Emails to MSU's Simon reveal anger over Nassar scandal

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon pauses before testifying at a Congressional subcommittee hearing on "Preventing Abuse in Olympic and Amateur Athletics: Ensuring a Safe and Secure Environment for Our Athletes," on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 5, 2018.

The email to the president of Michigan State University about the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal was furious and foreboding.

"As a loyal Spartan, I am heartsick that this monster was ever associated with MSU and that complaints about his behavior as long as 20 years ago were dismissed," the alum wrote Lou Anna Simon on Jan. 23, the same day women were testifying in an Ingham County courtroom about how the former MSU sports doctor had assaulted them.

"I have been in the process of updating my will for some time now, but have to put on hold," the email continued. "I cannot in good conscience go ahead with plans I have had for years to leave the bulk of my estate (in six figures) to MSU. I need more time to understand how my university could have turned a blind eye to the reports coming forward over the years and dismissing victim accounts. 

"It may be time for a thorough housecleaning, beginning at the top," the writer concluded.

The next day, Simon resigned under pressure, ending her 14-year tenure at the helm of Michigan's largest university. 

Larry Nassar appears in the court of Judge Janice Cunningham and receives a sentence of 40-125 years in prison on  Feb. 5, 2018 in Charlotte, Michigan.

The email is among hundreds that Spartan alumni and others sent to Simon at the height of the Nassar scandal. The communications were obtained by The Detroit News in their entirety under the Freedom of Information Act after seven months of pursuit.

More than 1,600 emails reviewed by The News illustrate the backlash Simon and MSU faced from mid- to late-January as the breadth and depth of Nassar's crimes came into sharp focus during his sentencing for first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Many of the messages were sent in response to a statement Simon issued in mid-January expressing regret for Nassar’s action and outlining actions aimed at aiding victims and ensuring that such abuse could not happen again at MSU.

Roughly half of the emails called for Simon to quit or be fired, with another 20 percent criticizing how she and MSU had handled the crisis. Another 20 percent expressed support, including pleas for Simon to stay on, while the remainder merely asked questions or thanked her.

A sampling: 

"Too little, too late," wrote one alum on Jan. 20.

Wrote another: "I'd be more impressed with your sincerity if you had gotten rid of Nassar at the first complaint and had launched a thorough investigation then. You were the most powerful of many who failed them." 

"I would advise MSU administration to resign, because 'Three things cannot be long hidden: The sun, the moon and the truth,'" another emailer wrote.

Others urged Simon to resist the calls for her to leave, with one alum telling her: "Please don't consider resigning from MSU from all of the pressure that the Nassar case has created. "Your (sic) doing a great job and everyone is well aware of it."

Missing from the emails are the names of most of the people who wrote to Simon — the university redacted them, except for university employees and public officials. Also largely missing are emails from Simon herself among the nearly 2,000 pages of documents released by MSU. 

The emails from Simon that the university released consisted mostly of her Jan. 19 statement to the MSU community regarding the Nassar case and messages asking assistants to handle media inquiries.

Lou Anna K. Simon, MSU president arrives in court to hear victims make "impact statements" in front of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina about defendant Larry Nassar, in district court on January 17, 2018, in Lansing.

The News has filed an FOIA appeal with the university for a broader view of the response to the scandal from MSU's top leader and those who felt compelled to reach out to her.

The Detroit News requested "all communications of former President Lou Anna Simon that mention Larry Nassar or are Nassar related," James E. Stewart, an attorney for the newspaper, wrote in the Oct. 24 appeal letter. "Yet the communications produced comprise mainly former President Simon's mass-emailed letter to the University community and the responses that letter elicited ... 

"We are also aware that former President Simon used more than one email address to conduct university business," Stewart continued. "The communications the university produced, however, appear to be almost entirely from one of these addresses. Even personal email addresses are within the reach of FOIA if they were used to conduct official university business."

Emily Guerrant, an MSU spokeswoman, said: "[T]he University stands behind its effort to collect all relevant information to your FOIA."

Simon could not be reached.

Adam A. Marshall, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who reviewed a sample of MSU's FOIA response, said public officials conduct official business over various electronic formats, including texts, and many have more than one email address. But the public has the right to know what is in all of them, he said.

