Critics tell MSU trustees to do more to prevent sexual abuse in wake of Nassar scandal

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Lansing — Some members of the Michigan State University community voiced concerns at a virtual Board of Trustees meeting Friday that board members are not fulfilling promises to prevent sexual abuse incidents such as the Larry Nassar scandal.

Valerie Von Frank complained of “institutional betrayal” and the need for MSU to provide services for sexual abuse victims. Critics have been upset at the board for initially stalling, than blocking an independent investigation of what happened at the school during the years Nassar, an MSU gymnastics doctor, abused hundreds of girls and women who sought treatment for injuries.

In 2019 the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights announced a $4.5 million fine against the school for its mishandling of complaints against Nassar and William Strampel, a former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine who discounted allegations against Nassar, who reported to him.

Strampel was sentenced to one year in jail for misconduct in office and Nassar is serving a 40- to 175-year sentence for sexual abuse that went unchecked over a 20-year period.

“On the third anniversary of the Nassar (scandal) — in which 500 girls and women were abused — more needs to be done,” said Von Frank, who asked that dignity be restored by the board.

“The board has failed and an outside investigation is needed,” she said. “The cause of what happened — all the assaults — is not settled.”

Within their allowed three-minute comment time, several were non-specific on what needed to be done but voiced general dissatisfaction at the board’s response, even suggesting some members should resign. Emily Trudder expressed her feeling that some board actions, especially “obstructing an investigation," were “reprehensible.” Another attendee, Kaleigh Hodges, said she was disappointed by a “lack of leadership" by the board.

“I’m asking you to start up and make it a concern to protect students,” Hodges said.

Shannon Hill said she felt some trustees, both veteran and new members, seemed to be more interested in private business dealings rather than following up on sexual abuse concerns at the school.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of leadership,” said Hill.

Trustee Joel Ferguson, who leaves the board in January after serving 36 years, and Brianna Scott, who started in 2019, have both been involved in major commercial development projects, separately and together.

Michelle Wiesboard discussed how a “healing fund” set up by the school didn’t recognize service dogs as aid to traumatized sex abuse victims. She said service dogs, which can provide emotional and physical aid to victims, are expensive and can cost $40,000 over their lifetime.

A $10 million healing fund was established by MSU in 2017 to provide treatment for victims of Nassar. 

MSU opened its first sexual assault health clinic program in November to offer free and confidential services 24 hours a day. Earlier this year, the healing fund was expanded to cover additional mental health care costs prescribed for victims’ recovery. Trustee Kelly Tebay said it was her understanding that service dogs were covered under the fund.

“We are looking at (the concerns) and (victims) are not forgotten,” Tebay said.

Trustee Renee Knake Jefferson, who joined the board in 2019, said she has reviewed about 10,000 pages of privileged university documents related to the Nassar scandal. The school has withheld the documents from the public pending civil litigation, citing attorney-client privilege.

“I can’t imagine the trauma of a victim, but I do understand the (public’s) concerns,” said Knake Jefferson, a law professor and attorney. “First, Michigan State did not have a policy in place (to address complaints). I’m going to call for some reforms and transparency to avoid future problems.”

Knake Jefferson said the board should compile a comprehensive report from the documents and that it should be made available to the public.

She noted a display at the MSU Museum, “Finding Our Voice,” contains a detailed timeline of events regarding the scandal and hoped it would become part of a permanent exhibit.

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