MSU hires firm to speed up sex assault investigations

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Michigan State University is bringing in outside help to speed up investigations into growing complaints of sexual assault and harassment on campus, which officials say now take an average of 80 days to complete.

The university announced Tuesday that the Office of Institutional Equity has hired the Kroll corporate investigation firm of New York to assist with Title IX relationship violence and sexual misconduct cases.

Reports of sexual assault and harassment at MSU increased by 35 percent between the academic year 2015-16 and 2016-17, according to the university. Officials expect that number to continue to climb as more victims feel comfortable reporting incidents.

“We are taking active steps to make MSU a shining example of Title IX compliance; 80 days is not only far too long for a response to a complaint, it’s totally unacceptable,” Interim President John Engler said in a statement. “We owe it to all those who have been assaulted and had the bravery to step forward to have a safer MSU be their legacy.”

MSU policies and practices for investigating sexual assault allegations have been under scrutiny with the recent conviction for former university and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is accused of assaulting more than 200 young girls and women over the course of more than two decades.

Nassar was the subject of an MSU Title IX sexual harassment investigation in 2014 but was cleared of wrongdoing. A version of the report sent to MSU — but not the victim — warned of his potential liability to the university, which now faces multiple lawsuits over its failure to stop the convicted pedophile.

Former President Lou Anna Simon resigned Jan. 24 and Athletic Director Mark Hollis resigned Jan. 26, the same day ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a report suggesting a wide pattern of missteps with assault investigations and transparency at MSU. The report highlighted incidents involving former football and basketball athletes that played under coaches Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo.

Engler discussed the report Tuesday in his second open letter to the “MSU community” in as many weeks since taking office, calling it a “sensationalized package of reporting” that contained allegations the university is now reviewing.

The Republican former governor suggested the ESPN story garnered so much national attention, in part, because of a promotional graphic that featured Nassar and the high-profile coaches, who have so far declined to discuss the report in great depth.

Dantonio and Izzo “were asked to refrain from comment while the reports were examined,” Engler said. “That has been a burden that must be lifted. I hope that MSU can soon respond in full and affirm the integrity and probity that has been the hallmark of these two respected coaches.”

Kroll is expected to work with nine existing investigators in MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity to speed up other campus sexual assault and harassment investigations as complaints mount.

Title IX Director Jennifer Norris said the university does not believe additional reports reflect an actual increase in incidents but rather “a community that is aware of their rights and options to report both current and past incidents.”

Engler on Wednesday is expected to announce two new leadership appointments and a revamped administrative structure for the university’s health colleges, clinical practice and student wellness programs. Last week, he began an attempt to fire Nassar’s boss, former College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean William Strampel, who is tenured but recently stepped down on medical leave. The university also suspended Suresh Mukherji, chairman of the Department of Radiology and chief medical officer of the MSU HealthTeam.

In his Tuesday letter, Engler noted multiple ongoing investigations into the way MSU handled allegations against Nassar, along with an “ongoing blizzard” of public records requests. He stressed the importance of compliance but said the university is facing “daunting” deadlines.

Meanwhile, MSU is involved in lawsuits related to “well over 100” Nassar victims, Engler wrote.

“I’m following the progress closely as we work to return to mediation and, I fervently hope, a just resolution that helps the survivors bring some closure to this horrific chapter in their lives,” he said.

“Michigan State, too, needs to heal and to emerge a stronger institution, one where safety, respect, and civility are hallmarks.”