Nassar victims hope new MSU trustees bring change

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Kelly Tebay.

More than a year ago, Lisa Lorincz went to Michigan State University and spoke for the first time before the Board of Trustees with the hope that members would stand by her daughter, Kaylee, and others who were sexually abused by serial pedophile Larry Nassar.

Instead, she said her hopes were dashed again and again by the trustees, calling them "cowards" because most did not have "the integrity to stand up for what was right" when it came to her daughter and other victims and their families. She said Interim President John Engler also failed the victims and MSU over the past year.

But following a tumultuous time at MSU, a new era arrives on Wednesday when three new board members will take their seats, leading many Nassar victims and their supporters to feel hopeful about the future at MSU.

"I don’t even want to say I'm cautiously optimistic because I've said that before," said Lorincz. "I'm hopeful ... It’s not just about what happened. You want things to be different and better for the kids at MSU ... and we are doing what’s good, and what's right."

Others feel the same mixture of optimism and trepidation

"I feel hopeful. And excited. But with hesitation of the hell we have been through with the (previous) board," said Trinea Gonczar, who was abused by Nassar. "But for the first time, I genuinely feel extremely hopeful."

The makeup of the board will change following the darkest time in MSU's history, when Nassar flourished for nearly three decades before he was prosecuted and jailed for sexually assaulting young women under the guise of medical treatment.

Nancy Schlichting

The new trustees — Kelly Tebay, Brianna Scott and Nancy Schlichting — arrive after a turbulent year under the leadership of Engler, who made controversial statements and moves after the board appointed him a year ago to replace former President Lou Anna Simon, who resigned at the height of the Nassar scandal.

Among the moves, Engler transferred the remaining $8.5 million in the Healing Assistance Fund into the $500 million settlement fund to compensate Nassar's victims. The university found that more than half of the healing fund payments involved fraud, but none by the victims or their families.

Engler explained that the transfer would reduce the amount MSU has to borrow to pay for Nassar's crimes by $8.5 million and was one of several ways "MSU is accountable to those harmed." At a board meeting, he also indicated the settlement fund was 425 times the size of the remaining funds in the Healing Assistance Fund. But the move and his explanations angered victims and their families.

Engler also has emphasized that the university has made improvements reporting policies, health care practices, campus-wide sexual assault education and prevention efforts, as well as "trauma-informed responses and treatment for survivors."

Departed from the board are former Trustees Brian Breslin and Mitch Lyons, Republicans who did not seek re-election after largely supporting Engler during the past year. Trustee George Perles, a Democrat, resigned in November due to his ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease.

For Anna Pegler-Gordon, a history professor in MSU's James Madison College, the inability of MSU's top leaders and board to bring healing to the young women abused by Nassar and the campus community was crystallized when a fellow professor told her he had no plans to vote for any of the trustee candidates in the November election.

"He was voting in the election, but he wasn't voting for any MSU Board of Trustees (candidates) because it was all so corrupt that he had given up any hope of any change," Pegler-Gordon said. "He said he would only vote for a Nassar survivor,"

She argued with her colleague that he must vote for Scott and Tebay, the two Democrats who subsequently won, and noted that Tebay survived a sexual assault while an MSU student.

Brianna Scott

In the end, he told her that he did vote for them, she said.

"It’s going to be a difficult situation for them to really change an entrenched culture of lack of transparency and top-down governance," Pegler-Gordon said. "The previous board was really out of touch."

But Pegler-Gordon said she is hopeful for change with the new trustees because all three signed an online appeal, along with Trustees Brian Mosallam and Dianne Byrum, calling for the university to reinstate the Healing Assistance Fund for victim counseling.

Pegler-Gordon also noted that Tebay has met with Reclaim MSU, the activist group formed in the wake of the Nassar scandal, and said Scott planned to meet with members after Wednesday's meeting.

Both of the new Democratic trustees have signed Reclaim MSU's statement calling for student and faculty representation at the highest levels of governance, and an open presidential search.

Pegler-Gordon plans to urge the board at Wednesday's meeting to open the presidential search process.

"We understand many president searches are conducted typically in a closed fashion," Pegler-Gordon said. "But MSU is hardly a typical institution at the moment. We have this massive trust deficient and ... there are a lot of concerns about the presidential search process being closed."

Many others who are not planning to attend the meeting hope the new trustees, along with a few of the returning members, will steer MSU's priorities in a different direction.

"I am hoping they put survivors first," said Grace French, one of the hundreds of woman who have accused Nassar of sexual assault. "That has always been my hope."