The Shame of the Spartans

I saw Michigan State’s toxic culture up close. Here’s how the school can save itself.

Livonia sophomore Jessica Smith, second from left, and Lindsey Cross rally alongside Michigan State University students that march to the steps of the administration building as they rally in support of sexual assault survivors on campus, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, in East Lansing, Mich.
Livonia sophomore Jessica Smith, second from left, and Lindsey Cross rally alongside Michigan State University students as they rally in support of sexual assault survivors on campus, on Friday in East Lansing.
Jake May/The Flint via AP

When I graduated from Michigan State University last spring, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I’d had a rocky four years as an undergrad, often feeling overwhelmed by the massive size of the school and the sports-fueled campus culture. Still, I was proud of the work I’d done, and felt honored to represent a university that had offered me endless opportunities and equipped me with the skills to reach beyond Ingham County—helping me get to the position from where I now write this piece.

Now, I feel ashamed of the school that gave me my degree. I first heard the name Larry Nassar in 2016, during the fall of my senior year. The few times I had conversations about Nassar with my classmates, we talked about the doctor with what now seems a laughable naïveté—this guy was likely a horrible predator, he would be gone soon, good riddance. What we didn’t know then, and what we’ve had to come to terms with since, is how much he seems to have been protected and enabled by the school’s administration. Nassar, as horrific as his actions were, is only one symptom of a system that has prioritized the reputation, image, and income of the university over the safety of its students.

The woman who presided over that system—University President Lou Anna K. Simon—resigned last week, explaining that, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable.” Her statement continued:

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.

Simon’s tone-deaf statement, which failed to examine her own culpability in the Nassar affair, was shocking only if you hadn’t read any of the other statements she’d issued over the past few years. No matter what issue she was addressing, Simon would tell all of us in the student body what great pupils we were and what a great school this was and how we should all unite behind the football team and whatever other hackneyed bullshit could be deployed to pronounce unity and dismiss questions and resentments. Consider this email from just before the 2016 election:

This is an anxious time for Spartans, indeed all Americans: a bitter national election; disturbing injustices and the outrage they provoke; wanton violence; and all of it brought to us immediately and unfiltered though social and traditional media. It’s an unsettling mix, and this weekend we host what is always an emotional football contest against a longtime rival, where excessive drinking and other risky behavior can turn exuberance into embarrassment or tragedy. … So I’m appealing to Spartans simply to pause and reflect. This weekend is a time for celebration and fun. Let’s take care to keep it that way for everyone.

None of these messages ever soothed anyone I knew. Simon’s lack of self-awareness with regard to our concerns was something of a campus joke. Nobody expected any better from her when she was faced with a career-defining scandal.

That “Team MSU” shtick from her resignation letter was a familiar trope. As the public face of the school, Simon cultivated a polished image for Michigan State by showing off our green fields and gym floors. Meanwhile, Michigan State officials were allegedly suppressing evidence of Nassar’s conduct. The best way to preserve a glossy national reputation is to live your word—to listen to your students and take them seriously. That’s something Simon and her administrators never did.

The more than 150 women who came forward to detail Nassar’s abuse are incredibly brave. The fact that Nassar’s victims had to be the ones to seal his fate is the ultimate indictment of the institutions that could have ended this long ago. Michigan State, like USA Gymnastics, had several chances to stop the abuse. This goes beyond mere negligence. As fellow alum Jemele Hill put it, the school decided that “protection of image, of order, of title, of program” was “more important than protecting the actual students.”

It’s important for those of us who went to Michigan State to hold the school to account. The corruption that abetted Nassar won’t be washed away now that he’s behind bars. We need to scrutinize the ever-glorified football and basketball teams, those exemplars of “Team MSU,” which—per ESPN’s reporting—have been allowed to handle accusations of sexual assault with little oversight. To say the head coaches of those programs, Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, are community pillars is a drastic understatement. They are heroes, the most well-known and most important men at Michigan State. Now, they’re waving away questions about what they knew about their players’ alleged misconduct. Michigan State’s shame would be compounded if we don’t demand answers from both of them, and if we don’t think about whether it’s healthy to treat them as if they’re above reproach.

It’s also not like these revelations about athletes and sexual assault are really revelations. We all heard whispers, but very few chose to act. I’m certainly complicit in not inquiring further, in not acting on my bitterness, in thinking of the school’s toxic culture as something to complain about rather than something to try to fix.

I am in awe of the current student body, which has come out en masse to stand up to the administration. At the end of a stinging denunciation, the editorial board of Michigan State’s student newspaper asked, “Will you own up to mistakes and try to rebuild with the rest of the community, or will you become nothing more than ‘Michigan State University, Home of the Larry Nassar Scandal?’ ” That latter fact will always be true and will justifiably define the university for a long time. But the students give me hope. Organizing protests, asking tough questions of the school’s leaders, and demanding justice for victims—that’s the only school spirit Michigan State needs right now.