Lou Anna Simon resigns: What's next for MSU?

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

East Lansing — Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon resigned Wednesday night amid growing national backlash over the school’s handling of widespread sexual abuse by one of its doctors.

MSU President Lou Anna K Simon during a board meeting in December 2017. The Michigan House of Representatives on Wednesday adopted a resolution calling on embattled Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon to resign and a second school trustee called on her to step down over the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.

Simon, the university’s first female president, resigned just hours after Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for sexually abusing girls over more than two decades. Her resignation was posted on a university website along with a statement from the chairman of the Board of Trustees.

In the letter, Simon, 70, the school’s leader since 2004, cited anger over the university’s handling of the Nassar scandal.

“Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me,” she wrote. “I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement.”

In a statement, Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Breslin said, “President Simon has offered her resignation to the Board of Trustees, and we will accept it. We agree with Dr. Simon that it is now time for change.”

More: MSU president Lou Anna Simon’s resignation letter

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More: Our Editorial: Simon had no choice but to leave

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Breslin indicated she is willing to serve during a transition.

Calls for Simon’s departure had intensified Wednesday as the state House of Representatives, two U.S. senators and a second school trustee urged her to step down.

A nonbinding resolution passed 96-11 by the House and sponsored by Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, called for the school’s Board of Trustees to fire Simon if she didn’t resign.

In a statement Wednesday night, House Speaker Tom Leonard said he was pleased by Simon’s decision.

“I am glad Lou Anna Simon finally did the right thing,” he said. “The university’s response to this crisis simply hasn’t been good enough, and I hope that changes going forward for the sake of both the victims and the entire Michigan State University community.”

Shortly after the House vote, MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum said she supported calls for Simon to resign. It “is clear that the public has lost confidence in the current administration” and changes are needed, she said in a statement.

Michigan’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters each issued statements later Wednesday urging Simon to resign, with Stabenow saying it “would be in the in the best interest of these courageous survivors, their families and our state.”

Also Wednesday, MSU journalism professor Sue Carter resigned as the university’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA, a position she held since 2014.

“I no longer have the desire or the heart to support this administration going forward,” Carter said in her letter of resignation sent to Simon and copied to athletic director Mark Hollis. “As both professor and priest, I am profoundly saddened by Michigan State University’s public posture and seemingly callous regard for these girls and women.”

Simon’s decision was a dramatic turn of events from last week when trustees met behind closed doors for more than three hours Friday and emerged to reaffirm their support for Simon, calling her the “right leader” for the university. Trustee Mitch Lyons first broke ranks Saturday, urging Simon’s resignation.

On Wednesday, the House resolution was adopted a few hours after Nassar, a former doctor for MSU and USA Gymnastics, was sentenced on sexual assault charges filed by nine women. More than 150 women spoke out against Nassar in victim statements over the past two weeks, some also criticizing MSU.

MSU missed “many opportunities” to stop Nassar and protect students, lawmakers said in the resolution.

Rachael Denhollander, whose report to MSU police and Title IX complaint ultimately led to Nassar’s conviction, said earlier this week that Simon could have cemented her legacy had she handled the scandal the right way.

“She could have been the hero we were all looking for,” Denhollander said. “She could have looked at what happened and … said ‘this is not the way we handle sexual assault on this campus. We protect our children. This is not MSU.’”

“Instead,” Denhollander continued, “she has stymied investigations. She has refused to answer the specific concerns we raised, and she had maintains MSU did nothing wrong. So instead of becoming the hero, she became the problem.”

On Wednesday, Denhollander along with fellow victims Morgan McCaul, Amanda Thomashow, Kaylee Lorincz, Lindsey Lemke, Kyle Stephens and Larissa Boyce called on Simon and the Board of Trustees to resign.

“I’m an MSU alumni. I used to bleed green. Right now, with their actions, I’m just bleeding with disgust. So how do we as a community grow from this? Are we going to hide in the corner … or will Spartans be who we say we are?” said Boyce, who reported abuse to MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages in 1997.

