EAST LANSING, Mich. — There’s an old story about a battered college president who, after months of being under fire in the press and from the public, finally resigns. When his successor arrives, the departing one says, “Good luck. But if you run into trouble, I left two envelopes in my desk drawer. Open them when needed.”
The new president has a brief honeymoon, but soon, old issues resurface. He opens the first envelope. “Blame me,” it says.
So the new man blames his troubles on his predecessor, and that buys some time. But before long, things get bad again, and the besieged president opens the second envelope.
“Prepare two envelopes,” a note inside says.
Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon submitted her resignation Wednesday amid an outcry over the school's handling of allegations against Larry Nassar.
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This was the week Michigan State University’s Lou Anna Simon learned she should have had those envelopes ready.
Nothing lasts forever.
Suddenly, after fighting to keep her job even after major figures and institutions demanded she leave, Ms. Simon suddenly resigned Wednesday night, saying “I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president.”
In retrospect, her fate may have been sealed within months after sex predator and former MSU women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was exposed in September, 2016.
Instead of moving quickly to get out in front of the situation, to fire those responsible and put in place new policies and procedures, she seemed to bury her head in the sand.
She, and her loyal supporters on the school’s board of trustees, acted as if it all might eventually go away. But instead, as anyone familiar with Watergate might have told her, it never goes away.
It gets worse and worse.
That’s what happens when scandals aren’t immediately addressed. Ms. Simon didn’t accept that — and was then ripped by a firestorm no Michigan university president had ever seen.
Politically, state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Democratic Minority Leader Jim Ananich have nothing in common. But on Jan. 18, they jointly called on Ms. Simon to quit or be fired.
“President Simon, RESIGN,” the State News, the campus newspaper, said. The Detroit News revealed that at least 14 MSU officials had been told of sexual misconduct by Nassar since 1997.
One was Ms. Simon herself, who said, “I was told a sports medicine doctor was under investigation … I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth.”
That satisfied no one. But the 70-year-old Simon refused to go until she was overwhelmed by a sea of national outrage. Now, the important question is the future of MSU.
Two years ago, Lou Anna Simon was a hugely popular fixture on campus. She got the job when her former boss, M. Peter McPherson, resigned as Michigan State’s president in 2004. Actually she’d been acting president since the year before when Mr. McPherson took a leave of absence to help establish a new banking system in Iraq.
Quiet and self-effacing, President Simon was known mostly for declining most raises and donating large portions of her salary back to the school. Today, college presidents serve, on average, only a little over six years. Ms. Simon already had served twice as long, when the situation changed forever in the fall of 2016.
Nassar, a longtime physician for women’s gymnastics teams at Michigan State, as well as for the USA Gymnastics and U.S. Olympic teams, was arrested on multiple charges that included sexual abuse and child pornography.
Eventually scores of women came forward to tell harrowing stories of abuse on his examining table. President Simon at first seemed to ignore the growing outrage.
She finally did issue some tepid support for the victims, but as the number of those molested grew, so did citizens’ anger.
Finally that exploded last week when Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed 156 women and girl victims to address Nassar in her courtroom, after he had pleaded guilty to seven sexual assault charges as part of a plea-bargaining agreement.
The women’s riveting testimony captured national attention. While what they said was filled with anger directed towards their molester, many of them also attacked MSU — and its president.
“Come hell or high water, we will find a way to take every last one of you down that could have stopped this monster,” said gymnast and victim Amy Labadie. Another, Lindsay Lemke, said to the MSU president, “You are a coward.
“You say you aren’t responsible. I wish you’d come up to this podium and be half as afraid as all of us have had to be.”
The next day, Ms. Simon shot off an apparently clueless email letter, saying that she was “sorry that a physician who called himself a Spartan so utterly betrayed everyone’s trust.”
Then in a shockingly unfeeling move, she announced MSU was going to ask the courts to dismiss damage claims from the victims, but said, “this is in no way a reflection of our view of the survivors.”
Expect to see many, many lawsuits against the school.
Why did Lou Anna Simon behave the way she did?
Nobody can read her mind. But it might be worth noting that she may be the only major university president in the nation to never have worked anywhere else in her adult life.
She arrived as a newly minted graduate student in 1970, and never left. Possibly, she could not imagine life without MSU.
But it was clear for days that it was impossible for Michigan State to begin to rebuild and heal as long as she remained there.
How different it might be had she taken the initiative soon after Nassar was arrested, and announced firings, a full investigation, moves toward total transparency and sweeping reforms.
That she didn’t was the tragedy that ended her career, one more casualty of a cunning serial molester who damaged so many lives.
Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.
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