One of the first and most important steps forward in a crisis is to acknowledge and take care of the victims. This is especially the case when the victims are innocent and harmed by the actions of others.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s suggestion that Michigan State University reach a negotiated settlement with sexual assault and abuse victims of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar offers the university a chance to do that. It was the first time someone proposed a viable path forward. MSU trustees would be wise to consider it.
Self-inflicted crises can shake organizations to their foundations. The MSU Larry Nassar sexual assault and abuse scandal is doing just that, and the road to recovery and stability is long and painful. But there are some next steps the MSU Board of Trustees can take this week that will start the university on that road.
Establish a culture of transparency. Let’s start by releasing the internal investigation report conducted by former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald led the public corruption investigation and prosecution of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blogojevich. No credible observer of the MSU scandal believes Fitzgerald had nothing more to report than there was no cover-up. As recent media investigations suggest, Fitzgerald might want to revisit his findings, if nothing else. MSU trustees should release those findings to the public.
There are two recent examples close to home trustees can look to for guidance. GM released a scathing report of the internal investigation of its ignition switch recall scandal. The state of Michigan released a similar report on its handling of the Flint water crisis. Both documents were brutal in their findings. Both helped begin the process of rebuilding lost trust.
Communicate honestly and with empathy. The tone of MSU’s corpus of responses has been cold and off-putting, and carries all the telltale signs of being written by lawyers and risk managers. Read former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon’s resignation letter and it will show you all you need to know. Almost three-quarters of her 30-sentence letter focuses on messages that either seek to deny allegations or evade responsibility. When it came time to talk about the victims or to discuss what MSU is doing to protect young women in the future, Simon devoted only four sentences.
Through it all, the university adopted, as Simon so poignantly wrote in her letter, a “Team MSU first” approach. Yet for the university to move forward it must adopt a victim-first approach to its communication. Without it, the rough road ahead will only get rougher and much longer.
Set up an independent subcommittee of the board. Empower a subcommittee, similar to a truth and reconciliation panel, to make a safe space for victims and other voices to speak. Such a committee also would make honest findings of fact and broad-reaching recommendations to trustees. This committee should deliberate in public and its findings and recommendations should be published for all to see. Such an independent, transparent board, comprised of diverse members not tainted by this scandal, will go a long way in assuring victims, students and parents the university is serious about change.
Lean on your values. Trustees should look no farther than the university’s own mission statement if it needs a moral compass in this storm. MSU exists to “advance knowledge and transform lives.” Organizations are most successful when they execute a values-based response to a crisis.
Too often, large organizations forget that they are in the people business and think their brand must be protected at all cost. The brand is nothing more than a promise of how the organization will interact with the people who matter most it. MSU’s brand is in tatters, and that is a shame because Michigan State is a world-class academic institution with a stellar record of successes, social justice initiatives, and research excellence.
This is a sad moment for a great university and one that will require a thoughtful and long-term strategy to change, heal and move forward. These strategies outlined here would signal to the state of Michigan and the country that MSU is willing to back up its recent talk with concrete actions.
William Nowling is managing director and partner at Lambert, Edwards & Associates in Detroit. He led communications for the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy.