Simon Resigns in Wake of Nassar Sentencing, Adding Uncertainty to East Lansing’s Future
Editor’s note: ELi sometimes provides news analysis on complex East Lansing stories, including in response to reader questions through Ask ELi. Here we provide some analysis in response to questions about what the resignation of MSU’s President’s could mean to East Lansing.
Late yesterday, Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned in response to unrelenting local and national criticism of her administration’s handling of the case of Larry Nassar. Nassar was sentenced in Ingham County Court to what amounts to life in prison for sexually assaulting girls and women who he was supposed to be treating as patients.
For the girls and women harmed, for MSU, and for the City that envelopes MSU, the damage inflicted by Larry Nassar will live on long after his sentencing. We know from victim testimony that Nassar’s criminal acts have made an indelible mark on the lives of probably hundreds of girls and women. Next will come the lawsuits brought on behalf of the victims against MSU, as these girls and women continue to seek justice. The cost of these suits, experts say, could reach well above a hundred million dollars.
While the case of Nassar has certainly occupied and troubled many of us over the last year, the last year has also seen much discussion in our City about MSU’s relationship to the City, and MSU’s obligation, if any, to East Lansing.
Now that the University is facing a sudden change of leadership and a potentially enormous economic blow, now that the City faces a major budget crisis brought on in significant measure by the cost of being MSU’s college town, now that many feel the University betrayed East Lansing girls and women, the question of the city-university relationship is likely to become even more fraught.
The issue has never just been money, though the issue of money came to the fore in the last year because of the battle between Simon and Mayor Mark Meadows over the proposed income tax. The issue has also been game-day stress on East Lansing, including how alcohol-fueled partying leads to sexual assault; town-gown concerns about sexual assault don’t begin and end with Nassar. Being home to a major university means not just basking in its glow and benefitting from its economy, but dealing with its problems.
About one-fifth of East Lansing’s land is made up of MSU, a nonprofit organization that pays no property taxes. One might call MSU a city within a city, but if MSU were a city, it would actually dwarf the City of East Lansing. East Lansing’s annual budget is about $36 million; MSU’s is about $1.3 billion. East Lansing’s year-round population is about 19,500. MSU brings almost that many employees to its campus each day, along with 50,000 students. When MSU has a big game, the number of people in East Lansing can swell by a hundred thousand.
It’s impossible to talk about what East Lansing would be without MSU. East Lansing is a city whose history and present are inseparable from Michigan State University’s. In the tax debates, MSU insisted that the benefits it brings East Lansing outweigh the costs, but such a calculation presumes there is a way to sort out who gives what in the town-gown connection, something that is in practice pretty impossible to determine objectively.
MSU has not been cold to the economic problems East Lansing is facing; its administration did, relatively recently, actively engage in the possibility of providing multi-million dollar payments to help. But will MSU have the ability to help financially, given what is coming? Who will the next MSU president be, and will she or he engage in “one more round” of talks about MSU providing significant new sums of direct revenue to the City, as City Councilmember Aaron Stephens called for just this week?
At this point, it is all pretty uncertain. What is certain is that who is president of MSU matters very much to East Lansing.
Our City, once called “Collegeville,” has literal signs all around it marking the influence of the presidents of MSU and Michigan Agricultural College, MSU’s predecessor. We have the Hannah Community Center, named for John Hannah, MSU President from 1941 to 1969. The gates of the University meet the City at Abbot Road, named for Theophilus Capen Abbot, MAC President from 1862 to 1885.
There was a time when we might have expected East Lansing to eventually have streets and buildings and perhaps even a park named after MSU’s first woman president, Lou Anna K. Simon, just as an East Lansing park was recently named after the late MSU President Gordon Guyer.
But now that seems unlikely, as the dark shadow of Nassar’s crimes looms over us. While the voices of the victims have come into the open, so has the degree of uncertainty now faced by the University and the City it calls home.
Update: We asked City Councilmembers this morning if they had a comment to share on Nassar's conviction and Simon's resignation. We are providing them as we receive their responses.
Councilmember Ruth Beier responded:
"Here is my comment for the record - I don’t think it is fair for ELi to report on this now (when it safe) while declining to write about President Simon’s and the Board’s culpability when it would have taken some bravery."
Councilmember Shanna Draheim's responded:
"My thoughts and feelings on this horrible tragedy flow far less from my role as a member of City Council and much more from my life as a parent, an MSU alumnus, and a member of this community - so many members of which have been touched by Larry Nassar’s sickness and evil.
"These women and children were failed on so many levels over the years. I am glad that they have finally had a platform to have their voices heard loud and clear, and to face this despicable creature and his enablers.
