MSU must work harder to change culture
Michigan State University was swift to dismiss three football players charged with sexual assault last week. It was quick to defend Football Coach Mark Dantonio and President Lou Anna K. Simon with a vote of confidence from its Board of Trustees.
That support came just as MSU released the report of an external review that found Dantonio and his program’s senior staff complied with MSU’s policies in handling that incident and a second sexual assault case reported a few weeks later.
Yet citizens of Michigan can have little confidence in how the university is addressing the larger, deeper issues – those that caused the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to state in 2015 that MSU’s handling of some Title IX investigations fostered a “hostile environment” for those who complained about relationship violence or sexual misconduct.
The reasons for concern are numerous.
MSU conducted an external review of its Title IX process in 2014-15, as federal investigators were winding down their work. But other than a select group of campus leaders and lawyers, no one knows what that inquiry found.
Why? The university declined to release those findings when asked under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Officials acknowledged there are five emails with attachments, but didn’t even provide pages redacting exempted material. They also refused to disclose the scope of the review done by Pepper Hamilton, the law firm hired for that project; MSU released the contract and billing invoices, but redacted details of services provided in both.
Adding to concern, after doing that work Pepper Hamilton was hired to represent MSU against several women who sued over its Title IX process.
MSU does get credit for releasing the new report, done by the Jones Day law firm. Because it did, the public knows that review was not a comprehensive assessment of all the football program’s efforts to train staff and athletes toward a culture that doesn’t tolerate such misconduct. Instead, the inquiry focused solely on how staff handled two sexual assault incidents reported this year. One in January involved the three players who were charged Tuesday and immediately dropped from the team; a second in April involved one player who was charged earlier and also kicked off the team.
Jones Day found everyone acted appropriately except one football staffer who violated university policies. It could not determine to what extent because that individual declined to be interviewed. Conveniently, his contract was allowed to expire on May 31 – a week before the report’s release.
And there is the dreadful, ongoing case of Larry Nassar, the fired MSU physician accused by more than 90 women and girls of sexually assaulting them, the majority during medical appointments. In 2014, MSU’s Title IX process cleared Nassar of a complaint by relying on four of his MSU colleagues as experts.
No one could be surprised if the public suspects MSU of picking friendly experts, steering the outcome of “external” reviews by limiting their focus, or practicing “spin” by releasing the Jones Day report some 30 minutes before Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon announced charges against the football players.
The question now: Will the Board of Trustees and senior leaders spend less effort on managing the bad news and more on fixing the cultural problem at its roots?
It would be foolish to think MSU can eradicate all inappropriate conduct, by athletes or others. The cycle of campus – new freshmen arriving every year – adds to the challenge MSU faces in educating all students on this issue. That’s why the process – quality and effectiveness of outreach, training and enforcement – matters so much.
Yet MSU can seize critical opportunities and take major leaps toward correcting its course.
First, because MSU already announced plans for new external review of its Title IX efforts later this year, everything about that inquiry must set a higher standard for independence and transparency than the Pepper Hamilton review. Let outside experts set the scope.
Commit to make the results public, along with an assessment of progress made since the federal findings. And pledge not to hire the reviewers to defend the university in ongoing or future lawsuits.
In short, replace a perception of going through the motions with one of deep confidence that MSU is committed to improvement.
Second, MSU must take a deep look at the training provided to student athletes. Dantonio noted these two incidents are the first to result in such charges in his 11 years as head coach. But four players accused in four months must be cause for action. Dantonio spoke Tuesday of morals and values. Help him make that focus greater than it’s ever been. Be bold. Bring in the experts who work with professional leagues. Be relentless. Set the bar for the Big Ten and beyond.
In short, make MSU known for athletes whose character is even stronger than their athletic prowess.
Instead of a ripple in the news cycle, make a wave that reshapes MSU’s culture, on and off the athletic field. Be inspired by MSU’s favored marketing slogan: “Spartans Will” change.
— Lansing State Journal