Lou Anna

Michigan State Revelations Shine Light on UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Investigation

Content Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

This Wednesday in an Ingham County court, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Dr. Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison on ten accounts of first-degree sexual assault; he is already serving 60 years for a federal child pornography charge.  

Nassar’s sentencing closed seven days of impact victim statements by 156 women and girls who he assaulted during his time as a doctor for the United States Gymnastics team, Michigan State University (MSU), and a Lansing Area High School near MSU. Nassar’s first known act of sexual predation came in 1992 and his victims have been as young as six years old.

Judge Aquilina’s ruling ensures that Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison, but a series of recent reports reveal numerous MSU representatives who were alerted to Nassar’s behavior and did little to nothing to stop him.  One individual was Lou Anna Simon, Michigan State University’s president who resigned her position Wednesday evening.   

President Simon heard of Lassar’s abuse through complaints filed by Amanda Tomashow to the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural initiatives, which investigated MSU’s Title IX complaints, and to the MSU police force in 2014.  When Simon heard these complaints, Nassar was left unnamed whereas Tomashow only revealed her identity this week.  In an interview with a university investigator, she said Nassar massaged her shoulder and breast “like your boyfriend while you were making out with him.”  A Title IX report report of the incident states, “[Nassar] began to massage her in a circular motion in her vaginal area. He was extremely close to inserting a finger in her.” Her complaints fell upon deaf ears.  Tomashow’s own mother stated that Nassar’s actions were medically appropriate and the investigators concluded that Nassar’s behavior was non-sexual in nature.  

A Detroit News exposé published last week details two decades of neglect on behalf of at least fourteen representatives of Michigan State who were made aware of his abuse of eight girls.  Furthermore, the New York Times recently reported the University Police Department received over a hundred of complaints about Nassar’s behavior.  On Thursday, ESPN program Outside the Lines obtained documents demonstrating MSU did not inform federal investigators about Title IX and police investigations of Nasser in 2014.  The investigators examined the University’s handling of sexual abuse accusations at the time.

Even after the sentencing hearing and the reports, a majority of Michigan State’s Board of Trustees still supported former President Simon until her resignation.  Only Trustees Mitch Lyons and Dianne Byrum publicly called for her resignation before Wednesday evening.

On Monday the 22nd, Trustee Joel Ferguson took to local radio show Staudt on Sports to defend the Board’s continued support of former President Simon. He argued that, “this Nassar thing” was a relatively small problem among many that President Simon grappled with.  He cited her skills at raising funds for the new basketball arena and the continued support of major donors and key alumni as reasons for keeping her.   Ferguson’s comments demonstrate the extreme lengths that the trustees were willing to go to protect former President Simon.

I am disgusted by the abhorrent comments made earlier this week by Joel Ferguson, who does not speak for other members of the MSU board in any way. 

said Trustee Byrum in response to Ferguson’s defense on Wednesday

Both the Michigan state legislature and MSU students criticized the response of the board and President Simon. Students planned protests against former President Simon Friday will continue as scheduled under the new name of  “March for Survivors and Change.”   

We need institutional and cultural change from the ground up, said Eli Pales, the community liaison for the Associated Students of MSU,” in a e-mail to The Declaration. “We hope our stand will support survivors and show unity in the message that we demand transparency from our administration and to ensure this never happens again.

In his radio interview, Ferguson claimed Nassar, “was on an island by himself.” But the numerous reports make it clear that MSU not only knew of Nassar’s actions but also had multiple opportunities to stop him and repeatedly failed to do so.  MSU’s Office of the President was contacted for comment but did not respond in time for publication.  

As the events in MSU unfold, questions about the actions that other universities take when sexual abuse is reported will re-enter the national conversation with renewed vigor.  The University of Virginia is likely to enter this conversation given its current investigation into the accusations of sexual misconduct leveled at creative writing professor John Casey which surfaced in late 2017.

In a Twitter post from November of last year, Emma C. Eisenberg became the first woman to publicly accuse Casey of sexually harassing her while she was enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program from 2012 to 2014; she filed a Title IX complaint on the same day she sent the tweet.  Shortly thereafter, three more individuals, Shannon Harrigan, an anonymous individual and a faculty member, filed complaints.

The University notified Eisenberg that an investigation into Casey’s behavior began within two weeks of filing her complaint.  After the accusations, the university extended Casey’s previously scheduled research sabbatical in the fall though the spring. Casey will not be teaching his two scheduled classes in the Spring semester. He is listed in the UVA English department’s online directory as the Henry Hoyns Professor and his books can still be purchased in the University bookstore under the faculty author section.

Following Eisenberg’s initial accusation, other individuals stepped forward describing instances of Casey’s sexual misconduct. Their accounts indicate his inappropriate behavior was not isolated to the four Title IX complaints. Casey’s sexual misconduct extended to his time on the faculty of Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a summer fiction writing workshop. The Sewanee Writers’ Conference website does not currently list Casey as a faculty member and he was not on their schedule for 2017. He last appeared at Sewanee in 2016 for a fiction reading.

Complaints were made about Casey’s comments by UVA students as early as 1999 but the extent to which the university investigated these complaints at the time is unknown.   

 The University is committed to ensuring a safe non-discriminatory educational and work environment and takes seriously any allegation of conduct that would violate University policy prohibiting sexual and gender-based harassment, 

said University Spokesperson Anthony Paul de Bruyn.

De Bruyn was also asked if the actions taken with Casey, i.e. his sabbatical in Fall 2017, and not teaching classes Spring 2018, were in compliance with a standard for all faculty under Title IX investigation, or if actions are decided on a case by case basis; he did not respond in time for publication.

The Federal Government has conducted 458 investigations of colleges who possibly mishandled reports of sexual violence.  To date, 119 of these cases have been resolved while 339 remain open.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, UVA has been the subject of two such investigations; one is closed while one remains open.   

But the story of today and the immediate future belongs to MSU.  If the demands of the students are met, the current administration will be pulled down and replaced by one that can potentially heal the university’s wounds.  

Anthony Del Rosso is a second-year Economics and Art History major, Fiona Geiran is a third-year English and Creative Writing major, and Sam Nicol is a third-year English major.