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Jack Lessenberry

The silent fallout of the Michigan State scandal

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    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.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    Lessenberry

    The Blade
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EAST LANSING, MI – What’s it like to be a student at a school suddenly become famous for what now seems likely to be the worst sexual abuse scandal in college history?

“The last couple weeks have been hard. It’s depressing all around campus,” said sophomore Sam Hurwitz, a political science major at Michigan State University’s James Madison College.

“But we have to remember that we aren’t the administration — this isn’t involving the faculty and students,” he added.

What’s it like to be a parent who has sent — or is thinking about sending — their child to Michigan State University? For years, the school has fought to get out from the shadow of the slightly older and academically more prestigious University of Michigan.

Now, however, MSU is nationally famous — but not in a way it ever wanted to be. Hundreds of women say they were sexually molested by Larry Nassar, the school physician for the women’s gymnastics team, abuse that went on for two decades.

Many say the school turned a deaf ear to their complaints. Nassar has now been convicted on multiple federal and state charges and is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

But while his story is over, the damage the scandal did to Michigan State goes on and on. After his convictions, his victims were allowed to face him in court.

For days, in searing words, they denounced the man most regard as a monster — but many denounced Michigan State as well for not listening to or protecting them. After days of this, MSU President Lou Anna Simon abruptly resigned and Mark Hollis, the athletic director, took early retirement. But that didn’t stop the bad publicity.

Investigations were launched, including a major one by the state attorney general’s office. In a major editorial on Jan. 31, the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, denounced the way the school has handled the scandal and called on MSU’s eight elected trustees to resign immediately, or be fired.

The board members, the newspaper said, “have no credibility to help the university regain trust.”

That’s something very much on the mind of Rebecca Kavanagh, a marketing specialist in her 40s who went to Michigan State, met her husband there, and encouraged her daughter, now a freshman at the school, to follow in her parents’ footsteps.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought, as you might imagine,” Ms. Kavanagh said. “She’s been distraught, but quietly so. I told her, just because you started there doesn’t mean you have to end there.

“You are free to transfer whenever you choose,” she told her daughter, who did not want her name used, but who is in MSU’s residential college for the arts and humanities.

Presumably, many parents of Michigan State’s nearly 50,000 students are having the same soul-searching conversations with their children about their futures — and that of their university.

Ironically, there was a time when MSU craved more national attention. The school, long the state’s “college of agricultural and applied science” exploded into one of the nation’s largest universities in the years after World War II. It soon became a nationally ranked sports powerhouse, and got some attention for successfully attracting many national merit scholars, but never had the U of M’s prestige.

M. Peter McPherson, the university’s president in the 1990s, wanted the school to develop its own identity, and started a much-praised universal semester abroad program. Today, however, MSU is mainly known instead for harboring a sexual predator for years.

Remarkably, however, there doesn’t seem to be any rush to transfer. Sam Hurwitz’s mother Ruth is a special education teacher in the Detroit suburb of Berkley. “Speaking as a parent, it is just so horrible,” she said. She has been totally dismayed by the board’s response to the crisis, and thought their appointment of former Gov, John Engler as interim president “just ridiculous.”

But Harvey Hurwitz, Sam’s father, wasn’t as negative. Noting that his son is interested in both law and politics, he said “this could be a very good experience for him,” and that watching how all this plays out could be a huge and valuable learning experience

Sam, who just turned 20, is resigned to the aftershocks. “My peers at Penn State are still dealing with it and will be for a long time,” he said of that school’s own sex abuse scandal six years ago.

He added that “the students are not happy at all” and said it is demoralizing to see story after story. Yet he loves James Madison College, and has no intention of going elsewhere. He knows many people are upset about the choice of John Engler, but confesses he doesn’t know much about his policies.

Rebecca Kavanagh said her daughter has no wish to leave either. “She is having a wonderful experience and loves her program,” she said. But her mother isn’t at all sure now whether she will encourage her son to go to MSU when he graduates from high school.

“Until now, he would have absolutely applied,” she said. “For the moment, I couldn’t stomach the thought of tuition payments there, given all that is happening there.”

What is clear is that MSU has to do something to change the conversation, to get the university seen as moving again.

Otherwise, there will be many superior students who would have come to Michigan State, but won’t.

Nobody will ever know how many.

And that silent loss could be MSU’s biggest punishment of all.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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