“Can’t We Talk About Other Things?” Asks Michigan State
Dr. Larry Nassar – a medical professional who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University treating the athletes who represented both institutions – abused more than 325 of his patients. He spent decades insisting that his reported abuse was actually misunderstood medical treatment; he was only, finally, stopped after so many women had come forward to report him that it simply became impossible to ignore them. He was and remains, by every possible measure, a monster.
But this is not about Larry Nassar. The Larry Nassars of the world do not operate alone. They are always – always, always, always – aided and abetted by institutions that double and triple and quadruple down on a seemingly concerted effort to either ignore reported abuse completely and to further enable its occurrence. Nassar’s abuse thrived, at least in part, because so many people who could have stopped him chose to do otherwise instead. Ignore and enable is a strategy that has failed so often, and so spectacularly, that it is almost impossible to imagine any institution voluntarily adopting it. Perhaps that is an unreasonable ask; perhaps ignore and enable is endogenous to institutional existence; perhaps there is simply no escaping it.
It does seem reasonable, or at least comforting, to imagine that organizations badly burned by having voluntarily ignored and enabled abuse would have the common decency to learn the lesson that the previous strategy absolutely did not work. And yet, we have this, late last week, from Michigan State University’s The State News, the institution’s student newspaper. It is an article written by Anna Nichols detailing changes made to an issue of Spartan, the school’s alumni magazine. Alumni magazines are almost always little more than thicker brochures hyping the best that its publisher has to offer, but Spartan had apparently decided that it needed to properly account for an abuse scandal that had cost the institution more than half-a-billion dollars. From the article:
The goal of the magazine is to help survivors of Nassar’s abuse and the Spartan community heal and prevent such abuse from happening again at MSU, Magazine editor Paula M. Davenport said in her original editor’s note.
Davenport went further in her note, referencing The Penn Stater‘s Darkest Days issue, an issue released in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal, and noting that she sought to produce an issue that would help to bring the community together in a unified effort to prevent similar abuse from ever happening again. The goal was an entire issue dedicated to what, exactly, had gone so dreadfully wrong. Nichols’ excellent article (which is absolutely worth reading in its entirety) goes further:
The original magazine’s essays chronicle the history of Nassar’s abuse, gender inequality, the psychological effect of sexual abuse and a culture of silence. The narratives tell stories of the impact these topics have had on alumni and their ability to look back fondly on the school.
Contributors to the special issue tell stories ranging from being sexually harassed by medical professionals as young adults, to unpacking how the issues MSU faces with Title IX, as an investigation report claimed a patient merely misunderstood Nassar’s procedure.
As the names and faces of hundreds of survivors of Nassar’s abuse were revealed, the university faced greater trauma than it had ever endured in its 163-year history, according to the “A Time to Listen and Learn” section.
“Rightfully, our faculty and students protested. And you expressed your disgust in countless phone calls, emails, social media posts, and letters. Broken, former President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned. Athletic Director Mark Hollis retired. A beleaguered Board of Trustees, an elected body, backpedaled,” the section said. “To be certain, this is only a beginning, not a conclusion. We believe that, with decisive action and open dialogue, MSU can emerge from this tragedy as a leader and a model for safer campuses and workplaces across the country.
The entire issue, from its first page to its last, was supposed to focus on the scandal. But then John Engler intervened.
Engler is the University’s stopgap president. He is a former governor who was appointed to the position in the aftermath of Lou Anna K. Simon’s resignation. He has been on uneven ground since taking the position. More than 100 of Nassar’s victims stepped forward to oppose his nomination. He has been accused of trying to buy the silence of Nassar’s victims. He has accused Rachel Denhollander, one of Nassar’s victims and one of the leading advocates for his prosecution, of being involved in a kickback scheme with trial lawyers suing the school, an accusation which she vehemently denied. It was not hard to see why many of the institution’s fiercest critics had little faith in Engler’s ability to execute his position in an effective, unifying manner. Perhaps those were the missteps of a man who voluntarily put himself into a bad situation; maybe he was owed a certain amount of leeway to make mistakes, to then learn from them, and to do better.
But even if that was the case, Nichols’ article is going to give Engler’s critics all the ammunition they will need to argue that those previous mistakes were nothing of the sort. Engler apparently vetoed the first draft of Spartan. Three possible covers, each featuring vibrant uses of teal, were rejected. Language from the proposed covers which read, “Sexual assault and harassment allegations have rocked our community to its core and changed how we thought of ourselves as Spartans. In our quest for answers, we will build a path to a better future,” was replaced with the following quote:
“The University, which faced the most difficult challenge in its history, has emerged and is going to be stronger, safer, and more competitive than ever before.”
That bit of rah-rahing is from Engler himself. That though is hardly the end of Engler’s changes. The issue’s hard-hitting exploration of abuse on the MSU campus – which included a discussion about whether graduates could still claim to be proud to be Spartans – has been replaced with an issue that, well:
The new magazine paints a golden year for Spartans building up their community and bettering the academic world. It cites work creating housing for families in Michigan, expanding the College of Music building, a medical mission to Iraq and the hope that MSU’s Facility for Rare Isotope Beams becomes “the world’s most-powerful rare isotope beams facility when it becomes fully operational in 2022.”
Davenport’s note is gone too, replaced with a terse, rewritten note, that offers up coverage of Nassar as an afterthought. Davenport writes, presumably with Engler dictating:
“We’ve done our best in this issue to update you on significant changes to MSU policies, new building projects, and stories of Spartans doing good for the benefit of others. But first, you’ll find letters sent to us earlier this year when news of abuses by Larry Nassar went global.”
The earlier draft features an honest accounting of what it is like to be associated with an institution repeatedly looked the other way when confronted with evidence of Nassar’s abuse. The newest version features an interview with Engler, in which he declares that his meetings with students, faculty, and alumni are going great. Which is, presumably, news to all of those who might believe otherwise.
The university, when confronted with the two versions (the earlier one is available at The State News‘s website, and was apparently leaked to either Nichols or The State News or both), offered up the following explanation for its decision to neuter the magazine’s attempt to address the institution’s failures:
“During the course of development, the team was continuously evaluating many possible options for content and for feature stories. In the end, the editorial team took an approach that concentrated on the most important changes and improvements at MSU that have been made over the past six months related to campus safety and sexual assault prevention and education, as well as where the university is headed in the future.
Alumni consistently communicate to the magazine team that they want to know what is happening on campus, so striking a balance between addressing the problems of the past but also showing the positive impact Spartans are having across a variety of fields was the desired outcome.”
This, for those wondering, is the cultural toleration of abuse. MSU is without any apparent shame arguing, in its defense of a decision to restrict a frank conversation of Nassar’s abuses and the institution’s inability to prevent it, that it preferred to look at anything else instead. This is, of course, par for Michigan State’s course; that contemptible gutlessness is how MSU ended up in this situation in the first place, a point inexplicably still lost on the institution.
None of what happened with Nassar was an accident. It was the result of actors at every level of an enormous institution repeatedly making awful, but intentional, decisions. And yet, in the immediate aftermath of having enabled one of America’s most notorious sexual predators and cost the institution hundreds of millions of dollars, MSU is betting once again on the same strategy that hurt it so badly in the first place. And all because focusing on other things is easier than choosing to do otherwise.