Trustees back Simon, ask AG to investigate MSU

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

East Lansing — The Michigan State University Board of Trustees on Friday reiterated support for President Lou Anna Simon, calling her the “right leader” for the university despite mounting calls for her ouster or resignation over the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.

Trustees met with Simon and spent more than three hours talking behind closed doors after releasing a morning letter that denied any “cover-up” by the university. But they asked Attorney General Bill Schuette via letter to investigate its handling of allegations against the former gymnastics doctor.

“As information is presented in this matter, the board will act,” said Chairman Brian Breslin, who read a prepared statement to reporters but did not take follow-up questions. “This can never happen again.”

Breslin acknowledged the university “has been perceived as tone-deaf, unresponsive and insensitive to victims” and noted “the public’s faith has been shaken.” But the board has listened to and heard the victims, he added.

“We continue to believe President Simon is the right leader for the university, and she has our support,” Breslin said as fellow trustees stood behind him.

Simon was seen early Friday entering the meeting, which the university called a “work session” not subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act for public bodies. She did not appear with trustees as they emerged hours later. Instead, she released a statement saying she appreciates “the confidence of the board and the many people who have reached out to me, and to them, who have the best interests of MSU at heart.”

“I have always done my best to lead MSU, and I will continue to do so today and tomorrow,” Simon said.

She also addressed the MSU community in an email following the board session, highlighting the work done to address matters related to Nassar, including a $10 million fund for victims who need counseling and mental health services.

But Larissa Boyce, the first person to tell someone at MSU about Nassar’s sexual abuse in 1997, ripped Simon during her impact statement and discussed the statement made by the university’s board.

“I asked Lou Anna Simon to be here today for my statement,” Boyce said. “She told me she could not fit it into her schedule. ...

“Well, you are (tone-deaf, MSU), and you reshame and victimize me. ... Simon said she’d watch this on the livefeed. 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.”

The board stood by Simon a day after three top leaders in the Michigan Legislature called for Simon’s resignation or forced removal from her post over the Nassar scandal. MSU’s student newspaper on Thursday called on her to step down, and the student government adopted a resolution calling for a change in leadership.

The calls for an MSU leadership change came after a Detroit News report stated allegations against Nassar reached at least 14 university representatives over two decades.

Trustees said in their morning letter to Schuette that they have spoken to legislators and other stakeholders in recent weeks and understand there is “a general sentiment that MSU has avoided being transparent, or worse, that it might be involved in a cover-up. Let’s be clear: this is simply not true.”

Their request for a review by the Attorney General’s Office, which Simon said she welcomes, comes after public accusations against Nassar first surfaced in September 2016.

While Simon has denied any direct knowledge of Nassar’s abuse, she confirmed Wednesday she was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed sports medicine physician but said she never received a copy of the report.

Trustees said in the letter they are asking Schuette to investigate “the events surrounding the Larry Nassar matter:”

“Although we have confidence in the integrity of the various reviews already conducted by law enforcement, subject matter experts, and outside counsel to the university, we are making this request because we believe your review may be needed to answer the public’s questions concerning MSU’s handling of the Nassar situation.”

Schuette responds

Schuette made clear he intends to investigate MSU but wanted the focus this week to be on victims who were delivering impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing on sexual assault charges.

“It’s not a question of if or whether, it’s a question of when the time is appropriate,” Schuette said on WJR-AM (760). “They lost their innocence, and I put him away. Let’s think about them right now.”

He blasted a Detroit News editorial calling for Simon to resign or be removed for saying the Attorney General’s Office appears to be uninterested in determining who knew what and when in the school’s administration. The editorial said Schuette’s indifference borders on dereliction of duty.

“To say that I’m indifferent or in dereliction of duty is just utter nonsense,” Schuette said. “Here’s why: I led the investigation that convicted Nassar and put him behind bars for the rest of his life. I’ve said he ought to receive one year in prison for every young woman that he’s violated.”

More than 100 victims have or were describing abuse by Nassar this week in Lansing as the former MSU and USA gymnastics doctor faces sentencing on sexual assault charges. He was previously sentenced to 60 years in prison on a federal child pornography conviction.

