Michigan State Faces a Long Road Ahead Despite Settling Nassar Lawsuits
Posted May 17, 2018 10:41 p.m. EDT
After John Engler took over in January as Michigan State University’s interim president, he stressed again and again the need to quickly settle an onslaught of sexual abuse lawsuits against the school.
The university met that demand on Wednesday when it agreed to a $500 million settlement with 332 women and girls who said they were abused by Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. Engler described the settlement as an opportunity to move forward, a step “important for the healing process, not only for the survivors, but also for the university community.”
But the battles are far from over for Michigan State, which still faces fierce scrutiny and heavy fallout from the actions of Nassar, a university employee and sports doctor who for about 20 years preyed on girls and young women under the guise of medical care.
“The next part is the hard part,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., a Democrat whose district includes the campus. “You have to change the culture of the university.”
First there is the question of how to come up with half a billion dollars, a burden that could fall in part on students and taxpayers. Then there are the investigations by the state attorney general and the federal Education Department that could lead to criminal charges for administrators and federal penalties.
Those challenges do not include the mountain of work that must be done to prevent future abuse, repair the university’s battered image and attract new students. There is no playbook for such a task.
“I think it’s such a profound topic that I don’t think anyone should feel comfortable telling them what to do,” said Jim Rawlins, the admissions director at the University of Oregon. “There aren’t many other cases like this where you can say, ‘oh yeah, it’s one of these.'”
Nassar’s case captivated the nation in January during his sentencing in state court. For days, woman after woman recounted his abuse and how, if they complained, they were mostly ignored by law enforcement and university officials. Some of the women were famous gymnasts, assaulted by Nassar in his role with the U.S. Olympic team. Others were local residents who sought treatment at the university clinic. Soon after Nassar was sentenced to prison, Michigan State’s longtime president, Lou Anna K. Simon, resigned.
Scandal can scare off students. In the aftermath of abuse by an assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University, applications declined for a time, though the cause was debated. And at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus, where protests against racial bias drew national attention in 2015, enrollment dropped off so much that some dorms were closed.
Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at the Isidore Newman School, a private college prep school in New Orleans, said many of her students avoided colleges they believed had behaved badly. Several of her students declined admission to Howard University this year after a financial aid scandal broke there, she said, adding, “my young women — we can’t talk about Michigan State.”
For the moment, it appears Michigan State has avoided a loss of new students. The university expects to enroll its largest-ever freshman class this fall, and said this month that the number of admitted students who had paid enrollment deposits was 2 percent higher than that of a year ago.
But the full effects of the blow to the university’s reputation may not be felt until next year.
“Michigan State has a long road ahead,” said Michael Gordon, a principal at Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis communications firm in New York. “I think so far they have really failed on talking about how as an institution, they will change culturally and change how they do business.”
The $500 million settlement has largely been welcomed as a necessary step by Michigan State students and alumni who are disgusted by Nassar’s conduct.
Sydney Ewing, 18, is preparing to head to Michigan from Texas in the middle of the summer to start her coursework early, and to train with the gymnastics team, which she committed to join last fall. She said she has often thought of the scandal, but never doubted her decision to join the team.
“The settlement is incredible,” Ewing said, adding that the agreement helped restore trust in the school’s administration. “After this settlement, I do believe in them.”
But it also raises uncomfortable questions. Victoria Vander Velde, 18, who will enroll at Michigan State in the fall, received a text message from another freshman-to-be on Thursday about whether their tuition might rise as a result of the settlement.
“There’s so many things that Michigan State could pull money from,” said Vander Velde, who is looking for deals on a fridge and futon for her new dorm room. “I’d be pretty upset that we’d have to pay a lot more money to go.”
Jean Beck, who with her husband donates money for a scholarship at Michigan State, said they would stop giving immediately if they thought the money was to be used for the settlement, instead of for students.
“All these kids are taking out loans mostly to get through school,” Beck said. “That’s going to impact their lives for years. They did nothing to deserve it.” It remains uncertain whether those fears are founded. The university has said little about how it intends to pay for the settlement, beyond that it expects insurance to pick up at least some of the cost, and that taxpayers and students could also be on the hook.
Engler, who was not made available for an interview despite repeated requests, wrote in a letter to students and alumni that he would meet with university trustees in the days ahead to devise a plan.
“The early and successful conclusion of mediation will be beneficial to those who have suffered at the hands of Nassar,” Engler wrote. “It also allows MSU to continue making important change to prevent sexual misconduct and assaults on and off our campus.”