Survivors speak out, trustees discuss reform at board meeting
The first MSU Board of Trustees meeting of the 2018-19 academic year began with three minutes of allotted speaking time for both Grace French and Natalie Venuto Hawkins, survivors of ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's sexual abuse.
Hawkins said she and other survivors have reached out to the Board of Trustees and received no response. Now that they had their attention, French, Hawkins and Joan Meinke, the mother of Nassar survivor Emily Meinke, stood at the podium together. They combined each of their individual speaking times in order to get their message across.
"We're here, we're not going anywhere," Hawkins said.
Standing before the Board of Trustees, French, Hawkins and Meinke read quotes that Trustee Joel Ferguson, former MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, Interim President John Engler and other members of the university's administration have said about survivors and the Nassar case since January.
Some of these included Ferguson calling survivor attorneys "ambulance chasers," referring to the trial as "just this Nassar thing" and saying, "for those who want a new president, be quiet and let's not have extra controversy that would make somebody be afraid to come here."
They also read quotes from the Board of Trustees meeting in April, where Engler told Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz to "be careful" and "your time is up" during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Their time addressing the board concluded with Meinke asking two questions: whether or not Engler and the trustees believe that MSU's problem was just Nassar and not the culture, and if they think that members of the board are the right people to pick the next president.
French and Hawkins are a part of an up-and-coming non-profit that aims to advocate for survivors everywhere called "The Army of Survivors".
"We came here to show Michigan State that we are not happy with their decision to not include us in the presidential search committee," Hawkins said. "We weren't even involved in any discussions."
During the meeting, Trustee Brian Mosallam said he wants to create positive changes moving forward, yet will never forget the atrocities that happened on campus.
"Now that all the plaintiffs have signed the settlement agreement, I'm anxious to meet with our courageous survivors and to begin constructive dialogue on how they feel this university needs to move forward," Mosallam said.
With the guidance of experts and the MSU Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup, Mosallam said he aims to begin this dialogue soon. He also explained that the reason he chose not be on the presidential search committee was because his focus is on institutional reform.
"Quite frankly, without reform it won't matter who the next president is," Mosallam said. "And we are making steps and moving in the right direction."
Following the recent naming of the members on the Presidential Search Committee, Trustee Dianne Byrum and Trustee Melanie Foster said they have been working on releasing a schedule of the search process. The first meeting will be early next month.
"We worked very hard to make it diverse in many ways," Foster said.
Meinke said it is critical that the new president will be able to support the measures that need to be put into place to make MSU a safe university.
"I think it's really important that we focus on where the university is going to go forward," Meinke said.
Though signs are not permitted in the board room, a few members of the community held signs outside of the Hannah Administration Building during and after the meeting.
James Madison professors Andaluna Borcila and Anna Pegler-Gordon with Reclaim MSU collected signatures for their two-part proposal and handed out Board of Trustees candidate pledges.
Pegler-Gordon said she was excited that two Board of Trustees candidates for the upcoming election have shown support for this proposal, which would include open presidential searches into the bylaws and place two students and two faculty members onto a university board.
“We’re just kind of keeping off the pressure to try and create new forms of governance that's more open to listening to students, faculty and staff,” Pegler-Gordon said.
And for survivors and members of the MSU community, Meinke said the goal is to move on in the most positive and best way possible.
"We want to be a part of positive change at Michigan State and everywhere," Hawkins said.