Lawmakers call for MSU’s Simon to resign

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Six state lawmakers on Thursday added their names to the list of those calling for Michigan State University’s president to resign or be removed in the wake of a Detroit News report that sexual assault allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar reached at least 14 university representatives over two decades.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, urged the university’s Board of Trustees to “act swiftly” and remove Lou Anna Simon from her post, saying the “MSU community deserves better from its leadership.”

Democratic State House Minority Leader Sam Singh and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, along with GOP Sen. Margaret O’Brien of Portage and Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield were among those who urged Simon to step down. They joined the university’s student newspaper and Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard, who called for her resignation call five weeks ago.

“The news is very disturbing,” O’Brien said. “I think it shows this is a bigger problem than anyone thought. It’s time for a leadership change at MSU. My patience is gone.”

Singh and Hertel, Democrats whose districts include Michigan State University, said it is clear that a “lack of leadership” among the university’s highest ranks allowed “victims to suffer in silence for too long.”

“We owe it to every survivor who had to endure this horrific torture to not only bring justice to the perpetrator, but also ensure that changes are made at the university to prevent this from ever happening again,” they said in a joint statement. “The current leadership of Michigan State University is clearly unable to handle that responsibility or help students and the university community rebuild.”

Nassar, previously sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges, is facing sentencing in a separate sexual assault case this week in Ingham County, where more than 100 women have or are expected to deliver victim impact statements describing decades of sexual abuse by the former MSU gymnastics doctor.

Members of the MSU Board of Trustees “are aware of the statements legislators and others have made,” university spokesman Jason Cody said Thursday. “They appreciate their opinion and perspective. The board continues to support the president.”

Reached Thursday evening, MSU board trustee Brian Mosallam declined to comment.

The other trustees — Brian Breslin, Joel Ferguson, Dianne Byrum, Melanie Foster, Dan Kelly, Mitch Lyons and George Perles — did not immediately respond to interview requests.

O’Brien, an MSU graduate, is leading a bipartisan Senate group developing legislation in response to the Nassar scandal, including bills that would require coaches to report sexual assault allegations by students and extend the statute of limitations for victims in criminal and civil cases.

Journalists who have reported on university failings and victims who have identified holes in state law have been her primary source of information — not MSU, she said.

“I’ve been trying to work through this issue and make sure we understand all the problems, but it feels as though Michigan State is hiding behind a veil of secrecy (and is) more worried about financial liability than about how to correct their own policies or what was actually a culture,” O’Brien said.

“Fourteen people got reports of sexual assault and didn’t do anything. That’s a culture that is not helpful for young people.”

Gov. Rick Snyder declined to weigh in on Simon’s future with MSU, which he views as “the responsibility of the trustees at the university,” said spokeswoman Anna Heaton. She confirmed that Trustee Brian Breslin works in the governor’s office but said Simon’s job status “isn’t something they’ve discussed.”

The board gave Simon a vote of confidence last month, offering her a raise that she declined as officials agreed to create a $10 million counseling fund. Simon has been MSU president since 2004.

MSU gets scrutiny

As The News first reported, Simon on Wednesday confirmed she was informed in 2014 that a Title IX complaint and a police report had been filed against an unnamed sports medicine physician. Simon has been president of MSU since 2004.

“I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report,” Simon said. “That’s the truth.”

But O’Brien and other colleagues say Simon should have done more with that information. Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, stopped short of calling for Simon’s resignation but said “it’s not looking good” for the embattled university president.

Schuitmaker, part of the group working on response legislation, said she wants to create a process for alleged victims to appeal university-led Title IX investigations to Child Protective Services or an outside prosecutor.

Every sexual assault or harassment allegation on a university campus should be shared directly with the president of that university, Schuitmaker said, noting she could include a requirement in next year’s budget she’ll help develop as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

“We’ll be looking at language in the appropriations process to provide more accountability and justice to the victims” of Nassar, she said.

