EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mackenzie Mrla brought spray paint, a blanket and green Michigan State mittens to ward off the biting cold. But someone had already repainted the university’s rock, a rough boulder by the river that is by turns a billboard, a rousing sideline cheer and a plaintive glimpse into the university’s collective soul.
It had a quiet message Thursday evening. “Thank you,” it read, simply, with a heart. Next to that was a long list, names carefully traced in, of the more than 150 women who had told their stories about a university doctor.
For days, the words — and tears, fury and revulsion — spilled out from a courtroom nearby as the women confronted the onetime physician, Larry Nassar, at his sentencing.
By the end of the week, Michigan State, a powerhouse public university, sat quiet. It was cold and still on campus.
“Somber,” said Lorenzo Santavicca, the student-body president for the 40,000 undergraduates.
The campus had been convulsed by the revelations of the actions perpetrated by Nassar and by the collateral damage, including the resignation of the school’s longtime president.
Many people grieved a loss of trust in the university they loved, Santavicca said. Some talked about shame, wondering if Michigan State, the pioneer land-grant university, had become a symbol of the worst kind of transgression. Some were rethinking their own memories.
“My parents went to med school at Michigan State,” junior Eli Pales said. They took classes taught by Nassar. “They cannot believe that this was permitted to happen for so long — that people knew about it and nothing was done. It disgusts them.”
People knew, after Nassar’s conviction in November, that there had been a sexual predator on campus for many years. But the women’s statements — day after day, victim after victim — made the horror, the sheer scope and impact of the crime inescapable. The women’s words rang out from the courtroom, from laptops in dining halls, from TV screens and social media feeds.
“Everyone was so laser-focused on each woman who spoke, and the pain and the tension was palpable,” said Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, a senior. The rising chorus of testimony echoed the national #MeToo movement, she said, voices refusing to be silenced by a culture that doesn’t take their pain seriously.
Then the judge spoke. At Michigan State that day, Appiagyei-Dankah said, people stopped to listen, clustered around cellphones to hear Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentence Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison, telling him, “I’ve just signed your death warrant.”
Politicians had demanded new leadership, editorials called for dramatic change, campus groups rallied against the administration — an intensifying clamor that stopped, suddenly, Wednesday night. Michigan State University’s president, Lou Anna Simon, announced her resignation.
Some were shaken by the loss of Simon, a woman with more than four decades’ worth of friendships and tussles and initiatives at Michigan State. “She was a cornerstone,” Santavicca said.
She was known for being smart and tough — she somehow kept a roiling cauldron from boiling over, one professor said — but she also had earned deep affection and was known to many, after all her years there, simply as Lou Anna.
Even for those who had pushed for change, Santavicca said, and for those who were angry, “there’s an emptiness that will have to be filled.”
This is a defining moment for the university, he said. Will the school continue as it had? Or will it build a culture more apt to listen, to empathize and to hold people accountable?
“People are just overwhelmed, disappointed in how it was handled,” said Kaitlin Dudlets, a senior. They’re upset that people who tried to issue warnings weren’t heard until they spoke out more loudly, outside of the school.
It’s hard to square what happened with the reputation of the school — one Dudlets has long known, with her uncles always greeting her with, “Go green, go white!” — as a warm and close-knit place despite its size.
Maybe, she said, that’s why she hasn’t heard professors talking about the Nassar scandal. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it,” or how to begin to understand it.
People are stunned, she said.
Michigan State had always been imposing, a Big Ten school full of ego and athleticism, giant buildings, and research labs. The school was established in 1855, the band first marched in 1870. There are 40,000 undergraduates. At night, the monumental profile of a Spartan glows from a stadium.
“You already know about the sports,” Mrla said. “Everyone knows about the sports.”
But there is everything else that has made the school a Midwestern fixture for generations of students: The dairy, with its homemade ice cream and grilled cheese. The secret gardens dotted around the massive campus. The planetarium. The rock, repainted so many times over so many generations.
At Sparty’s, a coffee shop in a university building, two friends considered what happens after the sentencing and Simon’s resignation. “No,” one said, half-laughing, half-pained, covering his ears. Too much. Too soon.
In a classroom nearby, Robert LaDuca, a professor and associate dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State, stayed after chemistry class ended Thursday evening to help a struggling student. He erased equations off giant rolling chalkboards.
“I’m bitterly disappointed this happened here,” he said — disappointed that warning signs didn’t trigger action. He wonders whether there is criminal responsibility for a failure to act, as at Penn State.
Earlier in the week, faculty debated whether to push for a vote of no confidence in Simon. With her resignation, and the end of the sentencing, in the quiet that followed, many were thinking only of the victims.
“The mood is dark,” LaDuca said, “because our hearts break for all the survivors who revealed all the absolutely hideous things that someone who was supposed to protect them and heal them did.”
There will be a time for action, he said. Some were asking who knew what, and when, in the athletics department. Some were waiting to see what the state attorney general would learn from his investigation. But most powerful on campus was the sense of uncertainty and the sorrow.
“It’s somber,” LaDuca said. “A very reflective, somber kind of day.”
Trustees at the school convened Friday to announce an acting president and the beginning of a search for an interim president. Some choked back tears as they apologized to Nassar’s victims: “One after another, they asked for their voices to be heard,” the board said.
It was clear the university had not listened well enough, the board announced, and trustees pledged to work with the women to reach a resolution.
“I am so truly sorry,” Brian Mosallam said, in a personal statement. He had to repeat it, to get through tears, to make sure everyone heard. “We failed you.”
On Friday evening, Mrla planned to return to the rock. She and other students had planned a protest march, to end outside the administration building, demanding Simon leave. They are still asking for changes to the university’s culture, but their message above all is one of support.
They planned to bring Post-it notes and hand out pens, so that anyone who wants can write a note to Nassar’s victims. What can they do, when confronted so fully by the unthinkable? At this moment, at Michigan State, many just want to pause, think about the women and girls who spoke out, and quietly thank them.