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. 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. 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 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 have stood by her during the Nassar scandal, and many faculty members who cautioned against a rush to judgment in the court of public opinion.
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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 the leaders of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, whom they said 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 only intensified Wednesday, as Nassar was sentenced after more than 150 women testified about sexual abuse they had suffered in a time 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 invidious in form, 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, said the leadership of the institution had failed them, and that change in leadership at the highest levels was necessary.
But 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 the kinds of changes needed to ensure a safe and respectful environment on campus in the future.
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Simon is a Spartan to the core, several faculty members said: She earned her doctorate there in 1974 and held a variety of positions at the university, including provost, before being named president in 2005.
Jason Cody, a spokesman for Michigan State, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.
On Saturday, one trustee, Mitch Lyons, broke with the board’s support for Simon, but early this week the vice chairman of the board reiterated strong support for her, saying she would not leave. “That will not happen. Period,” Joel Ferguson, the board’s vice chairman, told Michigan radio station WVFN. “I’ve been on the board for 30 years and she by far is the best president we’ve ever had.”
Simon said she 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.”