Protesters and supporters were split on whether ex-president Lou Anna K. Simon deserved a ceremony for unveiling her retirement portrait and took to the Jack Breslin Student Events Center to show their support and disdain for the former president.
Hosted by the Board of Trustees, the ceremony was a private event for the former president, who resigned in 2018 during the scandal surrounding ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar.
The portrait was included in Simon’s contract following her retirement, though the ceremony was not. The ceremony, which was initially planned to be held at the Cowles House, was moved to the Breslin Center to accommodate the number of guests.
Several of Simon’s personal friends, MSU faculty and members of the greater Lansing higher education community attended the ceremony.
Among these guests was former president of Lansing Community College Paula Cunningham, who served from 2000 to 2006. Cunningham said she remembers Simon’s legacy of extending MSU's visibility and increasing first-generation students' performance.
John Robert Williams, the photographer commissioned by the MSU Foundation to take the portrait, was also in attendance.
“I was thrilled,” Williams said. “It's an honor. (Simon) was certainly one of the most progressive presidents here in the history of Michigan State. She’s created a lot of good for this entire campus, and I think that it’s fantastic that I get to honor her legacy.”
Another guest in attendance remembers Simon’s influence fondly.
“I’m a graduate and I’m a strong supporter of Michigan State University and a strong supporter of Lou Anna Simon,” George Tesseris, an attendee of the ceremony, said. “She was a wonderful president and she did a fantastic job."
However, this is not how many remember Simon’s legacy, which was tainted in the fallout of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
Simon was charged in November 2018 with two counts of lying to a peace officer in a violent crime investigation and two counts of lying to a peace officer in a four-year or more crime investigation. However, all four of those charges were dismissed in May 2020.
Attendees were met with student protesters who had written messages on the sidewalk. The messages read “Simon knew,” “Enjoy hell,” “You have pissed off the wrong army of women,” “Cowards” and “505,” referencing the known number of sexual abuse survivors. To enter the building, attendees were met with a line and a chalk message: “If you cross this line, you’re complicit.”
One of the protesters was ASMSU president and social relations and policy senior Jo Kovach.
“I’m here today to remind this university that although they were complicit ... with all of the sister survivors, we are not going to be,” Kovach said. “We are not going to accept the fact that we’re going to celebrate someone who was the most complicit.”
Kovach said the Board of Trustees’ decision to hold the ceremony sent a clear message to students, survivors and the MSU community as a whole.
“The survivors never fully got the justice they deserved, especially not from MSU … this is once again showcasing that they don't care about survivors,” Kovach said. “They care about the performance of showing that they care about survivors, but they never actually do anything that is going to protect people the way that they need to.”
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MSU Center for Survivors Director Tana Fedewa said the ceremony felt like an institutional betrayal.
“We know that this could be a difficult day for survivors on campus and that the event may be triggering,” Fedewa said. “We stand with survivors, so we’re here to show support and to be available as a resource to anyone who might be here.”
Some attendees said the protesters were uninformed.
“She’s done the most for the university of any president since John Hannah. … I think (the protesters) are misguided,” attendee John Schweitzer said. “I feel very bad for them … Lou Anna did everything she could.”
Attendees also said they had faith in Simon’s innocence.
“I think they mean well, but they don't really know the facts,” attendee Sharon Ellis said. “I don’t know (the facts). I can’t speak to all of them, but I have known President Simon long enough to know that if she said she doesn't remember something, it didn’t happen. She has an astounding memory. Astounding. And I absolutely believe her when she says she wasn't told the full information until much later.”
Other attendees said the protesters' sentiments were not being expressed at the right time or event.
“I think it's totally inappropriate and I think it's terrible doing something like that for a person who served Michigan State as much as they did,” Tesseris said.
Despite others’ support for Simon, protesters like history sophomore Connor Le were not swayed.
“MSU states that they believe and stand with all survivors, but events like this really contradict those statements and really show that they don’t stand for these survivors,” Le said. “They say they stand with survivors, but they obviously don't if they're celebrating the president who was on tenure knowing that this was happening beneath her and didn't do anything, so that's really sending a message that (MSU) doesn’t stand with survivors.”
Multimedia reporter Devin Anderson-Torrez contributed to the contents of this article.