Senate to MSU: Prevent sexual assaults or risk aid

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate is developing a budget that would require public universities to prove they are meeting sexual assault prevention standards or risk state funding, the chairwoman of the powerful higher education appropriations subcommittee said Wednesday.

The budget provisions are inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University but would apply to all 15 public universities, whose funding would be held by the state until they show they’ve met specific requirements.

“We need to make sure that every person out there is protected on our college campuses before we hand over any dollar,” said Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. “If they’re not doing the benchmarks and the standards, then I think it’s in our prerogative to withhold funding.”

Those standards and benchmarks include transparency, best practices for sexual assault prevention and compliance with Title IX federal protection law. Universities would need to document policies governing minors on campus, comply with internal reporting rules, complete an external audit of Title IX procedures and report additional information to the state.

Funding would effectively be placed in escrow, allowing a university to access its annual appropriation once the requirements are met.

Lawmakers don’t want to “harm students further in terms of huge tuition increases,” Schuitmaker told reporters. “At the same rate, it is the only carrot and stick that we have in terms of appropriations. We want to see college campuses safe.”

“We’re not trying to make cuts on this,” added Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “We’re not saying (universities) wouldn’t have an appropriation.”

The committee met Wednesday morning to kick off an annual budget cycle that is expected to feature weeks of testimony from universities with an emphasis on sexual assault prevention in response to the Nassar scandal. Several House lawmakers developing legislation sat in on the Senate hearing.

Schuitmaker has invited interim MSU President John Engler, a former Republican governor, to testify before the panel on March 15 but said she has not yet received a commitment. Hertel, whose district includes the university, was set to meet later Wednesday with Engler.

Michigan’s 15 public universities submitted a collective statement to lawmakers prior to the hearing, indicating that they are addressing the problem of campus sexual violence and continue to explore ways to raise awareness, prevent incidents and respond to them promptly.

“We hear you. We hear you. We hear you,” said Dan Hurley, chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities. “This has been, nationally, a point of self-reflection for all colleges and universities. How could what transpired at MSU happen, and how can we assure that it never happens again?”

Hurley said there are “an array” of rules and policies that Michigan universities are already adhering to, but he told lawmakers that universities are also willing to help identify any “existing gaps.”

Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal introduced last week would increase total public university funding 2 percent in 2019. MSU would experience a 1.8 percent increase from $281 million to $286 million.

Despite the Senate threat to withhold money, Hurley told The Detroit News he does not expect any universities to miss out on state money next year.

“I think that you will see collectively on behalf of all 15 universities, and certainly Michigan State University, a tremendous amount of action that’s taking place right now that is going to make that possibility a moot point,” he said.

The budget hearings come amid a flurry of legislative activity following the Nassar scandal, which made international headlines. The former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor was convicted on multiple sexual assault charges last month and is accused of abusing more than 200 girls and young women over more than two decades.

Republican state Reps. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township and Kim LaSata of Bainbridge Township have asked MSU to turn over all records regarding allegations made against Nassar between 2014 and 2017. The university did so Wednesday afternoon.

“The information we received today is another strong step toward the kind of accountability and transparency we expect from Michigan State University,” said LaSata, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

“We will review the documents to see how MSU handled the complaints, and then take appropriate measures based on our findings.”

State Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, is leading a group developing bills to strengthen mandatory reporting laws and extend statutes of limitations in sexual assault cases. House Republicans introduced their own mandatory reporting bills last week that would require athletics coaches to report allegations of sexual misconduct.

House Democrats in the Progressive Women’s Caucus outlined a series of proposals Monday, including calls for a new Title IX ombudsman in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that would be dedicated to working with victims of campus sexual assault.