Thursday, February 1, 2018

Compliance and the Cult of Personality in University Administration: Administrators and the "Army of Survivors" of Athletic Sex Scandals

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2018)

Once again the institution of the university--that newly refurbished battleship of compliance headed by heroic bands of well paid administrators  whose offices, so well larded with officials of all sorts of descriptions charged with the constant and comprehensive surveillance of university personnel and activities (other than those, perhaps, of the administrator class)--finds itself embroiled in scandal.  I am not speaking of the consequences of that scandal--in this case of the man who abused numerous young women who trusted him and who is now facing a lifetime in prison.  Rather I am speaking to the scandal of the university itself as the great exemplar of the compliance institution par excellence. I am speaking to the failure--again--of what has been sold to the public by university boards of trustees, by the political classes, and by  fat layers of well paid non-academic administrator "experts," as a university cultures built on compliance and deep surveillance, of monitoring and reporting, led by  "herioic" university presidents sitting astride their all-seeing mechanisms of control, of reporting, of surveillance, of socialization, and of record keeping.  

The model of administration that the political, economic, and intellectual classes have fashioned of the university over this past generation has resulted in the monstrosities that one sees emerging across the nation.  Bloated institutions that are more machine than human centered institutions, it is not clear exactly what it is that these factories are meant to produce other than stability, good order, and the manufacture of a product that can be consumed as it is produced.  And this new ordering is fueled by the cultivation of a cult of personality around university leadership and their managers; as if by virtue of their high salaries and august positions within hierarchically arranged employment relationships, they embody the university itself. The construct is simple and straightforward: (1) a high salaried leader (or sometimes leadership) who become the incarnation of the university--their heroic leaders whose vision, drive and charisma give life to the institution and lead it to new heights; (2) an aristocratic bureaucracy detached from from the operational hierarchies of production, whose role is to protect the institution and its leaders and to discipline the productive forces of the university through risk reduction compliance regimes; (3) a legitimating structure of "rule of law" regulations that actually legalize systems of administrative discretion against abuses of which there is little remedy.  This model is the most efficient way of coordinating the institution of the university with that of enterprises and the state to produce a useful interlocking governance mechanism.  

That combination of cult of personality around "leaders" and an institutional framework grounded in compliance as a bureaucratic organism has proven to be quite useful in managing the smaller irritations of institutional life--at great expense and against the increasingly fungible bottom layers of the academic employment pool.  It has not, however, proven particularly useful when deployed against itself--when it is tested against its greatest challenge--to monitor, report and contain reprehensible behavior at the highest levels.  Time and again, it now seems, over the last decade certainly, the most elaborate machinery elites create to enforce and socialize compliance with consensus norms can do little to protect us against the depredations of the elites themselves. It is not for nothing that the worst scandals of the last decade have tended to involve people at the higher levels of the machinery designed to contain their excesses and bad conduct.  And yet universities built on cults of personality and on aristocratic bureaucracy will inevitably fail to meet the objectives these elaborate and expensive institutional machines were meant to manage.   

Harsh words but to some extent well deserved. They are not targeted at a particular institution or a particular individual. Rather they reflect thoughts about general social and institutional movements throughout academia that show up along a broad spectrum of related behaviors  in many institutions. That prompts the hope that it may be time to consider dispassionately the model so dear to those with money and the power to shape the institution of the university.  That this will be done is unlikely, but that it ought to be attempted--and by without conflict of interest, is a hope that is worth retaining.  What we will get is more of the same.  The elite will sacrifice a President (the downside of cults of personality) and put up another along the same model--after a wrenching period of formal self examination that will produce even more aristocratic bureaucracy and precious little effective protection against the people now more empowered than ever to protect us against themselves. Reporting on a recent event that prompted these very general thoughts follows. 

How an Army of Survivors Toppled a President

By Steve Kolowich and Andy Thomason

Jan. 26, 2018

One by one, they came forward.

Inside an Ingham County courthouse, at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, over seven grueling, emotional days, more than 150 women stood to speak. Their statements excoriated Nassar, a prominent sports doctor, for decades of sexual abuse and assault under the guise of medical treatment.

It soon became clear that the disgraced physician was not the only one on trial. So was Michigan State University, where Nassar had studied, worked, and violated women for more than two decades. The exposure of Nassar’s crimes had come at a moment of reckoning, not only for men who have used their power to abuse women, but for the institutions that allowed them to hold that power for so long.

Olivia Cowan, a former gymnast whom Nassar abused when she was 13 years old, was the first victim to call out Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State, and the university’s Board of Trustees.

“Where were you when we needed you?” she asked them.

On the hearing’s third day, it was Lindsey Lemke’s turn to address the court. Lemke, a former Michigan State gymnast who said her coach had brushed off her allegations against Nassar, had already confronted Simon while the president, who had turned up at the courthouse the previous day to hear victims’ accounts, talked to reporters during a break in the proceedings.

