MSU board faces renewed calls for culture change

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Valerie von Frank ties a teal ribbon representing Nassar abuse victims in March outside MSU’s administration building.

East Lansing — As a top administrator at Grand Valley State University, Edward F. Aboufadel has watched Michigan State University for months and believes his alma mater could do better at handling the aftermath of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

On Friday, he did something he's never done before. He left his Grand Rapids home and drove more than an hour to speak to MSU's Board of Trustees, suggesting that the person chosen to succeed Interim President John Engler should be someone who “wants to be involved in these issues, instead of ignoring them.”

As he spoke before the board, he painted a vision of someone who could change the narrative of MSU into a "people-centered university” with "a more attentive culture,"  starting with a listening tour that prioritized victims of Nassar and faculty members' hopes for shared governance.

"I believe there are good, creative leaders out there who would be energized by our so-called 'hot mess,'" said Aboufadel, GVSU's assistant vice president for academic affairs. "They would say, 'This can be better. I want to help.'  I hope that in the search, you will use the challenges facing us to attract excellent candidates."

Aboufadel spoke as faces linked to the Nassar scandal crowded the MSU trustee meeting, the first of the academic year.

The meeting was a metaphor of the lingering climate at the university: MSU administrators highlighted the incoming class and other accomplishments, while Nassar victims reminded university officials of their negative statements made since January, when Nassar's crimes came into focus and scores of women filed civil lawsuits, arguing that the university did not protect them from his sexual abuse.

During the public comment period, Grace French, a Nassar victim, read a compilation of quotes by MSU officials with two others so she was not cut short by the university's three-minute speaker rule.

"Quote: There are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing. End quote. Joel Ferguson, member of the board of trustees and of the presidential search committee," French said.

"Quote: I will move forward as if my own daughters were on this campus and will treat every student as I would my own daughters. End quote. John Engler.

"The survivors are, quote, ambulance chasers looking for a pay day. End quote. Joel Ferguson.

"Quote: Be careful. End quote. And quote: Your time is up. John Engler to survivor Kaylee Lorincz in a public meeting ... as Kaylee recounted how Mr. Engler had offered her $250,000 to settle her case in a private meeting without her attorney and that Rachael Denhollander had accepted that offer."

 Natalie Hawkins, another Nassar victim, continued: "Quote: Get that teal (expletive) out of here. End quote. John Engler to those working on the MSU Alumni magazine." 

Joan Meinke, mother of Emily, another Nassar victim. continued: "Quote: For those who want a new president, be quiet. And let's not have extra controversy that would make somebody afraid to come here. End quote. Joel Ferguson."

"From the MSU Graduate Employees Union statement from January 2018. Quote: MSU needs a positive change. John Engler is not that change. He will not help MSU heal. He will protect the institution, and he will do so to the detriment of survivors. This is not speculation, it's history ...

Meinke concluded: "Do you still think this is a problem with one man — Larry Nassar — or are you ready to admit the need for a change in culture?"

Later, the three women said they were frustrated that not one Nassar victim was on the presidential search committee announced last week, yet Ferguson, who's made several controversial statements, was a member.

"Our representation on campus is important and our views should be included in a lot of talks on who the next president should be," said French. "It's been frustrating that we've been reaching out and they are not responding to us ... Our voices are not being heard."

Hawkins added that they are representing a grassroots effort aimed at becoming a nonprofit,  The Army of Survivors, to help victims everywhere.

"We really want to be part of change at Michigan State so this never happens again," Hawkins said.

Others, like parents Bryan Tarrant and Leslie Miller, along with 15-year-old Nassar victim Emma Ann Miller, stood outside the meeting as people arrived, holding a sign.

"This 'teal (expletive)' isn't going away."

After the meeting, Ferguson said he has been on a presidential search committee at MSU before and has expertise in searching for a candidate.

As for how to bring the university and Nassar victims closer together, Ferguson said there needs to be a better telling of MSU's story.

"There's a lack of knowing what we are really doing," Ferguson said. "We need to put together a list of where we are, where we've been and where we're going ... We have a story to tell. I think that we got to put that out there so people know the depth of this university and the progress we're making.

"People really miss: We kept our appropriation intact with the Legislature, we settled this case without raising tuition and we have more students enrolling than any other year, and they're diverse," he said. "We have to tell that story and I think people will be very comfortable. The whole Spartan Nation will be happy to hear what we are doing." 

During the meeting, Engler did not address the comments of those who spoke to the board. But he showed the poster of a new campaign rolling out on campus, "Know More," which has resources to help make sure those on campus stay safe from sexual assault.

"One of the things we are proud of is there is a greater responsiveness. We're seeing more people come forward and report ... that is encouraging," said Engler, adding that the backlog of cases reported under Title IX was being cleared.

"We can never go through what this campus experienced and what the survivors endured," Engler said.

Meanwhile, MSU Provost June Youatt and other administrators highlighted how the incoming class of 8,400 is MSU's largest, the most diverse with 26.3 percent being students of color; and the best prepared, with a 3.77 median grade point average. Most of the new students, 79.6 percent, hail from Michigan.

Trustee Dianne Byrum, who has been outspoken about the board's handling of the scandal, was not in attendance due to a previous commitment. But Trustee Brian Mosallam made some comments.

He noted that the NCAA's decision to end its inquiry into MSU "was expected."

"It's definitely a positive step in the right direction," said Mosallam. "We cannot forget the atrocities that were committed on this campus and how many little girls got hurt and how we failed them. Let's continue to push forward with positive changes and move forward with a focus on safety, health and wellness for our students."

Now that all the plaintiffs have signed the $500 million settlement, Mosallam said he's ready to take the next step.

"I'm anxious to meet with our courageous survivors," Mosallam said, "and begin a constructive dialogue of how they feel this university needs to move forward."