Thursday, September 16, 2021

MSU community speaks against Board decision to withhold 6000 documents

April 16, 2021
Prayer flags hang during the Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak Exhibition Opening Ceremony at the MSU Museum on April 16, 2019.
Prayer flags hang during the Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak Exhibition Opening Ceremony at the MSU Museum on April 16, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

In the first Board of Trustees meeting following the university’s decision to maintain attorney-client privilege on the 6,000 documents related to the Larry Nassar investigation, several speakers called for transparency and action from the board.

On Feb. 25, a letter from Attorney General Dana Nessel urged the trustees to aid in providing answers and healing to survivors by releasing the documents. The decision to withhold their privileges has since resulted in the closing of the investigation.

International relations sophomore Sydney Connors said in an address to the board that it is obvious the university has and continues to allow and enable sexual abuse and rape culture to thrive on campus.

A 2019 survey led by the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup found that about 13% of undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault at Michigan State University in the 2018-19 academic year. Additionally, over a quarter — 27.3% — of undergraduate women had experienced sexual assault since enrolling at MSU.

Connors reminded the trustees that MSU is not some inanimate concept they rule over, but a community of thousands of valuable individuals.

“You all talk about the heinous crimes of Larry Nassar, how your heart breaks for the survivors, all of you have given varying statements saying that and if I had the time, I would dissect each of your individual hypocrisies,” Connors said. “If you don’t release the documents, as far as my peers and I are concerned, you’ve allied yourself with him.”

MSU graduate student Kevin Bird said it’s clear to him that many decisions at the highest level are being made out of fear and self-preservation.

“Dishonesty, coverup, lies and secrecy with regard to Larry Nassar and subsequent investigations have done and will continue to do serious harm to the MSU community,” Bird said.

At the Dec. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Renee Knake addressed her review of the withheld documents, concluding there had been no new findings and that what was within them had been consistent with what had already been publicly released. At that time, she recommended the board release the documents for an independent review and afterward, issues a public report.

In her comments today, Knake said she stand by her previous comments, including the recommendation for an independent review.

“When I accepted my appointment to this board in December of 2019, I knew I was joining a disagreement about this manner,” Knake said. “I am one of eight. I can’t act alone, I don’t govern alone in that sense. I agree with the survivors that my review of the documents may not be what some — maybe all — feel that they need in their individual healing and I agree with the attorney general that my review is not a replacement for her office’s work, but it’s what I believe was necessary to fulfill my obligations as a trustee in the context which I joined this board.”

Knake’s comments were echoed in an emotional response to survivors by Trustee Kelly Tebay.

“I want you to know that I am on your side, but I’m not a dictator, and I don’t make decisions on my own, and they’re certainly not easy things for me to experience,” Tebay said. “I would appreciate if you understand that I am fighting for you and I am trying”

Trustee Dan Kelly emphasized the role of the documents as privileged materials, stating he views that privilege to be a very important aspect of good legal advice. 

“It breaks my heart to hear survivors see it differently,” Kelly said. “That does upset me, I wish we could do something different, but I do stand by my decision to not waive attorney-client privileged and I just hope we can respectfully disagree on this issue and move forward.”

In response to whether or not she agreed with the decision to release the documents, Trustee Dianne Byrum said the legal right for maintaining privilege on these documents is something that the board has taken very seriously and that it does not take a vote to keep a legal right.

Among concerns regarding the release of the withheld documents, Erica Thibodeau called on Trustee Brianna Scott’s decision to end an independent investigation that would hold the necessary parties responsible for Nassar’s abuse.

In response, Scott acknowledged that there had been an independent investigation company that she did not agree with citing the lead attorney giving a first place Halloween award to an individual wearing Blackface.

“I thought it showed signs of prejudice and racism and I certainly was not going to advocate as a company that had someone like that as a lead to do our independent investigation and if anyone has a problem with that, you are titled to your opinion," Scott said. "As an African American woman, I stand by my reasoning for that."

Additionally, Scott said it made no sense to do an independent investigation if the documents were not to be released, stating it would not be responsible to spend money on something that would not achieve the purposes for which it went out.

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Speaking on behalf of the parents of sister survivors assaulted on MSU’s campus Tammy Bourque said they are in disbelief that the board has shut down two independent investigations, ignored public outcry and declined AG Nessel’s plea for transparency. She called on each board member to publicly announce their vote in determining the decision to withhold the documents.

“A settlement does not buy justice. We are not going away. A settlement does not buy health,” Bourque said. “I thought I was ready, four years later to talk and I can barely speak.”

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