Michigan State University president resigns amid Larry Nassar fallout

Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon speaks after being confronted by victims during a break at the sentencing hearing for Lawrence Nassar in Lansing, Michigan, US, on Jan 17, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Lou Anna K. Simon, the president of Michigan State University, resigned under pressure Wednesday night (Jan 24) over the way she handled a scandal involving a former university doctor accused of sexually abusing more than 150 young women.

"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 in her resignation letter, which was posted on the university website.

The doctor, Lawrence Nassar, who was the physician for two Michigan State women's varsity teams and for the US gymnastics squad, was sentenced on Wednesday for sexually abusing seven girls. His sentencing hearing included statements from dozens of his accusers over the past week.

Nassar was a member of the faculty at Michigan State for years and was the team physician for two female varsity squads. In her letter, Simon also denied a "cover-up" and blamed her resignation on outside pressure, adding, "As tragedies are politicised, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger."

The trustees' chairman, Brian Breslin, said on the university's website that the board "agreed it is now time for change". Breslin said the board and Simon were "working through the details of transition". It was unclear how long she would stay in the job.

An investigation conducted for the university by Patrick Fitzgerald, a former US attorney, found no knowledge among university administrators of Nassar's malfeasance before a newspaper report in August 2016. The Detroit News has reported that at least 14 university representatives had been made aware of allegations against Nassar and that Simon knew of a Title IX investigation against an unnamed sports medicine doctor in 2014. The Lansing State Journal cited public records to show he continued to see patients at Michigan State for 16 months after the university police began a criminal investigation.

USA Gymnastics disclosed in September 2016, in response to an article by The Indianapolis Star that first brought abuse allegations against Nassar to public light, that Nassar had been relieved in the summer of 2015 after two gymnasts accused him of abuse.

At Michigan State, Nassar was not reassigned from clinical duties until August 2016, after the Star article, and he was fired later that year.

A Michigan State spokesman said the university had no further comment Wednesday night.

The case was pushed further into the national spotlight over the past week, with the extraordinary spectacle of more than 150 women, including several Olympic gymnasts who are household names, confronting Nassar face-to-face in the state court where he was sentenced on Wednesday to up to 175 years in prison, in addition to the 60 he received in federal court for child pornography charges in December.

The public calls for Simon to resign began to escalate on Dec 3, when The Lansing State Journal wrote in an editorial that she and the university had not protected women from assault and harassment on campus, and that she should step down.

While Michigan State's board of trustees late last week unanimously backed Simon, who earned a PhD in higher education from the school in 1974 and has served as president since 2005, one trustee soon dissented, and a second said she supported Simon's departure hours before the resignation.

In recent days, the state's two US senators, the state House of Representatives and the university's newspaper all called on her to resign.

Lindsey Lemke, who said Nassar abused her when she was a member of Michigan State's gymnastics team, told a local newspaper last week that she believed Simon was unfairly escaping blame, saying, "I feel she's trying to manipulate us, make us feel that she's not responsible when she is responsible, 100 per cent, as president of the university."

Simon was criticised for appearing at just one day of Nassar's multi-day sentencing. Meanwhile, the board's vice chair engendered outrage for dismissing calls for her to resign over "that Nassar thing". Simon's departure ends a career at Michigan State that spanned more than four decades, in which she rose to become the first woman president of one of the country's largest universities, which bills itself as the model of the federal land-grant university envisioned in a law signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Simon became president at a difficult time. The university was starting a billion-dollar capital campaign and expanding its reach in the state, opening a medical school in Grand Rapids. Within a few years, the economy fell into a recession and the cost of student tuition at Michigan State and elsewhere climbed unabated.

Amid financial straits, Simon won over members on the university's board of trustees and its students when she declined a pay raise in 2008. That year, her salary was US$520,000 (S$685,000). It is now US$750,000, one of the highest among public university presidents.

State Senator Curtis Hertel Jr, who had called last week for Simon's departure, said the tipping point appeared to be pressure from the faculty. Hertel, an alumnus whose district includes the campus, said she should have taken more decisive action when she learned a physician was the subject of a Title IX investigation in 2014.

"We need someone who is going to change the culture of the university," he said.

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