The Forum | Trusteeship

What University Trustees Should Learn from Michigan State

February 5, 2018 by Christine Ravold

Emotionally charged testimonies from over 150 women captured national attention this month as disgraced doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for criminal sexual assault. But as the curtain closed on the courtroom drama, Michigan State University (MSU) became the subject of intense inquiry. From 1997 to 2016, MSU employed Nassar as an athletics doctor and adjunct professor. The university’s president, Lou Anna Simon, stepped down this month after many called for her resignation. A new report from ESPN found that dozens of women reported football and basketball players for sexual assault, but little to no action was taken by the school. MSU athletic director Mark Hollis also resigned after the story broke. Michigan’s attorney general and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) have announced investigations into MSU’s handling of complaints against Nassar along with incidents concerning players from the university’s football and basketball teams.

Trustees at public universities should take note. By considering previous missteps and planning proactively, other institutions can avoid a similar fallout.

Specters of Sandusky

Unfortunately, MSU’s case is not the first of its kind. Penn State had the opportunity to curtail sexual abuse by the football team’s defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Investigations and trials revealed that senior university administrators and the team’s leadership covered up serial abuse that also spanned decades. The consequences, like the crimes themselves, were severe: The president and head football coach were removed and the NCAA issued severe sanctions on Penn State. Sandusky is serving 30–60 years in jail. Other administrators were charged with child endangerment.

Michigan bears the same grave responsibility that Penn State does. Unlike Sandusky’s victims, who were not enrolled at the university, Larry Nassar abused MSU student-athletes in the gymnastics, crew, and softball programs. These students are all guaranteed protections under Title IX. What’s worse, parents of one victim complained about Nassar to MSU’s gymnastics coach, who dismissed the complaints out of hand. Some student athletes also complained, but administrators did not take the complaints seriously. Reports of sexual assaults involving football and basketball players were similarly swept under the rug or ‘handled’ by the athletic department—clearly a conflict of interest.

“Creating sensible policies that increase transparency is not just a good practice for crisis management, it’s also a best practice for those who act as stewards of public institutions.”

Trustee Takeaways

Penn State’s board is still, appropriately, feeling aftershocks from the Sandusky scandal. But one thing was made abundantly clear: The board was under-informed about legal and financial matters affecting the institution. Michigan State’s board of democratically elected trustees faces similar criticism. It is board members’ fiduciary responsibility to be informed about behaviors that affect the university’s safety, reputation, and finances. Not only were they uninformed, but the university was clearly out of compliance with the federal government’s gender discrimination law—Title IX.

The University has been under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) since 2015, and was therefore required to turn over documents related to further instances of sexual assault to the Education Department. MSU failed to turn such information over to the federal government. Regardless of one’s opinion about the government’s role in preventing assault or higher education’s ability to police such crimes, it is incumbent upon university trustees to ensure policies and procedures are in place that comply with federal law. Reports of the athletic department handling such complaints internally show a shocking lack of oversight from the board.

Critics of Title IX pose a valid question: Shouldn’t those who are found guilty of committing sexual assault be tried and punished by the criminal justice system? The law currently only requires universities to open investigations and take appropriate disciplinary action. Remarkably, at this time, it does not require universities to report accusations to law enforcement. But that doesn’t prevent trustees from adopting their own polices requiring university employees to report complaints to law enforcement.

Indeed, the House Education and Workforce Committee is considering such requirements in the new Higher Education Act Reauthorization. But until such a provision is mandated by law, trustees could take it upon themselves to show their campus communities that they take assault seriously—by putting in place policies that ensure law enforcement is notified if students or employees believe criminal activity is taking place.

“College athletics scandals prove that university trustees need to have active oversight over athletic programs.”

Cooperating with the OCR and records requests would go a long way towards earning back trust from students and taxpayers in Michigan. The school was sued in 2009 for blocking public records requests from the media and for redacting names of student athletes from documents detailing investigations by campus police. Creating sensible policies that increase transparency is not just a good practice for crisis management, it’s also a best practice for those who act as stewards of public institutions.

Whether it’s academic cheating, paying student athletes, or failing to report criminal activity, college athletics scandals prove that university trustees need to have active oversight over athletic programs. After a scandal involving dubious admissions practices in 2009, SUNY–Binghamton’s Board of Trustees required the athletic department to report directly to the board to ensure that the program was being properly managed. Practices like this may help keep boards from being blindsided in the future.

The attorney general of Michigan and the NCAA may find other flaws in the university’s institutional practices and governance, but all university trustees should think on these lessons and consider reviewing practices at their own colleges. Nothing less than active and engaged trusteeship will help create an institutional structure that protects students and reassures taxpayers.


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