In 2004, Lou Anna K. Simon planned to leave MSU after 35 years as a student, professor and administrator at the university. Then, she was picked by the Board of Trustees to become the 20th president — and first female president — of MSU.
She was inaugurated on Feb. 12, 2005 — the university’s 150th birthday and Simon’s 58th.
Now Simon, herself a first-generation college student, said she thinks of herself as an advocate for students and sexual assault victims in particular, though she admits that students don’t necessarily see her in the same light.
“I was involved in setting up the (Counseling Center Sexual Assault Program) 25 years ago in a position that might have labeled me as an advocate, which no one will label me as now,” she said.
Much of Simon’s presidency is held in the balance between advocacy and criticism for inaction.
In 2013, Simon testified before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education to support additional investment in public universities. In February, she lobbied the state legislature against proposed income tax cuts that could result in further cuts to higher education.
Simon was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016 for her work at MSU.
Simon said she believes MSU has been on the leading edge when it comes to resources for survivors of sexual assault.
“Having a victims’ unit in the police was pretty revolutionary at the time,” she said. “The fact that all of our officers are trained … in being victim-sensitive officers is very unusual.”
Simon became the NCAA executive committee chair in 2012 in the wake of sanctions against Penn State. Simon said she hoped to implement a new tiered violation system for the organization to better differentiate between major and minor offenses.
Her approach to discipline for Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy violations at MSU is similar. It’s what she calls “progressive discipline.”
“What we’re trying to balance is very dramatic action … about sexual assault/rape, and changing a culture about all the things that happen — words, phrases, tweets,” Simon said. “It’s not necessarily on the same order of magnitude as some of the other discriminatory behavior that we’re seeing.”
Simon has faced significant public scrutiny for MSU’s response to sexual assault on campus. That’s nothing new for a university president, she said.
“We’re a big place, and we’re a complicated place, and presidents are the symbol of what’s right or wrong about a complicated place,” Simon said. “That’s just the nature of the job.”
Protesters at the Feb. 17 Board of Trustees meeting called for Simon to resign for allowing conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos to appear at MSU.
“Those came out of really genuine feelings and ideas and a sense that they’re relying on us to fix them,” Simon said. “I understand why I’m a symbol of what they have to say, so I try to listen pretty carefully to what they’re saying and why and figure out what I can try to do about it.”
Student activism, like that of the group calling for her resignation, stems from the brevity of college, Simon said.
“You’re here for a relatively short period of time, and you judge things from when you came to when you leave,” Simon said. “That’s the great thing about students, because you learn a lot from their perspective. Everybody comes in, they take for granted what we have, and they want to figure out how to make it their own, fit social media, fit current expectations.”
Simon said she believes the turnover of students is good for the university.
“That’s why we’re a dynamic, really great place,” she said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to be better tomorrow than we are today, along these multiple dimensions and in a resource-constrained environment.”
Rape culture at MSU?
When it comes to sexual assault, Simon is quick to reject “rape culture” at MSU.
"People might conclude these developments indicate a culture problem here at MSU," Simon said at a recent Board of Trustees meeting. "Let me be clear: We are committed to creating a culture of both accountability and safety and responsiveness regarding sexual assault and harassment. There is no culture of tolerating sexual abuse or harassment on our campus."
Simon said she believes problems are inevitable at a school as large as MSU.
“There’s no way you can have this many human beings in a space and have people not make mistakes,” she said.
Though Simon sees MSU's sexual assault record as commonplace, she's received a significant amount of criticism for it.
In 2010, 40 members of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence rallied at Simon’s office and said MSU hadn’t done enough about recent sexual assaults. In 2015, Simon was named as a defendant in a lawsuit that alleges she and other MSU officials failed to adequately monitor sexual assault investigations.
A 2015 investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, found that MSU mishandled a number of sexual assault cases, and the university was required to release a public anti-harassment statement and coordinate other changes with the OCR.
Most recently, Simon and MSU have come under fire for failing to identify and fire former MSU employee Larry Nassar after university representatives allegedly received complaints during a period of 20 years. Nassar, who worked in osteopathic and sports medicine, has been accused of sexually abusing his patients and other young women with whom he had contact. He also faces a lawsuit for possession of child pornography.
“I don’t think I created Nassar, but I deal with it,” Simon said. “I was an advocate, and now I’m responsible for the problems. It’s just the nature of the role."
Simon has her own ideas of what needs to change at MSU.
Most sexual assaults on campus occur between students who know each other personally, Simon said. Those cases “get murky” because of the ties the students have to each other, like being in the same social circles.
“We have to have a way of dealing with them, but dealing with them in a learning environment so people can learn and grow, and those are all judgments,” Simon said. “They’re going to be imperfect.”
Simon said she believes a disciplinary policy similar to what she supported for the NCAA could help MSU better address sexual assault.
“I am currently not a fan of the equivalency sentencing guidelines, because that doesn’t give the variations of themes,” Simon said. “I’ve proposed … whether we should have clearer-cut guidelines for what’s the penalty when something happens.”
MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity will be meeting with student groups, including ASMSU and COGS, to discuss the possibility of changing disciplinary guidelines, according to Simon.
Simon expects some debate over proposed changes to disciplinary policy.
“If you’re an advocate, an advocate for victims, you’re going to want those to be very harsh,” she said. “If you’re thinking about them from the perspective of the perpetrator, you’re going to want them to be part of a learning environment where the property right of education has a pretty high bar for when you take it away.”
Simon said MSU will adapt to fit the needs of its students, though it will continue to receive criticism, too.
“One of the challenges of being a president is that getting better doesn’t mean that you’re bad,” she said. “It just means you need to get better.”
Ultimately, Simon said, MSU is more important than the president’s public perception.
“We have to just get through this for the institution, because the institution’s more important than any of us,” Simon said.