“I feel that MSU was an enabler,” Chelsea Zerfas, 15, said Friday morning in a victim impact statement at Ingham County Circuit Court. “I should have never been assaulted there along with other girls.”

Simon listened to victims in court on Wednesday and has praised those who have spoken out.

“The testimony of Nassar’s victims this week made many of us, including me, listen to the survivors and the community in a different way,” Simon said in a separate statement released Friday.

“It is clear to the board and me that a review by the Attorney General’s Office can provide the answers people need. As I told the attorney general in December, MSU will fully cooperate with any inquiry by law enforcement authorities. I hope this review will help the survivors and the entire MSU community heal and move forward.”

But John Manley, an attorney representing Nassar victims, called Friday’s request for an attorney general investigation “too little too late” by the university and described a prior internal probe by a former prosecutor “a lie.”

“The only reason Ms. Simon asked for one today is because MSU’s culpability has been exposed. If the leadership of MSU had any decency, they would resign as a sign of contrition for their misdeeds,” Manley said in a statement.

Trustees’ closed meeting

Asked why Friday’s gathering of trustees was closed to the public, MSU spokesman Jason Cody called it a “work session” rather than a meeting. “Work sessions, by law, aren’t required to be open to the public,” he said.

The Michigan Court of Appeals in 2016 ruled that university boards are not required to open “informal” meetings to the public, holding they are constitutionally shielded from the state’s Open Meetings Act. The universities get to decide how they define “formal.”

“We are simply not empowered to evaluate whether that is good policy or, for that matter, take any action on the basis of whether we might believe it to be,” judges wrote in the 3-0 decision in a lawsuit the Detroit Free Press and Lansing State Journal brought against the University of Michigan.

Under the state’s Open Meetings Act that applies to most public bodies, the board could also legally close meeting to discuss litigation or employment matters with an attorney, said Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association.

Still, the “spirit of the law itself here is being violated” because there is great public interest in the Nassar scandal and Simon, McGraw said.

Reporters encountered Trustee Joel Ferguson as he waited for an elevator after the meeting but he did not indicate whether the board seriously considered removing Simon from her post and whether it fears budget repercussions from state legislators.

“We love the job she’s doing,” Ferguson said of Simon. “She’s very good.”

House Speaker Tom Leonard, who called for Simon to resign five weeks ago, on Friday asked the chairs of the higher education budget and law and justice committees to “launch inquiries” into MSU’s actions in the Nassar scandal.

The DeWitt Republican noted the Legislature does not conduct criminal investigations but urged the committees to identify “policy and budget solutions those actions have presented.”

“Despite a public outcry for greater transparency and accountability in light of the many unanswered questions surrounding the case, the university has so far refused to reveal the events that occurred on its campus,” Leonard said in a letter to Republican Reps. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township and Kim LaSata of Bainbridge Township.

Campus reaction

The Nassar scandal has highlighted the university’s ongoing struggles to combat sexual assault on campus, student body President Lorenzo Santavicca said Friday morning outside the trustees meeting.

“Finally, people are looking at Michigan State University and seeing we have an issue here. We are plagued by sexual assault at our university, and for our university, students that have spoken, we need a change in leadership,” Santavicca said. “That means students are looking at that to happen from the board, and until that happens, I think students are going to see this as very complacent.”

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, already have urged the university’s Board of Trustees to “act swiftly” and remove Simon, 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 among those who on Thursday urged Simon to step down.

Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio said Friday it’s an “awful” situation for Nassar’s victims.

“I guess with that said, in 11 years of dealing with President Simon on so many different occasions and in so many different areas, I’ve always found her to be very reflective, very calm in the storm, very on-point,” Dantonio said. “And I’ve always appreciated that about her. She’s much like a head coach.”

The board gave Simon a vote of confidence last month, offering her a raise that she declined as officials agreed to create a $10 million counseling fund. Simon has been MSU president since 2004.

Staff reporters Michael Gerstein, Charles E. Ramirez and Matt Charboneau contributed.