Michigan State University trustees backpedaled on dismissive comments from their vice chair Tuesday as the NCAA opened an investigation into the university’s handling of the Larry Nassar scandal.
The NCAA sent a letter of inquiry to MSU, formally opening an investigation, MSU spokesman Jason Cody confirmed, the same day trustee Joel Ferguson apologized for referring to sex abuse by the former university doctor as “this Nassar thing.”
Ferguson retracted the “inadvertent comment” made on a Lansing radio show, saying he recognizes the suffering of female victims of former MSU doctor Larry Nassar. His apology came in the form of a statement sent by Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a Lansing public relations specialist.
“I’m sorry that I sounded so insensitive because I am really not,” Ferguson, an influential trustee who has served on MSU’s board for 30 years, said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I’m a guy who has three daughters and one granddaughter … I am very sympathetic and for everything that these young ladies who were abused (need).
“I didn’t say it the right way, so I feel like a fool.”
Over six days in a Lansing courtroom, more than 150 women have testified that Nassar dramatically altered their lives with abuse done under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar’s sentencing is expected to conclude Wednesday.
Ferguson’s remark, along with statements during the radio interview that Simon’s future consumed only 10 minutes of a five-hour secret meeting last week, prompted blowback from his colleagues.
Fellow MSU trustee Brian Mosallam said on Twitter that most of an hours-long trustees’ meeting Friday focused on the Nassar case and Simon’s future.
“The absolutel (sic) majority of the meeting was about Nasser (sic) and how to move forward including (what) that a succession plan would look like, an independent review (AG) and the Board seeking outside advise (sic) in exercising their independent oversight role,” Mossallam wrote in a Tweet posted Tuesday afternoon.
In a later Tweet, he offered an apology to Nassar’s victims.
“We have come across as tone deaf, insensitive, emotionless and it infuriates me,” Mosallam wrote. “My apologies to the survivors. In no way do I want my comments to over shadow their statements.”
The public division on the board comes as pressure continues to mount on Simon to resign.
Ferguson drew criticism from victims’ advocates and others when he told a radio interviewer Monday that university leaders are busy focusing on other business.
“There are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing,” Ferguson told Tim Staudt of WVFN-AM.
“When you go to basketball game you walk into that new Breslin (Center) and the person who hustled and got all those major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon, and there’s so many things that make up being president of the university that keeps everything moving,” he said.
Ferguson said discussing Simon was only 10 minutes of the trustees’ gathering that took place for several hours behind closed doors on Friday.
“We had so many other things we were going over,” he said Monday.
Another trustee, Mitch Lyons, said most of the meeting focused on the Nassar case and its fallout.
“My recollection of Friday’s meeting was that the majority of five hours was spent on Nassar and how we move forward,” Lyons said in a statement Tuesday. “I expressed my view that President Simon cannot survive this. I continue to implore my colleagues to do the right thing and demand President Simon’s resignation and if she won’t agree, to relieve her of her duties.”
In a statement Tuesday, members of the MSU Athletic Council, which advises the school’s president and athletic director, apologized to Nassar’s victims and called for justice.
“Allowing unconscionable and criminal behavior does not represent the values of this pioneer land-grant university,” the statement said. “Those who are found to be culpable must be held accountable.”
After Friday’s meeting, the trustees called Simon the “right leader” for the university despite mounting calls for her ouster over the Nassar scandal.
Men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo stirred additional controversy Friday when, during comments addressing the Nassar case, he said: “I hope the right person was convicted and I have to say, though, that I have the utmost — the utmost faith and respect — for the leadership of our president, too, at Michigan State.”
On Sunday, Izzo said he used the “wrong words” and meant to say that Nassar and anyone else who broke the law should be held accountable.
Tuesday evening, Ferguson told The News that MSU had made a mistake by waiting until last week to ask state Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate the school’s handling of the Nassar case.
“We laid an egg. We didn’t put our arms around it right. We made a mistake collectively,” Ferguson added.
The trustee cited a column by Nolan Finley, The News’ editorial page editor, that called for an independent investigation into the scandal.
“He’s right,” Ferguson said. “We’re not as tone deaf as we seem.”
He also said that he still stands behind Simon. When asked if university donors were pulling their support, he said just the opposite was happening.
“Major, major, major donors and others have been calling us, and telling us, ‘Do not lose the president,’ ” Ferguson said.
Nassar, 54, worked for decades as a sports doctor for the university as well as USA Gymnastics until his abuse was uncovered in September 2016.
“I think the young ladies who’ve been wronged by this person and I think in the case ... you can never abuse money to make over people’s pain and suffering ... but there’s gonna be something happening in their favor,” Ferguson said. “I think when people find out that this person was on an island by himself, I think they’ll move on and we’ll keep the university moving with the president we have.”
During the radio interview, Ferguson shot down questions over whether the NCAA would get involved over the Nassar matter.
“This is not Penn State, and they were dealing with the football program. They’re smart enough to know they’re not confident to walk in here on this.”
Lyons called Saturday for Simon to step down.
“I feel that our best recourse is for President Simon to resign immediately in order to allow the healing process to begin, first and foremost for the survivors and secondarily for our university,” he said in a statement.
Lyons’ call followed similar ones by three top leaders in the Michigan Legislature last week. MSU’s student newspaper, The State News, on Thursday called on her to step down, and the student government adopted a resolution calling for a change in leadership.
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, also have urged the university’s Board of Trustees to “act swiftly” and remove Simon from her post, saying the “MSU community deserves better from its leadership.”
Democratic State House Minority Leader Sam Singh and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, along with GOP Sen. Margaret O’Brien of Portage and Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, were also among those who on Thursday urged Simon to step down.
The university has been called “tone-deaf” by some of Nassar’s victims, including Larissa Boyce, believed to be the first person to tell someone at MSU about Nassar’s sexual abuse in 1997. She criticized Simon during her impact statement Friday at Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
“Well, you are (tone-deaf, MSU), and you reshame and victimize me. ... Simon said she’d watch this on the live feed. How is that not tone-deaf? That’s not doing anything? I’m sorry, MSU, if you’re listening, that right there shows that you’re tone-deaf.”
So far, more than 140 girls and women have discussed how being molested by Nassar altered their lives during six days of victim impact statements given in an Ingham County courtroom over his seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
The women’s testimonies come as a Detroit News investigation found that reports of sexual misconduct by Nassar reached at least 14 university representatives in the two decades before his arrest.
Among those notified was Simon, who was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed physician.