Leonard, a DeWitt Republican who is competing with Schuitmaker for this year’s GOP nomination for attorney general, has suggested the House could also use the upcoming budget process to scrutinize MSU.

Rep. Kim Lasata, a Brainbridge Township Republican who chairs the House budget subcommittee on higher education, said the panel could ask university officials to testify this spring.

“We want to make sure Michigan State is transparent,” she said. “Maybe they need to clean house, whatever the case may be, but the emphasis should be on victims and making sure they get what they need.”

Singh and Hertel also “continue to call on the Legislature to exercise its oversight authority over the university until all those responsible are held accountable,” but Hertel said he would oppose any attempt to cut state funding for MSU.

“The people that would hurt are students and the faculty at MSU who had nothing to do with this and want things to get better,” Hertel told The News.

Ananich has called for oversight hearings in the Senate, but Meekhof maintains that law enforcement officials are better positioned to review MSU’s handling of the Nassar allegations.

Meekhof “would strongly encourage law enforcement, including the attorney general, to look very closely, especially as these women the past few days have come forward to address Dr. Nassar and made claims they did perhaps tell somebody,” said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

Abuse legislation developing

O’Brien and Senate colleagues are developing legislation that would increase penalties for physicians, social workers and other professionals who are required to report sexual abuse to Child Protect Services, as required under state law. The pending legislation would also mandate reporting by coaches, who are not currently covered under the law.

“Clearly today’s fines mean nothing to them, and we will strengthen them to make sure if somebody decides they’re going to be the judge and jury, they can pay the price,” O’Brien said.

MSU athletic trainers, assistant coaches, a university police detective and an official who is now MSU’s assistant general counsel were aware of allegations against Nassar over two decades, according to university records and accounts of victims who spoke to The News.

“I think every one of them should have called the police, should have reported it, and if they didn’t, shame on them,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who is working on the mandated reporting legislation. “They should retire.”

A bill unanimously approved by the Senate last year but not yet taken up by the House would waive the statute of limitations in second-degree sexual misconduct cases and allow victims of third-degree sexual misconduct to file criminal charges until they are at least 31 years old.

State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, started developing the bill before the Nassar allegations but said they were given new urgency when women started coming forward to accuse the physician of sexual misconduct as far back as 1992.

“These victims oftentimes are not in a mental state or financial state to bring forward these charges until much later in life,” Bieda said.

Extending statute of limitations

O’Brien wants to extend the statute of limitations in criminal cases even further, suggesting research indicates the average age for men to confess they were abused as a child is 38, and for a woman it is 41.

She and Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, are working on a separate bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault victims to sue in civil court and make the change retroactive.

“No government should have immunity from sexual assault,” O’Brien said of Michigan State, which has claimed immunity as a state institution in an attempt to dismiss lawsuits filed against it by women and girls. “I don’t care who it is, the state of Michigan (or) a university.”

Cody said this week the school responded vigorously when Nassar’s crimes came to light in 2016. He said campus police took 135 reports of criminal sexual conduct and executed a search warrant that contributed to Nassar’s convictions.

Breslin and other trustees on Dec. 15 joined Simon in apologizing to survivors. Breslin also denied that MSU officials attempted to protect Nassar or hide any information about him or what administrators may have known.

“It is simply not true that there has been any kind of cover-up,” Breslin said then.

The Lansing State Journal first called for Simon’s resignation on Dec. 3. Leonard and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing are among those who have since done the same. MSU alumni with the Progress Michigan advocacy group joined the call for resignation Thursday in the wake of The Detroit News report.

MSU’s student newspaper The State News also urged Simon to resign in a Thursday editorial.

“You ‘apologized’ to them, you have thrown money at them, but about the only thing you haven’t done is listen,” the student publication wrote. “Simon, if you’re the Spartan you claim to be, you will step down and bow out gracefully.”

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