master’s degree in clinical social work at MSU, hoping to honor the bravery of the survivors by my efforts to be a part of the solution.
Pushing For Change
Engler’s administration is starting to take the first steps toward change, but not without a strong, consistent push from the community.
MSU has some of the leading experts in sexual assault and gender-based violence, and these faculty and their associated units are fighting for a place at the table as the administration attempts to move MSU into a new era.
The Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen), where I have interned for three years, administers the Women’s and Gender Studies program as well as the LGBTQ and Sexuality Studies program, and is working to expand the curriculum to include an introductory required course about “consent, healthy sexual relationships, and issues related to gender inequity and other forms of oppression broadly,” per Stephanie Nawyn, GenCen co-director, and MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam, as reflected in his recently released Proposal for Drastic Voluntary Remediation.
Engler’s newest group of advisers draws from some of the university’s strongest faculty. The Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup is chaired by Dr. Rebecca Campbell (Psychology), in collaboration with Dr. Carrie Moylan (Social Work) and Dr. Cris Sullivan (Psychology).
The university also solicited applications for a Women’s Student Services coordinator this month, an important step for re-establishing discontinued services for women and forwarding campus culture transformation.
While progress is being made on campus, the survivors’ legal fight has rounded a corner. On May 16, MSU announced a principle agreement for a $500 million settlement, ending the litigation phase for 332 survivors and counting. $425 million will be paid out, with $75 million in reserve for others who may come forward.
While the settlement seems to be a victory, money cannot repair the damage that has been done to hundreds of women and the surrounding campus community. Many survivors have commented that a real victory would be an honest and complete apology from the university, and the necessary reforms that must follow.
There is no minimizing the amount of work left to be done at MSU, in both the administrative and cultural arenas, but through solidarity and persistence, MSU will see a new day.
Marisa Meyerson of Farmington Hills is a graduate of Michigan State University and will begin work on her master’s degree in the fall.