Walking to class at Michigan State University feels the same as it always has; headphones in, coat turned up against the cold March wind, backpack heavy with books. But something is different. Crossing the bridge over the Red Cedar River, I pass teal ribbons rippling in the breeze. These same ribbons, which wrap around trees in front of the Hannah Administration Building and are pinned to backpacks and shirts of students and faculty, represent solidarity with the hundreds of survivors sexually assaulted by former MSU doctor and USA gymnastics coach Larry Nassar.
MSU’s culpability in Nassar’s abuse spans decades. The university employed Nassar until September of 2016, despite complaints being made against him since the 1990s. A Detroit News investigation found that 14 people employed by MSU knew about Nassar’s abuse in his two decades of work for the university. And when the fallout came hard and fast, albeit 20 years too late, the university had to answer for their mistakes.
On January 16, in Ingham County Court in Lansing, Michigan, Larry Nassar faced his victims. After seven days of heart-wrenching and courageous testimony from 156 women, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned that same day, and the administration scrambled to appoint an interim president. Faculty members requested, among many things, that her replacement be a woman with extensive experience in higher education; instead, the Board of Trustees appointed former Michigan Governor John Engler, which prompted widespread criticism and led the MSU faculty to cast a vote of no-confidence towards the Board of Trustees.
While the powers-that-be at MSU work to protect their own self-interest and try to regain the trust of the broader community, students have become a voice for change—confronting corruption at and demanding accountability from one of the largest universities in the country. In big ways and small, Spartans are working to make their voices heard.
Two days after President Simon’s resignation, students Mackenzie Mrla and Siaira Milroy partnered with MSU College Democrats to organize the March for Survivors and Change. It started out as a small Facebook group and grew quickly, with more than 2,000 attendees, including Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. Mrla was surprised at the turnout. “It was not anything close to what I was expecting,” she told Ms. “We had senators turn out, professors, community members. I think a lot of people want to change the rape culture that surrounds our society, so it was really heartening to see all of that.”
Frustrated by the Board of Trustee’s lack of transparency around how the administration handled sexual assault reports, Lily Powell, a junior majoring in social relations and policy and president of MSU’s chapter of Girl Up, created a petition asking Governor Rick Snyder to remove the Board of Trustees. “I thought it was a very clear, focused action that we could take,” Powell explained. “I hoped it would gain enough clout to give MSU bad press. MSU responds to bad press. Really nothing else motivates that top echelon.”
Other students are working to foster open communication between students and faculty. Natalie Rogers, a sophomore majoring in Comparative Culture and Politics, organized a commission a designed to bring students, faculty and staff together to talk about how best to move forward. “So many people want to see things change around here,” Rogers observed, “and the only way that is going to happen is if we are all working together.” The commission was a starting point for what would later become the movement Reclaim MSU, which she defines as “an alliance of students, faculty, staff and alumni working towards broad cultural and institutional change here at MSU.” The group has a concrete list of demands for the administration—including an amendment to the Board of Trustee bylaws and the creation of a “University Board” that gives students, faculty and staff a say in MSU governance and the search for a new president.
And despite the administration’s lack of transparency surrounding their decisions, MSU faculty and staff have shown that they are committed to helping their students. After Simon’s resignation, the College of Arts and Letters cancelled classes for a day so that faculty and staff could meet and discuss how to move forward. Dr. Sandra Logan, associate professor in the Department of English and director of the Citizen Scholar Program, attended that meeting and observed that the vast majority of the faculty expressed not grief, but anger over how the administration enabled the harm of innocent people. “There’s a fear on the faculty’s part that the discourse of grieving is an effort to undermine or deflect the anger and the demand for change that’s happening here,” Logan told Ms. She also expressed concern at the lack of a reliable system to work through when students report sexual misconduct to faculty, who are oftentimes first responders to incidents like these.
MSU’s future seemed bleak two months ago, but since the media frenzy has died down, the grassroots activism happening on campus has become a source of hope and healing. Change—real, lasting change—comes from the bottom. It comes from the students, the professors, the community at large, the everyday people who refuse to be silenced in the face of corrupt corporate power.
No one will dig MSU out of the hole it has created for us. So Spartans will do it themselves.