MSU trustees under pressure after Simon resignation

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The resignation of Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon didn’t quell the criticism Thursday of the school’s handling of the Larry Nassar case, with demands for a broader investigation of the scandal and more transparency from the university’s beleaguered Board of Trustees.

Students from left, Taylor Bonner and LaKeshia Bortz help add to the list at Michigan State University.

Facing calls for their own resignations, trustees are set to meet Friday to address the university’s “presidential transition.”

The board is set to meet at 1 p.m. Friday at the Hannah Administration Building on campus. Metal detectors will be used to screen those entering, according to the university. The open meeting is a reversal of the board’s closed work session held a week ago, when it came out in support of Simon.

Simon’s resignation late Wednesday did little to blunt the attacks on MSU, with lawmakers and city officials calling for more investigation and the ouster of trustees, athletic officials and even coaches.

Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are among members of Congress who are asking investigators to probe the U.S. Olympic organization, USA Gymnastics and MSU, all organizations that employed Nassar as a doctor.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California on Thursday also urged the MSU board to commission an independent investigation into the scandal, citing a Detroit News investigation showing at least 14 university employees were warned about Nassar’s sexual abuse of young athletes. Nassar, 59, was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison Wednesday.

Meanwhile, MSU board Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson continues to face extra scrutiny following his dismissive comments earlier this week that made him the public face of the university’s ridiculed response.

In a sports radio interview he has since apologized for, Ferguson said trustees barely talked about Simon during a lengthy meeting last week, opining that “there are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”

Ferguson on Thursday declined to discuss calls for his resignation from the likes of state House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, who has called on all board members to step down.

“I’m not going to discuss that,” Ferguson said in a brief interview with The Detroit News. “No one on the board is either.”

East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows and Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann are now calling on all eight trustees to resign.

“This is a failure of oversight on their part,” Altmann, an MSU psychology professor, told The News on Thursday. “This sequence of crimes took place over decades, and it’s not just the president who’s at fault. The Board did not believe people. They did not believe there was a problem.”

Ferguson’s prior comments “sent a shockwave” around campus this week, MSU student government president Lorenzo Santiavicca said Thursday.

“Personally, I think he’s out of touch with the students,” he said.

Trustees are elected by statewide voters, and “I think the next few meetings, they’re going to hear from their constituents about how they handled it,” Santiavicca said.

Ferguson apologized for his “inadvertent comment” Tuesday through public relations specialist Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a state Senate candidate who said Thursday her firm is no longer working with Ferguson because “his and my attitudes towards the university and the Nassar tragedy did not align.”

Leonard confirmed Wednesday that House attorneys are “looking into” impeachment options for MSU trustees as the Legislature considers various ways to respond to the crisis.

Leonard called on all eight trustees to resign, noting they voted to give Simon a raise last month, which she declined as part of an agreement to establish a $10 million fund for mental health services for his victims.

Ferguson’s comments were the “most egregious” development, he said.

“That has pretty much made clear to me that these trustees care more about their skyboxes during the fall than these 150-plus victims,” Leonard said, “and that is absolutely reprehensible.”

Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday declined to discuss Simon’s resignation, and his administration has said he does not have the power to force trustees out of office while the Legislature is in session and could impeach.

One of the university’s most prominent alumni, Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, called the scandal that’s taken its toll on MSU the “most difficult and troublesome time in the history of Michigan State University.”

“Nothing anybody can say will ever alleviate the painful memories that these innocent women endured at a very young age,” he said in a statement.

“I believe Michigan State’s priority at this time should be to fully cooperate with the investigations and identify any and all responsible parties and broken processes.”

Meanwhile, Republican strategist Dennis Lennox sued Snyder on Thursday in the Michigan Court of Claims, urging the governor to consider his petition to force the trustees out of office.

Other trustees have distanced themselves from Ferguson’s comments.

Trustee Dianne Byrum, who called for Simon to resign earlier Wednesday, said she was “disgusted” by Ferguson’s “abhorrent comments.”

Trustee Brian Mosallam, who disputed Ferguson’s characterization of the private meeting last week, said Tuesday the board has come off “as tone deaf, insensitive, emotionless and it infuriates me.”

Altmann, the mayor pro tem of East Lansing, did not limit his criticism to the MSU board, saying he thinks “our celebrity coaches and our athletic director need to resign, too,” referencing Athletic Director Mark Hollis, men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant.

“Their comments also show they do not understand what happened here,” Altmann said.

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.

An Ingham County judge on Wednesday sentenced Nassar to 40-175 years in prison for sexually abusing girls over more than two decades. More than 150 victims spoke against him at sentencing, many criticizing MSU.

The scandal has political implications beyond Ferguson, a real estate developer who is a Democrat and party donor with relationships across the aisle.

The only two trustees up for re-election this year — Chairman Brian Breslin and Mitch Lyons — have already said they will not run for the statewide posts. Ferguson’s term lasts through the end of 2020.

Pat Miles, a former U.S. attorney who is seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general, has called on Ferguson to resign. Leonard, who is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general, has urged the whole board to step down.

“At this point, they’re the ones who had oversight of President Simon,” Leonard spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said Thursday. “They’re the ones that could have removed her in any point while the university was failing victims. They didn’t act.”

Democrat Shri Thanedar, who is running for governor, has urged trustees to voluntarily resign and told The News he’s calling for primary rival Gretchen Whitmer to return a $6,800 contribution from Ferguson.

“Sometimes politicians are so beholden to donors,” said Thanedar, who is largely self-funding his campaign. “I was shocked to see he donated to her.”

The Whitmer campaign declined to comment on the Ferguson donation.

Rossman-McKinney, who received a $1,000 donation from Ferguson last year for her state Senate campaign, said she returned the contribution Wednesday, along with $350 donated by Nassar’s former boss, Dr. William Strampel, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, who recently stepped down on medical leave.

Whitmer previously called for Simon’s resignation.

“Who will hold the people who failed these brave women accountable so this NEVER happens again?” Whitmer said Thursday on Twitter.

“I hope the answer is #SpartansWill. ... it’s time to launch an independent investigation.”