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MSU Acting President Udpa to Nassar victims: 'We let you down'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State University acting President Satish Udpa makes a formal apology to victims of former MSU and USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, at the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration building in East Lansing, Mich.

One year after serial pedophile Larry Nassar was sent away to prison, Michigan State University's tone toward the women who were abused by him has changed — with some victims saying "finally."

On Friday, MSU acting President Satish Udpa opened his first Board of Trustees' meeting with a formal apology to those who were sexually abused by Nassar — something many in the community had been hoping to hear for two years.

"I am sorry you were subjected to the pain and humiliation of sexual assault by somebody you should have been able to trust," Udpa said. "We failed to comprehend and acknowledge your injuries at the time. We were too slow to grasp the scope and enormity of the offense you endured.

"And we failed to treat you with the respect and care you deserved even as we sought to make amends," he said. "So, I’m not going to talk about 'putting this behind us.' Neither the pain of survivors nor the wounds to our collective soul will be healed quickly or easily."

Udpa concluded his remarks by looking to the future.

"This will be a long journey of healing," Udpa said. "We have made many changes at MSU, and we will make more."

More: Read Udpa's full statement

His comment was greeted by a long round of applause from the audience.

He was joined by other board members who apologized, including Vice Chair Dan Kelly, who hailed Udpa's statement as "heartfelt" but "coming from the wrong person." 

"I, as a board member, want to acknowledge over the past year I have allowed an adversarial position between the university and the survivors," Kelly said. "That was my mistake and that's on me. It's not the president's fault for having done that. So I apologize for that."

He said he talked with some of the Nassar survivors in the past two months with the help of his new fellow board members.

"It was probably a mistake to wait until the last two months because I actually learned a lot from the survivors," Kelly said. "Nobody wants to destroy this great university ... We can enter into a relationship, discussions, negotiations. We can resolve the pending claims, we can resolve the issues on the healing fund and we can take future steps to make this a better university. So I am optimistic, and I wish I had done it a year ago."

After Udpa's apology, MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum announced the board plans to re-establish the Healing Assistance Fund for Nassar victims with its original parameters. Former interim President John Engler suspended the fund last year.

In the meantime, the young women who were abused by Nassar and their families will learn in the coming days how they can submit their expenses for reimbursement, Byrum said. 

Acting Michigan State University President Satish Udpa (center), flanked by Trustees Dan Kelly and Dianne Byrum.

"The board has met with survivors, their families and consulted with the (Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct) advisory work group on this topic and we will continue our work on this issue to support those who need help," she said. "We hope and encourage all those who need mental health support to utilize this fund."

Many of the young women and their family members who attended the meeting or watched from afar said they were happy to hear contrite words from MSU's top officials.

Brian Tarrant —  a parent of a Nassar victim who has spoken before the board many times — thanked Udpa, saying it was his first time to stand before the board "and not have anger in my heart, but to actually feel like there's people who care."

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, wasn't at the meeting but heard Udpa's message and sent a statement saying she was grateful for his words.

"Words must be followed by swift action," Denhollander said. "For more than two years we have been asking for accountability and transparency in the form of a broad, independent investigation with a firm the survivors can trust, so that we can discern what went wrong."

"We cannot look forward until there is an understanding and acknowledgment of what needs to be fixed," Denhollander continued. "That must happen, and it must happen quickly so that whoever takes over this role has all the information to work from as they move the university forward. Until this takes place, there will not be able to be confidence in MSU, the Board, or its leadership."

Amanda Thomashow, who filed the first Title IX report against Nassar in 2014, summarized Udpa's apology this way: "Finally."

More than 20 people testified during the public comment period of the meeting, including several women who are part of what is known as the second wave of Nassar victims.

"Thank you for your pledge that we are going to work together moving forward on this long healing journey," said Nicole Casady, a Nassar survivor, MSU alumna and nurse practitioner living in Wisconsin.

Udpa's apology comes weeks after the departure of Engler, who resigned in January under pressure following an adversarial year between him and the young women and their families. 

The apology was a stark departure from the first board meeting presided over by Engler, who picked up the reins as MSU was in the midst of its darkest days.

When Engler began leading MSU a year ago, more than 200 young women had just testified in two courtrooms over nine days about the sexual abuse of Nassar. The former MSU sports doctor admitted to sexually abusing girls and women for decades under the guise of medical treatment, and also possessing 37,000 images of child pornography.

Their testimonies reverberated around the world. In the middle of it, longtime President Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis resigned.

Engler's year at the helm was tumultuous. His comments about and addressed to the women abused by Nassar angered them and generated  headlines across the nation.

During an interview last month with The Detroit News editorial board, Engler said some of the young women were "enjoying" their time in the spotlight, leading a newly elected board to put pressure on him to resign.

Soon after Udpa was named Engler's successor, he fired Bob Young, the attorney who Engler brought in to be general counsel and vice president.

Udpa said he met last week with a small group of survivors, adding that he was sure it would not be the last meeting with them. 

"I listened, and I told them I am sorry MSU let them down," Udpa said. "We let you down."

"I want to say this to each of you now and other survivors in this room ... I want you to know that on behalf of this university I love, as acting president and an executive officer, and as a former dean and faculty member, I realize the need to formally apologize and to effectively atone," Udpa said.

Attendees at the Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting, Friday, Feb. 15.

At the end of the meeting, Trustee Brian Mosallam apologized again, as he did a year ago.

"We failed you," he said. "There has been a clear change in tone and direction from the top. I think that is evident. This  board is working really hard together to resolve a lot of issues ... We are sorry. We do care about you. We want you to come along and be part of the healing process and sit with us and help us move down this path of institutional reform."

Trustee Kelly Tebay thanked the Nassar victims who spoke during the public comment period. 

"We hear you," Tebay said. "We have a lot of work to do ... The reopening of the healing fund is not the end of this. We are still having conversations about what this looks like and how we move forward in supporting our survivors and their families going forward."

Michigan State University Board of Trustees members Joel Ferguson, left, and Kelly Tebay listen as a victim of former MSU and USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, talks about her abuse Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, at the public board meeting in East Lansing, Mich.  MSU acting President Satish Udpa made a formal apology to victims.

Trustee Joel Ferguson, who has been under fire for how he has spoken of Nassar victims, said  he felt "kind of left out" and wanted to meet with some of them.

"So we can really find common ground and get to know each other better," Ferguson said.

But during his comments, someone from the audience said loudly, "Apologize first."