As The Detroit News reported last week, sexual assault allegations against Nassar reached at least 14 Michigan State University representatives over two decades. Simon learned of a Title IX complaint and police report against an unnamed sports doctor in 2014 but said she never received a copy.

Zemke said he began developing the House resolution last week after the Detroit News report on warnings at MSU that also prompted top House and Senate leaders to call for Simon’s resignation or ouster. Leonard, R-DeWitt, had called on her to step down five weeks earlier.

“I was shocked and surprised that on Friday the Board of Trustees did not ask her to resign,” Zemke said.

‘I am so sorry’

In her resignation letter, Simon apologized to Nassar’s victims.

“The last year and a half has been very difficult for the victims of Larry Nassar, for the university community, and for me personally,” she wrote. “To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment.”

Leonard told reporters he thinks MSU trustees should also resign, noting dismissive comments about “this Nassar thing” that Trustee Joel Ferguson apologized for Tuesday. He said House attorneys are “looking into” impeachment rules.

“This is not the type of legal issue that comes up every day, but we do have our attorneys reviewing it to make sure that whatever we do does abide by the constitution and the laws of this state,” Leonard said.

Zemke did not know about the possible impeachment option for trustees but said he is interested in learning more about it.

“I am of the opinion that Trustee Ferguson should not be there, and possibly others,” he said.

Trustee ‘disgusted’

Byrum, in breaking with other trustees still supporting Simon, said Wednesday that she was “disgusted by the abhorrent comments” by Ferguson earlier this week.

“As a woman who has always fought for women’s rights and victims’ rights, and encouraged women in all areas, it is deeply troubling to me that so much pain and suffering has been caused by my alma mater,” Byrum said. “A full public accounting, top to bottom, is long overdue and I support it, along with a change in the current administration and a change to the culture at Michigan State University.”

Trustees on Friday asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate the university’s handling of the Nassar scandal, which he has made clear he will announce after Nassar is sentenced later this month in another case. The NCAA on Tuesday also sent a letter of inquiry to MSU, formally opening an investigation.

“When the sentencing hearings are done, you’ll hear from me immediately,” Schuette said Tuesday. “What we need to do is have the three R’s. A review, full, complete, thorough. There needs to be a report, transparent, that everyone needs to see. And then finally, recommendations so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Leonard, who called for Simon’s resignation in December, has asked chairs of the House higher education budget and law and justice committees to “launch inquiries” into MSU’s actions in the Nassar scandal and identify possible policy or budget solutions.

“The brand and the reputation has been tarnished so badly that we are never going to begin the healing process until she is gone,” Leonard said Wednesday. “Now I’ve got 90-plus members that agree. We spoke as a House today, and hopefully, it puts more pressure on her and the board to do the right thing.”

The resolution adopted Thursday mentions the 2014 Title IX investigation to which Simon was alerted, a reference Zemke said is intended to point out that leadership should have suspended Nassar at the time.

“Either President Simon was completely asleep at the switch or she was willfully ignorant about what was occurring at the university,” said Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills.

MSU grew under Simon

Simon was the 20th president of Michigan’s largest university.

Simon earned a doctorate at MSU in 1974 and held a variety of administrative roles at the university, including assistant provost for general academic administration, associate provost, and provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Simon was also the school’s first woman provost, a job she held for 11 years before becoming president. She was paid $750,000 a year.

Simon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana State University before enrolling at MSU.

Since Simon took office, the university’s enrollment has risen from 44,836 in 2004-05 to 50,019 this year. Its budget is $1.3 billion, up from $715 million in 2004-05.

Under Simon, the school began construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a $730 million facility funded by federal, state and university dollars.

As of September, MSU had raised $1.5 billion during a capital campaign, reaching its fundraising goal a year early. The money raised will be used to fund student aid, internships and overseas programs, faculty positions and research into global problems.

But MSU’s progress during Simon’s tenure was overshadowed by the Nassar sex abuse scandal.

Nassar already was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for possession of child pornography. He will face another sentence in Eaton County for three more counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

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Staff Writers Michael Gerstein, Kim Kozlowski, and Sarah Rahal contributed.