Michigan State University’s long-serving president resigned Wednesday night in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal, saying, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable.”
Lou Anna Simon, who had been credited with building the public university into a formidable academic center bolstered by fundraising and research prowess, stepped down Wednesday in the face of a wave of public outrage.
Simon said she had planned to retire in 2016 but postponed her departure after learning of allegations about Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State sports doctor who pleaded guilty in November to sexual assault. In a statement released Wednesday night, she spoke directly to survivors, who have challenged her in harrowing testimony in recent days.
“To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment,” Simon said. “I know that we all share the same resolve to do whatever it takes to avert such tragedies here and elsewhere. . . . The survivors’ accounts are horrific. They are tragic, heartbreaking, and personally gut-wrenching.”
Brian Breslin, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said Wednesday evening the board would accept Simon’s resignation.
“We agree with Dr. Simon that it is now time for change,” Breslin said. “President Simon has served with distinction as MSU’s president for 13 years and has been a constant presence at the university for more than 40 years. She literally has devoted her entire professional life to this institution, and more than anyone else has helped make MSU a national and international leader in higher education.”
Simon’s success as a leader had earned her support from the board of trustees, most of whom stood by her during the Nassar scandal, and from many faculty members, who cautioned against a rush to judgment in the court of public opinion.
But the vise tightened during days of painful, tearful, angry and defiant testimony by victims of Nassar, including U.S. Olympians, who not only addressed Nassar, but also the leaders of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. The victims said the sports group and the school should have stepped in long ago to stop the abuse. Woman after woman, they came forward, day after day, with photos of themselves as young girls and wrenching stories of suicide attempts, fear and revulsion after being groped by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.
The pressure intensified Wednesday, as Nassar was sentenced after more than 150 women testified about sexual abuse they had suffered in a period spanning two decades.
Women have said they complained to Michigan State athletics officials as early as 1997. In 2014, Nassar was cleared in an investigation by the school after a woman alleged he assaulted her. Attorneys for Michigan State have said Nassar’s sexual abuse was difficult to detect and that university officials did not mishandle prior complaints.
On Wednesday evening, both U.S. senators from Michigan, Debbie Stabenow (D) and Gary Peters (D), called for Simon’s resignation. “It has become clear that the leadership at Michigan State University has failed to adequately prevent, address or respond to the victimization of young women and girls on its campus, and the crisis at MSU continues despite today’s verdict,” Peters wrote in a statement.
Michigan’s state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure Wednesday calling for Simon’s removal. State Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) said Simon was responsible “for perpetuating a sick culture that allowed a predator to continue molesting new young women and girls while also forcing his past victims to endure their suffering in silence. Her blatant failure to protect students from Nassar’s abuse proves that she is unfit to continue as president of the university. . . . Simon must go.”
On Tuesday, the NCAA told Michigan State it was interested in potentially investigating how athletics officials responded to concerns about Nassar.
Hundreds of students had said they would march to the administration building Friday to demand Simon’s resignation. Last week, a unanimous vote by the Associated Students of Michigan State University condemned the board of trustees and administration for their handling of sexual assault, saying the institution’s leaders had failed them, and that change in leadership was necessary.
The student-body president, Lorenzo Santavicca, thanked Simon on Wednesday night for her tireless leadership, saying it was clear Michigan State had increased its global leadership, but that the institution needed to “look outward, say we’re sorry, and mean it.” He said university leaders need to empathize and ask how to move forward, and that a smooth transition will be crucial, with a new president assuring the campus community of an ability to listen.
Some professors had defended Simon, saying she was well-respected at the university, that she could not have been expected to have known about the abuses, and that they trusted her to implement changes needed to ensure a safe and respectful environment on campus in the future.
Simon is a Spartan to the core, several faculty members said: She earned her doctorate at Michigan State in 1974 and held a variety of positions at the university, including provost, before being named president in 2005.
Simon said in her resignation letter she limited her personal remarks to keep the focus on “Team MSU” but finished with an intimate farewell.
“I have spent my entire professional career, more than 40 years, at MSU. I love this place. I have watched it grow and prosper, and it has been the honor and privilege of my life to serve as its president since 2005, and over the last few years, to have the opportunity to work with all of you toward our shared goals for MSU. I will continue to do whatever I can to help MSU prosper in the future as a Spartan in whatever role I may play.”
Read Simon’s resignation letter in full:
Members of the Board of Trustees:
The last year and a half has been very difficult for the victims of Larry Nassar, for the university community, and for me personally. To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment. I know that we all share the same resolve to do whatever it takes to avert such tragedies here and elsewhere.
As you and many in the Spartan family know, I planned to retire in December 2016, and we had begun a conversation about a smooth transition. Then the Indianapolis Star article appeared about USAG and one of the victims contacted MSU police to file a complaint. The MSU Police investigation commenced. Nassar’s employment was terminated shortly thereafter. Work began within the HealthTeam and other areas of the university to improve safety. Given the challenges, my transition was postponed. I appreciate the support you provided.
The survivors’ accounts are horrific. They are tragic, heartbreaking, and personally gut-wrenching. I take solace that many victims have indicated that the opportunity to confront Nassar is a step toward healing. I am proud of the exceptional work of the Special Victims Unit led by Lieutenant Andrea Munford with the steadfast leadership of Chief Dunlap. I am proud of my support of their work even though the results have been very painful to all who watched.
As Nassar’s legal journey to prison was drawing to a close, more and more negative attention was focused on Michigan State University, and on me. I am pleased that statements have been made by Mr. Fitzgerald and Board members about my integrity and the fact that there is no cover-up. I support wholeheartedly the Board’s decision to ask the Attorney General’s Office to review the events surrounding the Nassar matter. This is an important step toward providing more assurance to the university community and to the public. In the past, I have provided assurances to the Attorney General of my full cooperation, and I will continue to do so.
As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me. I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a principled person. I have spent my entire professional career, more than 40 years, at MSU. I love this place. I have watched it grow and prosper, and it has been the honor and privilege of my life to serve as its president since 2005, and over the last few years, to have the opportunity to work with all of you toward our shared goals for MSU. I will continue to do whatever I can to help MSU prosper in the future as a Spartan in whatever role I may play.
Lou Anna K. Simon, President
John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor