Larry Nassar had a day of reckoning last week for his years of molesting young gymnasts and other athletes, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison. But the leaders of Michigan State University, where he worked, have yet to take full responsibility for their failures to protect those girls, or to even learn what went wrong and regain the trust of the public.
To ensure real accountability, members of the university’s Board of Trustees, which picks the university’s president, oversees its administration and sets policy, should resign to make way for new leadership unencumbered by the Nassar scandal and the recent report by ESPN that the university concealed allegations of sexual violence by members of its prized football and basketball programs. If the trustees refuse to do so, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and its Legislature ought to remove them.
For about two decades, university officials — administrators, coaches, trainers, even police officers — either dismissed or silenced Dr. Nassar’s victims, allowing him to abuse several generations of athletes at the university and U.S.A. Gymnastics. When one victim filed a complaint with M.S.U. in 2014, the inquiry said that the doctor’s action was medically appropriate. So officials continued to let him treat young women, even while the campus police followed up on the complaint.
Separately, ESPN quoted a former sexual-assault counselor at Michigan State who described a pattern of disturbing behavior in which senior university officials hid information about sexual-assault complaints against student-athletes and protected them from punishment.
What is particularly distressing about all of this is that Michigan State’s leaders seem to have learned little from the abysmal response by universities like Penn State and Baylor to reports of sexual abuse in sports programs. Its eight trustees stood behind its embattled president, Lou Anna Simon — who was aware of the 2014 complaint — until just before her resignation last week. She was embattled because she did not appear to take the Nassar scandal seriously and seemed callous toward the victims.
Even her resignation letter struck a tone of defensiveness. “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she wrote. The board’s vice chairman, Joel Ferguson, defended Ms. Simon on a radio show last week by arguing, among other things, that she was a great fund-raiser and “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”
But the term “health and safety” suggests that this inquiry may not be as comprehensive as the one Penn State commissioned from Louis Freeh, the former F.B.I. director, after the university failed to stop the abuse of boys by Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach.
Michigan State’s board on Wednesday appointed John Engler, a former Republican governor, as interim president. Many faculty members and students, angered at not being consulted, opposed the move, and some disrupted a board meeting where the decision was made.
The first thing the board ought to do is commission a thorough and impartial investigation by someone of Mr. Freeh’s stature. The university cannot outsource its responsibility to the state attorney general, the federal Department of Education and the National Collegiate Athletic Association — all of which have said they are investigating the university.
While the state attorney general can bring criminal charges, and the Education Department and N.C.A.A. can demand policy changes, only Michigan State’s leaders can make far-reaching changes to the university’s culture and practices.
University trustees, who are elected to staggered eight-year terms, have no credibility to help the university regain trust. Mr. Snyder could remove the trustees by conducting a public inquiry, while the Legislature could do so after impeachment proceedings. Both could take months. The two trustees who are up for re-election this year have said they will not run again, but all of them should leave.
Many young Americans probably cannot remember a time when sports did not play an outsize role in campus life and university administration. But the federal and state governments created Michigan State, Penn State and other land grant universities more than a century ago to extend higher education to more Americans. Now more than ever, the leaders of these universities need to place that core mission at the top of their priority list, above winning championships and signing lucrative TV contracts.
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