"For this abuse to happen, something was fundamentally flawed in the very fabric of institutions like MSU, USAG, and Twistars. Regardless of who knew what and when, leaders of those organizations fostered a culture where abuse on this scale and across this span of time was possible without intervention - and did so against the backdrop of the Penn State scandal which should have put everyone on high alert.
"President Simon has done great things at MSU. The list of her accomplishments over the last decade plus is long. But I am a believer that leadership at the top sets the tone and tenor of every organization. President Simon led an institution that failed catastrophically on this —not around the edges. In order for these women to begin healing and for MSU to have a path forward, I think she made the right choice in stepping down.
"The City of East Lansing is the home of MSU, and we will continue to be strong partners with, and advocates for the success of, our beloved university. In whatever way we can, we will help our East Lansing and greater MSU community move forward."
Mayor Mark Meadows responded:
"President Simon’s resignation appears to have occurred as a result of eroding support for her by the Board of Trustees, which as recently as a month ago voted to give her a raise.
"In evaluating the resignation, I try to put myself in the shoes of the President. Here is what I see: An Administrative culture that, accepting President Simon’s public statements as true, is designed to restrict the flow of unwelcome information to the President. If she inherited that system, she should have either reformed the system or stepped down. It was a system she either created or permitted to continue. When the scope of Nassar’s transgressions became known, the right thing to do would have been to announce a resignation, reveal the defect in the system and act decisively to reform it before the resignation took effect.
"Even in her resignation message she appeared to be tone deaf to the reason she should have resigned. She stated, 'As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable.' That statement sounds like an attempt to deflect her responsibility for the problem. The problem is the culture within the University that would permit the cover up of the nature and extent of the crimes committed, the failure to support the victims, many of whom are either East Lansing residents now or in the past, and the failure to, on its own, bring the full nature and extent of the sexual abuse taking place to the attention of the public
"I also feel that the Board of Trustees should resign; every one of them. No exceptions. Like a City Manager, a University President is an employee of the Board that hires that person. It is convenient to say the buck stops at the President. It actually stops with the Trustees. They failed the victims, the public that elected them and the University they were sworn to support. They essentially minimized the damage to the victims with their continual support of an administration for which the image of the University was more important than the damage to the victims. The culture created in the administration could not exist without the active approval of the Trustees or by virtue of their own negligence.
"Ultimately, it does not matter who knew what and when. What matters is that the events happened and people complained and nothing was done to remedy the problem and provide support to the victims and remove the perpetrator. This and other publicly reported sexual assault and harassment issues involving campus should be enough to require a house cleaning from top to bottom.
"I hope the focus tomorrow is back on the victims and not on President Simon. The University should withdraw its motion to dismiss the civil litigation and move expeditiously to provide the victims with appropriate compensation for the wrong it has allowed to be perpetrated on them. The sooner the University acknowledges its culpability, the better."
We will continue to post Councilmember responses as we receive them.
Update, January 26: On the afternoon of Friday, January 26, the MSU Board of Trustees appointed Vice President Bill Beekman as an Acting President while an interim president is chosen.
Update, January 28: Councilmember Aaron Stephens provided the following statement:
"There is a special place in hell for Inmate Nassar. This man used his position of power to take advantage of others. I'm glad he got the maximum sentence.
"My first and only priority is justice for these strong, and brave women. And whoever knew, and enabled these atrocious acts, is equally culpable in the situation. Anyone who knew and didn't act, needs to be held accountable, no matter how far up it goes. MSU has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust.
"It’s not just about holding those who were complicit accountable. It’s also about ensuring an environment where people feel comfortable enough to report, come forward, and actually get something done in a safe, and transparent way. You have to have an environment in an organization where when there are rumors or whispers, they get looked into and addressed. I hope that is a continued priority moving forward.
"It's about ensuring a culture in which people feel comfortable coming forward without personal risk. If someone is scared to go to their boss with bad news it’s not just on the employee for not reporting, it’s on the boss for not being able to create an environment in which the employee feels comfortable coming and speaking on - yes - sensitive issues, but significantly serious issues just the same. Again, I think this is just the start. They have a lot of work to do. I really hope that this issue isn't just viewed as "resolved" because a couple people stepped down. There are institutional problems to address on every level. I think every organization, not just MSU, should critically analyze their own reporting procedures, their own organizational culture, and make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
"East Lansing is still the home of Michigan State University and we will continue to work with them as we have for years. That being said, I am pretty disappointed in my school right now."
Disclosure: Alice Dreger's spouse, Aron Sousa, is Senior Associate Dean for MSU's College of Human Medicine (CHM). Nassar was a physician in the College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM), and the two colleges have many intertwined programs and resource needs.