One MSU trustee is not enough: Sexual abuse advocates call on governor to step in

By: - November 3, 2019 6:51 am

Someone spray painted “Enablers” on the MSU Hannah Administration building on April 12, 2019 the same day as a Board of Trustees meeting. | Anna Liz Nichols

Updated, 12:34 p.m. with comments from Gov. Whitmer’s office.

Legacy members, eight-year terms and those standing in the way of justice have to go, say members of the Michigan State University community.

The MSU trustees have been in the national spotlight since early 2018 when convicted pedophile and ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced 40 to 175 years in prison in Ingham County Court and 40 to 125 years in prison by an Eaton County Court for decades of sexual abuse to athletes.

Attorney general Dana Nessel’s office has requested more than 7,000 documents from MSU in its investigation into how Nassar assaulted hundreds of patients on MSU campus for almost 20 years. The investigation looks at who knew what and when, but the office asserts that MSU has ‘stonewalled’ the investigation at every turn. Currently, MSU retains around 6,000 of the requested documents claiming attorney-client privilege.

Against this backdrop, Trustee Nancy Schlichting, one of the few trustees the public has expressed trust in, resigned on Monday from the board, citing the unwillingness of some other members to offer transparency and waive privilege.

Rachael Denhollander | Twitter

Many individuals impacted by Nassar were outraged that a trustee they felt would champion justice felt they could do nothing in the face of adversity on the board. The first person to publicly come forward as a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, Rachael Denhollander, took to Twitter with her thoughts.

“Half the Board has been allowed to thumb their nose at taxpayers, students, alumni and survivors, refusing transparency and accountability at every turn,” Denhollander said in a Twitter thread. “There is nothing that can be done when half the Board is corrupt, and no leader will stand up to them.”

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer considers appointments to fill the vacancy on the MSU board, campus advocates are calling on her to consider the needs of the university community.

Parents of Sister Survivors Engage (POSSE) member Valerie von Frank said her organization of parents of Nassar survivors has six requests of the governor when selecting a new trustee.

  • They be an outsider with no affiliation with current board members
  • Cooperate with Nessel’s office and release the 6,000 documents
  • Have experience in service and have a trauma-informed understanding of the university
  • Support transparency and challenge violations to the Open Meetings Act
  • Be on the board to serve, not to benefit from special treatment to MSU sports events, decline tickets to non-home sporting events and decline travel to sports events outside of Michigan
  • Be committed to the long-term effort to restore public trust in MSU

Decisions at MSU have been made without being subject to public opinion before implementation, von Frank said on behalf of POSSE. She said trustees get great tickets to sports events, rubber-stamp a few things and are not accountable for their actions.

“One appointee will not be enough to restore confidence in public trust, von Frank said. “It’s impossible for one trustee to have any effect when there are entrenched board members there who are refusing to deal with this situation and with the depth of the problem. It can’t be one person.”

ReclaimMSU, an ever-present voice in board of trustees meetings and around campus shares some of POSSE’s hopes for the next trustee. The organization fights discrimination and harassment at MSU, holding MSU administration accountable for their neglect of these issues facing the MSU community.

“For our next trustee, we need a public servant with integrity and a commitment to justice, who understands the extent of the damage that has been done, the depth of the change needed at our institution and the critical importance of full transparency,” ReclaimMSU said in a statement.

But it goes beyond the responsibility of the governor to select a trustee who can effect change at the university and push for cooperation with the attorney general. ReclaimMSU said in the statement that Schlichting embodied the qualities of a good trustee, but the toxic environment created by the rest of the board choked her out. ReclaimMSU asks Whitmer to call for the resignation of any board member not willing to release the 6,000 documents to the attorney general’s office.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the 31st Annual Crime Victims’ Vigil, April 17, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“Governor Whitmer is grateful to Trustee Schlichting for her service to the university,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in an email. “The governor takes her responsibility to appoint a new trustee very seriously. She is committed to appointing someone who will work together with President Stanley and the remaining board members to build a campus culture that respects diversity, listens to survivors, and makes a college education more affordable and accessible for Michigan families.”

The attorney general’s office has an outstanding invitation to former Interim President John Engler for an interview in its investigation. The GOP ex-governor held office at MSU for less than one year before resigning in January when the board informed him of its intent to fire him. He replaced President Lou Anna Simon, who resigned over her handling of the Nassar scandal and is facing trial for allegedly lying to police.

Engler was berated by students, advocates and Michigan politicians throughout his tenure at MSU. He was publicly called out for being disrespectful to survivors of sexual abuse and inept to lead the university into the new era of protection for survivors that he promised.

“I understand the concern and uncertainty as well as the frustration and anger. To those parents, be assured that I will move forward as if my own daughters were on this campus and will treat every survivor and every student as I would my own daughters,” Engler said in a statement at the beginning of his tenure as interim president.

Of all the comments from Engler that incited public outrage, his insistence that MSU move past what happened with Nassar, advocates say, failed to address the root of the problem.

“This whole crisis is not centered around one man,” von Frank said. 

“It has been made a thousand times worse by the misdirection and mismanagement from the top of the university. They were the ones who brought in John Engler who magnified every problem,” von Frank continued. “He is almost as traumatic for us now as the original perpetrator. And then Lou Anna Simon with her defiance and refusal to take any responsibility. Some of the board doesn’t seem to have one iota of shame for the things that they have done.”

The effort to hold MSU accountable is bipartisan, von Frank said, noting that both Nessel, a Democrat, and Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette have tried to get to the bottom of what happened at MSU. Nassar survivors and their parents have had opportunities to speak to Nessel and Whitmer and report both officials have been empathetic. 

However, POSSE believes that the way trustees are elected in Michigan must change.

Trustees are elected for eight-year terms, a longer term than the governor or state senators, who can only serve a maximum of two, four-year terms. These long terms make accountability difficult, von Frank said. Voters don’t typically research board candidates and typically vote on party lines, if at all, for these officeholders.

A member of ReclaimMSU put a sign in front of the MSU Hannah Administration Building that read “The Board does not care how you feel. No signs allowed upstairs.” before the Board of Trustees meeting on April 13, 2018. Rally participants heading upstairs for the MSU Board of Trustees meeting lined up their signs on the steps after being told signs would no longer be allowed at Board of Trustees meetings. | Anna Liz Nichols

There needs to be educational efforts on the importance of voting in board elections, von Frank added, but these terms shouldn’t be so long in the first place. 

Von Frank believes Whitmer is responsive to the situation of the families of Nassar survivors, but acknowledges she’s busy. Students say it’s time to revisit the MSU governance structure and make a change.

“We’re in a new era where the requirements are different than they have been in the past,” von Frank said. “It’s a much greater responsibility than it used to be.”

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols is a former Michigan Advance intern. She is a Michigan State University graduate who has reported for several publications, including MLive and Michigan State University’s award-winning student paper, the State News, where she covered the many tendrils of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.