East Lansing — With sex abuse scandals involving at least two aspects of her athletics program, Michigan State University president Lou Anna K. Simon on Friday defended her athletic director and football coach.
“We are committed to creating a culture of accountability, safety and responsiveness regarding sexual assault and harassment," Simon said during the Board of Trustees meeting at the Hannah Administration Building. “There is no culture of tolerance of sexual assault or harassment.”
At least one trustee defended Simon's leadership.
“Lou Anna Simon is going nowhere. We're very happy with her leadership,” said trustee Joel Ferguson, addressing protestors who held signs and called for Simon’s firing.
Not all of the protesters were there over the athletics issues. Some spoke about their frustration about an appearance in December by right-wing activist Milo Yiannopoulos.
In 55th District Court on Friday, Judge Donald L. Allen Jr. bound Dr. Larry Nassar over for trial on three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a person younger than 13, which is punishable by up to life in prison. Nassar, the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who is under investigation for sexually abusing a large number of young girls over two decades, has pleaded not guilty.
Three alleged victims have come forward to say former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was aware of the abuse. Klages was suspended Monday by athletics director Mark Hollis, then announced her retirement on Tuesday after 27 years as the gymnastics coach.
Add to that the continuing investigation into Mark Dantonio’s football program, one that includes a criminal case, a Title IX investigation into the alleged sexual assault and a review of the staff’s handling of the incident, and the protesters at the meeting Friday were just another part of what is turning into increasing pressure on Simon and the Board.
After the meeting, Simon addressed the media and was asked what could be done about improving the culture at Michigan State.
“The culture is a culture of attacking those issues, it’s not a culture of creating those issues,” Simon said. “If I look across all university campuses I can look at a number of those issues. Other institutions have had high-profile individuals on campus dealing with sexual assault and sexual harassment. Some were dealt with swiftly and some were not. Those happen on university campuses.
“We’re gonna figure it out and we’re gonna be better tomorrow. On the issue of sexual harassment, as I’ve said, it’s not unique to us, and to try and make it an MSU problem and not a society problem that also happens to be at MSU does a disservice to the university and also causes us to not to deal with the issues as people come to us.”
Simon applauded the way Hollis handled the situation with Klages while emphasizing his focus was on dealing with the current team and not basing it off past issues, especially considering some of the complaints predate Hollis’ time at Michigan State.
“I thought it was important for him to stand up for the current students and I would want that from any athletic director, in the same way I would want any athletic director to provide an environment where the sexual assault of a high-profile set of student-athletes can be investigated in the most full fashion and support that investigation," Simon said. "I think that speaks highly of him and sets him apart of some of the other issues that are around the country with athletic directors.”
One piece of business that was taken care of Friday was the approval of Dantonio’s rollover contract, an indication of her feeling about the program under Dantonio, who is entering his 11th season.
“My sense is that if we weren’t, if we had anything to be concerned about, we wouldn’t have moved forward with the action today,” Simon said. “We’re still looking at everything because it’s in his interest as well.”
On Feb. 9, Michigan State announced that MSU Police were investigating a sexual assault that involved three student-athletes for an alleged incident that occurred in late January. The university also began a Title IX investigation and said an outside law firm would conduct an independent review of the football staff’s handling of the incident.
All three players, who still have not been identified, were suspended and removed from campus housing. One staff member, recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell, was also suspended with pay.
On Thursday, the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office announced it had received four warrant requests from MSU Police. Three of the warrants were for sexual assault while the fourth was for a non-sexual crime.
Prosecutor Carol Siemon received the initial report from MSU Police and on Thursday asked for more evidence.
“I have asked the MSU Police Department to continue that investigation and submit to our office additional information and evidence,” Siemon said in a statement. “Upon the review of those materials, I will determine a charging decision in this matter.”
Separate from the criminal investigation and the Title IX investigation, Michigan State has retained the law firm of Miller Canfield to conduct a review of the football staff’s response to the sexual assault allegations.
“I have no necessary concerns that there are big issues,” Simon said, “but the confidence of the community requires that we look at it diligently.”