When it was her turn to address the court, Lemke lit into Simon.

“I don’t know how you can still call yourself a president, because I don’t anymore,” said Lemke, who said Nassar had abused her hundreds of times. “I wish you would come up to this podium and be half as brave as all of us have had to be the past year and a half.”

After she spoke, the grim silence of the courtroom was broken by applause.

In light of the #MeToo movement, colleges across the country are grappling with hard questions: When sex abuse happens, who is complicit? And who, besides the abuser, deserves to fall?

Those can be especially tough questions for presidents who oversee huge universities and delegate much of the detail work to lieutenants. The Detroit News has reported that at least 14 university employees knew about Nassar’s behavior before he was arrested and that Simon was told in 2014 of police and Title IX reports against an “unnamed physician.”

In the past, ignorance — willful or not — might have been an adequate defense. But the current reckoning may be resetting the bar. Certainly, what the president knew, and when, matters. But now, other questions have come to the forefront: How must institutions make amends for decades of looking the other way? When those institutions are the stages of horrific scandal, is it possible not to hold their leaders accountable?

As the trial continued, Michigan State’s trustees convened a few miles away. They talked for nearly five hours; how much of that time was spent discussing Simon’s status later became a point for debate. But they emerged with a joint statement. “We understand the public’s faith has been shaken,” it read. “The Board has listened and heard the victims.”

But they stood behind Simon. “We continue to believe President Simon is the right leader for the university,” they wrote, “and she has our support.”

Details of that statement — and a statement of gratitude from Simon — spread quickly to the courthouse, wrote Matt Mencarini, a criminal-justice reporter at the Lansing State Journal, who was there. “They were, um, not well received.”

The victims of Nassar were not as eager as the board was to exculpate the president. Their statements kept coming. If anything, they grew in fury.

“I would like to call out Lou Anna Simon for her cowardly behavior,” said Clasina Syrovy, who said Nassar abused her at a Michigan State facility. “Her recent behavior and comments are a joke. The least she could do is step down from her position and show us a little courtesy.”

Two days after Syrovy spoke, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for seven counts of criminal sexual conduct. Justice had been rendered against a serial predator. How would the institution be held to account?

An answer came that night. Less than a week after the trustees’ vote of confidence, Simon announced her resignation.

The university could have stopped Nassar’s abuse more than 20 years ago.

Among the 14 people identified by The Detroit News was Kathie Klages, then the head gymnastics coach, who was told by at least two gymnasts that the doctor had touched them inappropriately. Klages, who declined comment to the newspaper through her lawyer, discouraged the gymnasts from reporting the abuse to anybody else, the newspaper reported.

Year after year, the abuse continued. It was draped in silence.

Then an Indianapolis Star investigation uncovered how USA Gymnastics, for whom Nassar worked, had routinely suppressed complaints of sexual abuse. Rachael Denhollander told the newspaper that Nassar had assaulted her in 2000. Denhollander also filed a criminal complaint with Michigan State University police.

That set off a rapid unraveling that ended last year, when Nassar pleaded guilty to sexual assault. For Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, the verdict was also an opportunity. For the sentencing hearing, to be held in January, she invited any person who had been assaulted by Nassar to confront him.

Former patients of Larry Nassar spoke at a press conference after 
his sentencing: (from left) Rachael Denhollander, Sterling Riethman, Kaylee Lorincz, Jeanette Antolin, and Tiffany Thomas Lopez. What followed was a national media sensation. One by one, former gymnasts, poised and angry, delivered emotional statements about what the doctor had done to them. They also condemned the institutions that had sheltered the criminal — USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. They named names, Lou Anna Simon’s among them.

Speaking of the president, where was she? On the first day of the hearing, several women remarked that Simon could not be troubled to attend.

The president, not wanting to be a distraction, she said, was watching an online livestream of the proceeding. But, hearing the criticism, she appeared on the second day, taking a seat in the back row.

That’s when Lemke lit into her.

The gymnast’s remarks helped focus national attention on Simon. That was only intensified by The Detroit News’s publication of its investigation the next morning. Among its findings: Simon was told about allegations against an unnamed doctor in 2014.

The news traveled fast, and the president was defending herself outside the courtroom within hours. “I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report,” she said. “That’s the truth.”

Calls for her to resign were nothing new — the Lansing State Journal had issued one in a scathing editorial at the start of December — but now they accelerated. The student newspaper made the call, declaring, “MSU, your house is on fire.” A state senator said the president should step down. Both state lawmakers from East Lansing’s district joined the chorus.

