Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on February 6, 2018
If the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University six years ago wasn’t enough, a much larger sexual abuse scandal involving Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee is now playing out. One wonders how many additional scandals might emerge at other educational institutions and organizations.
On Jan. 24, Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, physician to athletes at Michigan State and national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing young women. About 150 women gave impact statements in court just prior to his sentencing. It has been reported that there are at least 265 Nassar victims.
An article in The Detroit News on Jan. 17 headlined “Larry Nassar: A trail of sexual abuse” outlines a timeline of sexual abuse of young women by Nassar starting as far back as 1992. Two MSU coaches were informed of his abuse in 1997, the report states, adding that Nassar’s abuse was again reported in 1999 and 2000 and numerous times up to his arrest. Many who were in positions to stop Nassar knew of the sexual abuse allegations but did nothing to stop it, enabling him to abuse many others.
An article in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 1 is headlined “Olympics Committee Failed to Act on Nassar’s Alleged Abuse for a Full Year: The U.S. gymnastics team doctor continued to see and allegedly abuse patients, despite reports of possible criminal behavior.” The article states that USOC was told by USAG that their internal investigation revealed possible crimes by Nassar against Olympic athletics, but no action was taken.
Why didn’t USOC and USAG suspend or fire Nassar and report the findings to law enforcement?
In the face of growing criticism from many of the students, faculty and staff at Michigan State, and after losing the confidence of a number of MSU board members, long-time President Lou Anna Simon resigned her position on Jan. 24. MSU’s athletics director, Mark Hollis, also resigned.
In her resignation letter, Simon wrote, “To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment.”
Simon added later, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”
Politicized? I am not sure how the abuse of so many young women is politicized.
MSU Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson similarly was insensitive and tone deaf to Nassar’s victims. During an interview on a Detroit radio show before Simon’s resignation, Ferguson commented, “There are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”
Mr. Ferguson: Just this Nassar thing?
Ferguson also said of Simon, “She’s a fighter. … What she’s done for this university … she’s not going to get run out of there by what somebody else did. … I’ve been on the board for 30 years, and she by far is the best president we’ve ever had.”
More from Ferguson: “I mean, when you go to [a] basketball game, you walk into the new Breslin [Student Events Center]. … The person who hustled and got all the major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon.”
So I guess Ferguson thinks that cultivating donors and raising money for buildings is more important than proactively protecting student athletes from a sexual predator.
After being widely criticized for his insensitive comments, a spokesperson for Ferguson released a statement that in part said, “Mr. Ferguson deeply regrets his comment and apologizes to those he offended.”
I think Ferguson’s own words speak volumes for how he really feels.
Mr. Ferguson: The most important responsibilities of an effective leader are to bring the right tone at the top and organizational culture to his or her organization. Simon has failed in these responsibilities. The most important responsibilities of boards of trustees are to hold the leader to accountable for tone and culture, as well as protecting the organization’s reputation. You and the MSU board members have failed to carry out these responsibilities.
I contrast the lack of concern and lack of proactive action by the administration and the board of MSU with that of the University of Pennsylvania and the actions it has taken in the wake of the sexual harassment and intimidation accusations against former UPenn trustee and college alumnus Steve Wynn. A letter on Feb. 1 from the UPenn president and chairman of the board addressed to the UPenn community stated: “We have always been, and will always continue to be, looked to by our alumni and neighbors, our faculty, and most of all by our students, for moral leadership. We must not — we cannot — fail to provide it.”
MSU, take note. Where is your moral leadership?
The honorary degree that had been awarded to Wynn was revoked. The name “Wynn” has been removed from Wynn Commons as well as a scholarship fund named for him.
MSU is now under investigation by William Schuette, Michigan attorney general. Schuette commented, “It is abundantly clear that a full and complete investigation of what happened at Michigan State University, from the president’s office on down, is required. This investigation is and will continue to be, independent, thorough, transparent and prompt.”
There are calls for a bipartisan Congressional investigation of MSU, USOC and USAG on how they have failed to protect their athletes. Three questions need to be addressed in any investigation: When did they learn about Nassar’s crimes, why was nothing done to stop him, and what needs to change so this does not happen again?
Someday, leaders of all educational institutions and athletic organizations will come to understand their full responsibilities to their students and their athletes and will proactively investigate sexual abuse accusations and take immediate and appropriate action against abusers.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.