ANALYSIS: New developments in Larry Nassar case raise questions about safety of college students

MSU has hired administrators and trained students on consent to help prevent sexual violence, but when students accused Larry Nassar of sexual violence, their reports went ignored for nearly two decades.

The Title IX website for Michigan State University (MSU) pledges “a safe environment” for its students. But the university now faces another lawsuit over its alleged secrecy regarding the sexual abuse committed by former MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar

MSU has hired administrators and trained students on consent to help prevent sexual violence, but when students accused Nassar of sexual violence, their reports went ignored for nearly two decades.

Survivors of Nassar’s abuse, which impacted over 150 student athletes and underage gymnasts, filed the lawsuit on July 27, according to an NBC affiliate. The plaintiffs allege that MSU’s Board of Trustees violated state transparency laws by concealing around 6,000 documents linked to the Nassar case. 

timeline of Nassar’s career shows that MSU kept him employed as a professor and team physician from 1997 to 2016, when The Indianapolis Star released its groundbreaking investigation

The investigation describes the inaction of USA Gymnastics– where Nasser also worked as a physician–in responding to complaints about his behavior. MSU students similarly reported Nassar at least three times, according to USA Today, but he wasn’t fired until 2016 when former gymnast Rachael Denhollander filed a criminal complaint against him.

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In the months following Denhollander’s criminal complaint, more allegations and charges against Nassar emerged. 

By 2017, he was charged with more than 20 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. After pleading guilty to seven counts, he received a 175-year prison sentence in 2018.

Sentencing hearings revealed the extent of his abuse:

Amid the hearings, however, another investigation was looming: MSU’s Board of Trustees, according to an independent special counsel report, requested the Attorney General to investigate ‘MSU’s handling of the Nassar situation.’

In a 2017 message, the MSU Board of Trustees invited an investigation into MSU leadership saying:  

“We owe this to the victims and to all members of the MSU community. We have confidence in the integrity, thoroughness, and rigor of the investigations and reviews underway and are committed to a disciplined process of gathering, reviewing, and understanding facts.”

However, the special counsel’s report revealed that MSU had prioritized its reputation over the well-being of its students.

“[T]he University failed to live up to” its pledge to cooperate with investigators and instead “(1) issu[ed] misleading public statements, (2) drown[ed] investigators in irrelevant documents, (3) wag[ed] needless battles over pertinent documents, and (4) assert[ed] attorney-client privilege even when it did not apply.” 

In May 2018, MSU negotiated a $500 million settlement for its failure to protect survivors. The following year, the U.S. Department of Education fined MSU $4.5 million.

For survivors, justice will depend on more than a settlement. 

The latest lawsuit against MSU follows the Michigan attorney general’s request for documents earlier this year. While MSU initially agreed to release the documents as part of the attorney general’s investigation, the Board of Trustees decided in April to withhold the documents. 

A statement from Board of Trustees Chair Rema Vassar justifies the decision by saying that MSU will “continue to maintain attorney-client privilege.” 

We understand that for those who continue to push for this transparency, this is not what you want to hear,” the statement reads. “We will devote time and resources to facilitate a healing culture for all members of our community.”

The “time and resources” are perhaps references to MSU’s new administrators in the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and ComplianceLaura Rugless began her duties as the office’s vice president and Title IX coordinator in July, “filling an almost two-year vacancy” as noted by The State News, a student newspaper. 

At least five new investigators, The State News says, joined the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), a branch of the Civil Rights and Title IX office. The university’s website also lists a series of changes to help MSU in “preventing relationship violence and sexual misconduct,” including its launch of the Prevention, Outreach, and Education Department in 2018. Through this department, students and faculty can request workshops on consent.  

Given MSU’s track record, however, students might be skeptical that its growing bureaucracy will prevent violence or that administrators can spot the worst misconduct–often happening within its own ranks. 

MSU has issued swift responses to murky cases against students but much slower responses to serious misconduct from faculty and staff.

In one case, a former medical school student filed a wrongful expulsion lawsuit against MSU for its “opaque” investigation of an alleged sexual assault, according to documents obtained by Reason in 2020. The student appears to be a casualty of the #MeToo movement’s worst inclinations–Title IX’s lowering of evidentiary standards for sexual assault and the power of a single administrator to decide the fate of students who cannot confront their accusers. 

Meanwhile, MSU faced Title IX issues with its own leadership around the time that it expelled the student who, likely armed by the university with little more than consent education as a guide for good sex, had what Reason calls “drunken sex.” 

In the year of his expulsion, the Detroit Free Press reported that a former MSU president resigned because of his response to the survivors of Nassar’s abuse. Another president would resign in 2022 over competing claims between him and the Board of Directors about Title IX compliance. 

The Nassar survivors’ lawsuit, the most recent scandal to rock MSU, says that members of the Board of Directors pledged to cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation–an investigation that the Board requested in 2018. 

[RELATED: Former OSU football players acquitted of rape charges based on ‘consent video’ of crying female filmed immediately after incident]

In private, however, they allegedly voted to hold onto documents related to the Nassar case. 

It’s possible that new administrators or new training will transform MSU, as its website says, into “a campus that is respectful and safe for all.” But for true change at MSU, administrators must not only talk about the appropriate responses to sexual misconduct but actually follow its policies and procedures. 

Until the Board of Directors and other MSU officials commit to transparency and own up to past mistakes, students have no reason to believe that they will. 

For more analyses like this, follow Jared Gould on Twitter.