Fielding these calls was at the top of the Board of Trustees’ list when it met behind closed doors during the sentencing hearing’s fourth day. The trustees began by asking the state attorney general to review the university’s handling of the controversy. Flanked by each of his fellow trustees, the chairman, Brian Breslin, acknowledged that the university had been “perceived as tone deaf, unresponsive and insensitive to the victims.” Then he said that the board was unified behind Simon.

But the united front was a facade. Less than a day after the chairman appeared before reporters, one of his fellow trustees, Mitch Lyons, broke ranks.

“As I expressed repeatedly to fellow board members during our discussion Friday,” Lyons said in a statement, “I don’t feel that President Simon can survive the public outcry that has been generated by this tragedy and even less so after hearing the testimony of these brave survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse. I feel that our best recourse is for President Simon to resign immediately.”

The sentencing hearing broke for the weekend, but the anger did not abate. “Michigan State needs to wear this shame,” wrote Jemele Hill. The New York Times reprinted Aly Raisman’s emotional testimony in full. Someone spray painted The Rock, the campus’s iconic boulder, with the phrases “TIME’S UP” and “CHANGE LOU ANNA.”

When testimony resumed on Monday, the focus stayed on Michigan State. One woman said her mother was still being billed for medical treatment she received at the hands of Nassar. The claim, which fueled further outrage, prompted a quick response from the university: Former patients of Nassar would not be billed. Someone started a petition for the governor to remove Simon from office. His office quickly said that wasn’t legal.

The next day, the top story came from outside the courtroom. In an interview with a sports-radio show, a trustee, Joel Ferguson, dismissed the idea that the president would resign. “That will not happen,” he said. “Period.” And he uttered a statement that shocked those in the courtroom when they read it hours later: “There’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”

This Nassar thing. Among the university’s growing chorus of critics, the phrase became shorthand for institutional callousness.

To further underline the trustees’ backing of the president, Ferguson also asserted that the board in its Friday meeting had devoted only 10 minutes to debating her future. If the claim was meant to demonstrate the obviousness of the case to keep Simon, it backfired. Two of his colleagues disputed it. Lyons quickly said the board had, in fact, spent the bulk of its five hours discussing the topic. Another trustee, Brian Mosallam, tweeted that the majority of the meeting had been spent discussing the Nassar case, including “a succession plan” if Simon were to resign.

The president was on thin ice. Two faculty members called for a vote of no confidence. Ferguson had laughed at the notion that the National Collegiate Athletic Association would investigate Michigan State. Now the NCAA announced it was doing just that.

On Wednesday, Judge Aquilina delivered Nassar’s sentence. As if the severity weren’t already clear, she told him, “I just signed your death warrant.”

. . .After the sentence was handed down, some of Nassar’s victims gathered to issue a message with the unanimity the trustees had tried, but failed, to project: Lou Anna Simon must resign.

The tide had turned for good. A second trustee, this one a crisis-communications consultant, called on Simon to step aside. So did the Michigan House of Representatives.

Local news outlets suddenly reported Simon would resign on Thursday. Then, the university made it official. She would step down.

Her statement, issued a week and a day after the sentencing hearing began, started by striking a sorrowful note. “To the survivors,” she wrote, “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.”

But some read defiance in the statement, too. “As tragedies are politicized,” she wrote, “blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”

As swift as Simon’s downfall was, it could have been even swifter. Why, as the tide first seemed to be turning, had so many trustees and faculty seemed so determined to stick by Simon? It’s important to understand where the university was 13 years ago, when she began her tenure as president.

As one former mayor of Lansing told the Lansing State Journal, Michigan State was “kind of a sleepy, mid-level Big Ten college,” overshadowed by its more prestigious in-state cousin, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The process through which Simon became president seemed to reflect the university’s lack of national ambition. Simon, who earned a doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State in 1974, had been at the university ever since. She was plucked straight from the provostship, with no outside search.

Faculty members saw her appointment as a violation of shared governance; one called it “a slap in the face.” But Simon won over a share of those skeptics.

A decade ago, the president and a few Michigan State scientists traveled to Washington, D.C., to make the case to a U.S. Department of Energy selection committee that the university should be the host site for an enormous research complex — and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. Fred Poston, vice president for finance and operations, accompanied them.

Simon doesn’t have a science background. But she stood up in front of the committee and deftly explained the delegation’s pitch for the complicated physics project in detail, without missing a beat, Poston said. “We were all just sitting there with our mouths hanging open,” he said. Michigan State won the competition for the facility in a long-shot bid, beating out major research laboratories like Argonne and Oak Ridge.

Michigan State hit some speed bumps as Simon plotted its path forward. Some professors decried what they saw as a creeping corporatization of the university; others bristled at the president’s leadership style, which could be “take-no-prisoners,” Poston said.

But Simon’s campus supporters ended up feeling that the university had backed into a transformative leader. Since she assumed the top role in 2005, Michigan State has increased its enrollment, fund raising, external research funding, and national ranking. On the main campus in East Lansing, new academic programs and a major scientific-research facility have sprung up.