In this case, it appears as though Simon may have had more than one official email and FOIA officers need to search all platforms where the former president communicated and produce results to comply with state FOIA laws. If they haven't, it is incumbent upon them to explain why, Marshall said.

"It is not the medium in which the communication is stored, it is the content that is most important," Marshall continued. "If it was recorded ...(and) concerns public business, it is a public record."

MSU President Lou Anna K Simon

In letters responding to The News' FOIA request, MSU said it had redacted "certain personal data such as names and identifying information," withheld records subject to the attorney-client privilege, and redacted university email addresses, student information, and communications "of an advisory nature" that were "preliminary to a final agency determination of policy or action."

The first public hint of the scandal that would engulf MSU emerged in September 2016, when Rachael Denhollander reported to MSU police and the university's Title IX office that she had been sexually assaulted by Nassar, who was then a prominent sports doctor who treated female athletes, including elite gymnasts.

Denhollander also told her story to the Indianapolis Star and more women steadily began to come forward. Nassar initially denied he had abused the young women, then pleaded guilty to sexually abusing nine young women and possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. He is now imprisoned for life.

The case took a monumental turn in mid-January, when Nassar agreed to let victims give statements on the impact of his sexual abuse. Over seven days, more than 150 women came forward, shed their Jane Doe identities and gave searing testimonies that were broadcast all day and reported on around the world.

Three days into the testimony, on Jan. 18, The News published an investigative story that showed eight women had reported abuse claims, mostly at MSU, over two decades, reaching 14 university staff members. At least one misconduct report reached Simon.

The next day, Jan. 19, Simon tried to reassure MSU alumni, staff, students and parents. 

In the email, Simon noted the establishment of a $10 million Healing Assistance Fund for victims to get counseling services and the Board of Trustees' request to the state Attorney General's Office to review how MSU handled the Nassar situation.

Simon also wrote that she and Board Chair Brian Breslin watched the livestream of the victim impact statements on the first day of Nassar's sentencing and she attended part of the second day of the hearing with Trustee Melanie Foster. 

"It was heartbreaking to hear victims talk about how Nassar abused them and their trust," Simon wrote. "As I have said, I am truly sorry for the abuse Nassar's victims suffered, the pain it caused, and the pain it continues to carry."

The response to Simon's email was swift and intense, running the gamut of emotions, from anger and disgust to shame and disappointment.

"Can you please do more?" wrote one alumni. "I know you've issued a public apology statement and there's a $10 million fund that will be used for counseling and mental health services for Nassar's victims, but can you at least say why you can't talk with the victims? Or why none of the trustees are at the testimonies? In this case, you and the trustees are the face of MSU. Please do something."

Wrote another, a self-described MSU financial supporter and 1978 alum: "Your benign neglect allowed this monster (Nassar) to make MSU a safe haven where he could commit his dastardly deeds. Therefore, I call on you to resign your post ... You have proven to be unfit for the job as president."

Even before Simon's letter was released, the vitriol was flowing into her inbox.

"Do everyone a favor, along with the thousands of proud MSU alumni around the country, and step down from your position at MSU," wrote an "embarrassed" alum on Jan. 16, the first day of the sentencing hearing for Nassar.  

Some said they might stop their financial support of MSU.

“This is the first time I have honestly been truly ashamed to be a Spartan.” one person wrote. “No more donations from me and I’m an alumni. No longer want to support MSU. SHAME!!”

Still, even as the drumbeat for her departure grew, Simon continued to receive emails with the opposite message.

Wrote one: "BRAVO MSU ... I'm proud of our University for the steps that have been taken this far and pray for the coming days."

Still another wrote: "I completely support you. What happened at MSU regarding Nassar was not your fault. Your entrusted employees failed to perform their duties of adequately monitoring their subordinates reporting to them. There were many complaints not followed up on by the girls abused. Some of the high ranking employees were too lazy to get out of their overstuffed chairs to investigate the allegations. They are the ones that need to be held accountable.

"Please do not resign. You have done an outstanding job of making Michigan State University Great Again."