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Michigan State’s problems start much higher than Larry Nassar and sports coaches

Michigan State’s mascot waits to take the field before a 2014 football game against Ohio State.
Michigan State’s mascot waits to take the field before a 2014 football game against Ohio State. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sally Jenkins

Look up, not down, in the scandal buffeting Michigan State. If the school’s ongoing legal torment over Larry Nassar is at all instructional, if there is anything useful to learn from its example, it’s that an organization gets into this kind of all-encompassing legal trouble not because of a single perpetrator but because of a pervasive attitude, an apathy or a blindness, at the very top.

This week, the entire Michigan State faculty called on the school’s eight-member Board of Trustees to resign, and it doesn’t seem an unreasonable demand. Federal authorities launched a fresh Title IX investigation into the school’s handling of Nassar’s molestations as well as other sexual assault cases involving the football and basketball teams this week. That’s on top of inquiries by a congressional committee and the Michigan attorney general seeking to know how a serial pedophile could have had a decades-long tenure at the school’s sports medicine clinic despite complaints of his conduct going back to 1997.

Merrily Dean Baker believes Nassar should have been stopped cold in ’97, the first time a Michigan State gymnast reported to a coach that Nassar had violated her. Baker, the school’s athletic director from 1992 to 1995, attributes that systemic failure to a culture that balked at Title IX compliance and allowed employees to be ignorant or dismissive of the law’s requirements. Over the next few years, 14 university employees would receive complaints about Nassar, with no action.

“You didn’t have to be a hero,” Baker said. “All you had to do was your job, when a kid said, ‘I think I’ve been abused.’ ”

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Other universities paying attention: Here is an example of how not to do things if you want to avoid the fates of the Baylors, Penn States, and Michigan States. Title IX prohibits unequal treatment on the basis of gender in any institution receiving federal funds, and it has specific provisions for how campuses should investigate reports of sexual violence in a nondiscriminatory way. Follow them. Those provisions actually might have protected the university from its current plight, Baker contends. Instead, Baker said, “MSU is an institution that essentially said, ‘Title What?’ ”

A brief anatomy of one case:

In 2014, Amanda Thomashow told school authorities that Nassar sexually abused her during a “treatment” to the point that she had to push him and his erection off her. MSU’s Title IX inquiry consisted mainly of consulting four colleagues of Nassar’s, all of them school employees friendly to him. They neglected to check his work computer. After that dogged detective work, the school wrote two separate findings, one for her and one for him.

The Title IX conclusion given to Thomashow said, “We cannot find that the conduct was of a sexual nature. Thus, it did not violate the sexual harassment policy.” In other words, she lost the case.

But a separate finding for Nassar was longer and contained a far more serious admission.

“We find that whether medically sound or not, the failure to adequately explain procedures such as these invasive, sensitive procedures, is opening the practice up to liability and is exposing patients to unnecessary trauma based on the possibility of perceived sexual misconduct. In addition, we find that the failure to obtain consent from patients before the procedure is likewise exposing the practice to liability.”

Michigan State withheld that finding from Thomashow — a flat illegality. Worse, it never shared it with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which was looking into how the school handled other sexual assault complaints. That’s what you call a failure to cooperate with the feds. It’s also called compounding your trouble.

Now to the why. Why would a large and respected state institution behave this way? Because of a protect-the-brand-at-all-costs philosophy, perhaps, that dated to Baker’s tenure.

“It’s pretty traceable, and pretty discouraging,” she said.

Baker was hired to bring the school up to date on Title IX standards by former school president John DiBiaggio , who was seeking to reform athletics and displace George Perles as a too-powerful figure who held the dual titles of football coach and athletic director. But Baker said she was resisted by the school’s power brokers from her first day on the job.

“The board and Perles commenced what amounted to a very public assault on Merrily’s work and vision as AD,” says Steve Klein, former sports editor of the Lansing State Journal, who is now a professor-emeritus of journalism at George Mason University. Klein recalls Perles angrily telling him that he would never work for a woman. Baker was ultimately forced out after three years of constant battles.

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Baker’s chief opponent on the board was Joel Ferguson, a real estate development baron who long has been known as its most powerful member. Baker claims that on one occasion Ferguson told her, “I don’t want to hear a word about Title IX.” Ferguson not only fought her, but also a Spartan Athletic Review Committee that issued a report seeking academic reforms, according to Klein. Klein recalls Ferguson saying that the report would go “in the bottom of a very deep barrel.”

Perles was fired in 1994 in the wake of a grade tampering scandal. He is currently a member of the board of trustees. Ferguson remains its vice chair. He did not respond to a request to comment.

Three decades later, Michigan State finds itself entangled in a maze of investigations stemming from basic Title IX procedural violations. Ferguson’s defiant and tone-deaf public responses to the Nassar scandal suggest just how much of a leadership problem the university has. He initially refused to seek the resignation of school president Lou Anna Simon by pointing to how much money she raised for athletic stadiums (Simon eventually resigned in late January). The school was much bigger than “just this Nassar thing,” he said. He also called the victims’ attorneys “ambulance chasers” looking for a “payday.”

This was the tone from the very top: To victim-blame, diminish the importance of the crime, and defend the sports brand over the well-being of students. So if the question is, did a set of underlying circumstances and attitudes allow Nassar to prosper in this particular place, the answer would appear to be an emphatic yes.

It would be a real shame if the blame for MSU’s problems were to be narrowly siloed, and laid at the door of underlings, while this board goes on with business as usual. Men’s basketball Coach Tom Izzo, speaking to reporters on the eve of the Big Ten tournament, maintains he always has cooperated properly with authorities and wants to do “whatever it takes to heal,” as does football Coach Mark Dantonio. They should, and will, face inquiries into their leadership of their programs. But to state the obvious, the problem is much bigger — and higher up — than coaches. Until Michigan State wipes the board clean, it’s hard to see how the school can begin to recover.

“I thought this group was going out when I was 30,” Baker said. “I’m now 75. And they’re still here.”