Those transformations appear to have been on Ferguson’s mind when he defended the president on the radio. “When you go to the basketball game, you walk into the new Breslin [Student Events Center], and the person who hustled and got all those major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon,” he said. “There’s just so many things that make up being president at a university.”

A withering headline from the sports-news website Deadspin summed up the reaction to those remarks: “Michigan State Trustee: Our President Is a Great Fundraiser, So We’re Not Going to Fire Her.”

On campus, some of the president’s supporters offered a less-inflammatory case for the president: Simon had, at the very least, earned the right to due process. What university officials knew about Nassar, and what they could have done about him, was still under investigation. The facts hadn’t all come out.
Lou Anna K. Simon, not wanting to be a distraction, had watched an online livestream of Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing on its first day. But, facing criticism, Michigan State's president appeared on the second day, taking a seat in the back row. Poston believed that Simon had become a scapegoat. “It feels like a lot of people have just, perhaps in frustration, looked at the whole situation and said, ‘Well, we’ve got to hang somebody, let’s hang her,’” he said.

But for many who have felt the galvanic effect of the #MeToo movement — Nassar’s victims, professors, members of the public at large — what once sounded like scapegoating now sounds like accountability. Frank Fear, a professor emeritus and former administrator at Michigan State, criticized those who seemed to be letting their admiration for Simon’s successes override what he sees as the administration’s failure to stop Nassar.

Their mentality is, “She’s done so many good things that we can’t have this Nassar situation tear into that,” he said. “That’s quite stunning, in a way.”

Simon’s tenuous hold on the presidency consumed public attention throughout Nassar’s sentencing. Now her resignation has created space for a broader, tougher conversation about what comes next.

“The situation was completely unsustainable,” said Anna Pegler-Gordon, an associate professor of social relations and policy, who was one of the Faculty Senate members pushing for a vote of no confidence on Simon. “Outside of class, nobody was talking or thinking about anything else. The testimony of the survivors was so powerful, it pushed everything.”

If the scandal has done any service, say victims, students, and some professors, it has exposed deeper cultural problems at the university.

Lorenzo C. Santavicca, Michigan State’s student body president, said the statements of Nassar’s victims underscore widespread concerns that Michigan State has not been sufficiently serious or transparent in its approach to sexual assault. Student complaints have often been met with defensiveness, he said, and administrators have seemed more concerned with getting credit for progress than with honestly assessing what some students describe as systemic problems.

The student government had joined the chorus calling for Simon’s resignation in a resolution this month. “The president’s resignation goes to show that change is being made at the institution,” he said, “but in fairness accountability needs to be had at any level of the institution. You don’t stop at the president if there were other people who knew.”

During a week of scathing, heart-rending testimony by the physician’s scores of victims, Lou Anna K. Simon’s once-strong support rapidly eroded. On the same day Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, Simon resigned. Here’s how that stunning turn of events came about.

More than a year ago, some faculty had called for an independent investigation of how the institution responded to reports of Nassar’s abuse, but Simon rejected that measure at the time. Now there will be no shortage of investigating. The efforts by Michigan’s attorney general and the NCAA to learn more about who knew what when about Nassar’s abuse are underway. On Thursday state lawmakers sent a letter to the university, demanding documents related to the university’s handling of complaints about the physician.

Kimberly A. Lasata, chairwoman of the state House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on higher education and a signatory to the letter, said that the work of finding out how Michigan State “dropped the ball” is just beginning. “Lou Anna Simon’s resignation doesn’t change what we’re doing,” said LaSata, a Republican.

Michigan’s public universities have considerable autonomy, but lawmakers are using the budgetary process to create more transparency and accountability, LaSata said. The 2018 budget, for example, requires universities to submit copies of any Title IX reports that they have submitted to the federal government.

“In order to move forward, we need a transparent investigation,” said Adam F. Zemke, a Democratic House member, who had earlier sponsored a resolution calling for Simon to resign. “That would never have been accepted by the public with her at the helm. There is no trust.”

Faculty trust in the investigators isn’t running high, either. Trustees and attorneys general are political actors, Pegler-Gordon said, and many on the campus worry that partisan goals will obscure the deep, inward look that Michigan State now needs to take.

After the emotional bloodletting of the sentencing hearing, Simon’s resignation could offer some sense of relief. But for Michigan State, there will be no turning the page on the Nassar scandal. “I imagine there are people who hope it’s the end,” Pegler-Gordon said. “But it’s really important that it’s just the beginning.”

Sarah Brown, Eric Kelderman, Brock Read, and Jack Stripling contributed to this article.

Steve Kolowich writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people in ordinary times. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.

This article is part of:

The Nassar Scandal and the Fall of Michigan State’s President

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