Why Michigan State University is a mess

MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon.
MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon. MiSpartan Impact, Flickr Creative Commons

Update: Lou Anna K. Simon resigned on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Read more here.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately... depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

— Oliver Cromwell

No, no, old Ollie didn't have anything to do with Michigan State University; the place wasn't founded till a couple centuries after he used those words to tell off the English Parliament.

But they apply perfectly to Lou Anna K. Simon, Michigan State's embattled president, who, as I write, is still trying to cling to her job.

I hope that by the time you read this, she is gone. Her baffling refusal to leave makes a mockery of the claim that she cares deeply about Michigan State University. There's no way the place can start to clean house, smash whatever institutional flaws permitted what happened, and rebuild a system and culture of trust while she's there.

For MSU is still stuck in the worst crisis it's known since a bunch of farm boys chopped down trees and built themselves classrooms and a campus back before the Civil War.

Today, it has been exposed as the scene of what is probably the worst collegiate sexual abuse scandal ever.

For 20 years, Larry Nassar, the women's gymnastics team doctor, cruelly abused girls and women on his examining table.

When they complained, they were ignored. According to an investigation by The Detroit News, at least 14 officials had heard something over the years, one of whom was Lou Anna K. Simon.

Nobody did anything until one courageous woman finally got the nerve to file a police report and a Title IX complaint in 2016 and gave an interview to the Indianapolis Star.

That blew the scandal into public view. Even then, Lou Anna K. Simon did not move to get out in front of it. Nobody was fired.

The school seemed to be hoping it would blow over and go away. In an astonishingly clumsy move, MSU finally hired Patrick Fitzgerald, the once-tough federal prosecutor, to do what was billed as an investigation, but which quickly proved an attempted whitewash.

Nothing worked. Woman after woman came forward.

Finally, The Lansing State Journal called on Simon to resign. So did Speaker of the Michigan House Tom Leonard, a Republican, and Gretchen Whitmer, the leading Democratic candidate for governor.

In an appallingly tone-deaf move, the MSU State Board of Trustees, a body long subservient to the athletic department, defiantly voted last month to not only tough it out with Simon, but to offer her a fat, $150,000 raise, which she at least declined.

But then something happened that brought home to the entire state what was going on. After Nassar pled guilty to multiple counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina invited every one of his victims to confront the molester in court.

They indeed told him off. But many of them told off Michigan State University and Lou Anna Simon for not protecting them.

They called Simon and the trustees cowards for not being there. "Come hell or high water, we will find a way to take every last one of you down that could have stopped this monster," Amy Labadie, a former gymnast and victim, promised.

Day after day, the testimony went on.

When Simon, after an avalanche of negative publicity, did pay a brief visit to the courtroom, she was not well received.

When a reporter asked about what she had known in 2014, she said "I was told a sports medicine doctor was under investigation... I did not receive a copy of the report. That's the truth."

When an emergency meeting of the trustees was called after that, everyone expected she was gone. But instead, she emerged, job intact and sent out an email saying a review by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's highly politicized office was needed.

I was on the list of recipients and my jaw literally dropped when I read on and discovered Lou Anna K. Simon arguing that the victims should not be allowed to sue for damages.

But though she wants to deny them any compensation for having their innocence destroyed, this is "in no way a reflection of our view of the survivors, for whom we have the utmost respect."

No, I don't know what planet she's from.

But the riddle of Lou Anna K. Simon may in fact be quite simple.

In contrast to any other university president I've known, she's never worked anywhere else. Now 70, Simon arrived in East Lansing as a newly minted graduate student in 1970. Instead of going into teaching and research, she started climbing the administrative ladder.

Eventually, and remarkably, she became MSU's president.

You have to wonder if — after all these years, Lou Anna K. Simon is even able to separate her own identity from that of the school she's served nearly half a century. This scandal gets odder all the time.

Speaking of resigning...

Few noticed, but earlier this month, Republicans in the Michigan Legislature showed their contempt for Gov. Rick Snyder in shocking fashion. They voted almost unanimously to override his vetoes on two bills in a single day.

The bills weren't especially important; they gave some sales tax relief to people who trade their old car for a new one. What was important was the symbolism. They indicated they had little respect for and no fear whatsoever of the governor, who will be sent packing next New Year's Day, never to be seen in politics again.

You are likely to see a lot more of this over the next 11 months, and are certain to see something else: top aides and cabinet members bailing out. Al Pscholka, the former legislator turned budget director, quit after less than a year. More are sure to follow.

People need longer-lasting jobs. But there is a way Snyder could regain relevance and recapture the imagination, even make himself a hero in some circles: He should resign tomorrow morning.

Here's why Snyder should want to do this: He doesn't need the paycheck. He has come to the end of his effectiveness.

What he doesn't want is Bill Schuette as the GOP nominee for governor. Schuette has been openly disrespecting Snyder for a long time, going out of his way in 2015, for example, to oppose a road tax ballot proposal the governor favored, but which went down in flames.

Snyder would clearly prefer to be succeeded by Brian Calley, his lieutenant governor. But that's a long shot, given that Schuette is far better known and has boatloads of money and endorsements, even from the tweeter in chief, who spelled his name wrong.

But if Snyder quit, Calley would suddenly become governor, and would have the option of trying to win two full terms.

Suddenly, it would be a new ball game. Schuette might still be able to beat Calley in the August primary. But beating any incumbent is harder than taking on a challenger.

Calley, who has gotten little press attention the past seven years, would suddenly be The Man, and would probably get some sort of press honeymoon.

There is an uncanny precedent here: Forty-nine years ago, a gray-haired old governor, George W. Romney, resigned in January and turned the job over to his young lieutenant governor, who many in both parties regarded as an easy pushover.

The guy who inherited the job, one William Milliken, ended up serving longer than any governor in state history. By resigning now, Snyder could give both Schuette and the Democrats fits.

But a move like that would require imagination and daring and the ability to see that politics was about more than yourself.

Uh, never mind...

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