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Survivor advocates: Release of board investigation a step in Title IX reforms

February 13, 2023
<p>MSU Interim President Woodruff alongside Trustee's Vassar and Scott listening to public comments during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.</p>

MSU Interim President Woodruff alongside Trustee's Vassar and Scott listening to public comments during a Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 10, 2023.

While the Board of Trustees’ Feb. 10 decision to release an external Title IX investigation was celebrated as a step towards transparency and progress, it didn’t stop community members from demanding more from the university.

For Valerie Von Frank, a member of Parents of Sister Survivors Engage, or POSSE, the release of the Quinn Emanuel report was a stark reminder of her six-year fight to release over 6,000 documents related to the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. In comparison, the board promised to release the report six months after protests in support of former business college dean Sanjay Gupta began.

In April 2021 under the leadership of then-chair Dianne Byrum, the board privately agreed not to release the documents until related legal disagreements with the university’s insurers were resolved. At the time, MSU was suing twelve insurance companies which argued they didn’t have to pay into the over $500 million in settlements to survivors of Nassar’s abuse.

Today, the legal battles with all but one of those insurers are resolved. If a settlement isn’t reached, MSU and that insurer will resolve the dispute in a jury trial beginning on Oct. 30.

“You’ve now voted on transparency for the crisis of the moment,” Von Frank said during the board meeting. “But the problem you have is a long-standing instinct to deny harm, deflect blame and try to burnish your brand instead of addressing the issues.” 

Von Frank was one of several public commenters to point to The State News’ culture editor Miranda Dunlap’s recent column, detailing her own experience as a survivor reporting to MSU, to demonstrate the many existing problems with MSU’s Title IX process. 

“Miranda Dunlap, I apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Von Frank said. “I feel some responsibility as every one of you should. I feel like I failed Miranda by not pushing harder and publicly for changes and for trusting that the most necessary changes had already been made.” 

ASMSU president Jo Kovach said the reporting processes described in Dunlap's article reflected the experiences of too many students and that the system needs “sweeping change and commitment.”

“It is the reason far too many people do not report and it further traumatizes victims and it's extremely harmful,” Kovach said. “Please release the Nassar documents and make changes or please explain to survivors why you continue to fail us.” 

The sentiment was shared by public commenters who attended the meeting for unrelated reasons, including Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive representative Tom Munley. Munley signed up for public comment to speak about the reinstatement of the Swim and Dive program but mentioned POSSE and Dunlap’s column at the end of his time, asking the university to immediately move the location of the Office of Institutional Equity.

“I was heartbroken and crushed,” Munley said. “And all I thought was, ‘go move that office.’ There are so many buildings on campus, why should somebody have to walk past the financial aid line to go report that? That is just something that I can't fathom having to do.” 

It is impossible to know the true number of young people assaulted because so many don’t come forward, especially when the reporting process is “aggressively anti-victim,” POSSE member Mary Schulz said. Schulz said Michigan State has the ability to fix problems in the Office of Institutional Equity, but issues remain because it is not a priority of the university.

“It's not rocket science,” Schulz said. “Until the university makes it a priority, they will continue to bumble along and mess it up and not do right by the victims.”

Currently, MSU offers claimants an advocate from the Center for Survivors to assist them throughout the reporting process as well as other services

POSSE member Lynne Erickson said she is particularly concerned with the lack of support

“My concern for the victim is that they report and then sit and wait and wait and wait without any emotional support,” Erickson said. “Without anyone to help them cope. Without anyone to make them feel as though they are being believed. Where is that support?” 

The release of the Nassar documents is one of POSSE’s three main priorities along with increasing transparency and improvement of the Office of Institutional Equity. One major aspect of improvement would come in the form of including survivors in decision-making, Von Frank said.

“That includes not just reaching out to individual survivors, one by one as something hits the news,” Von Frank said. “That includes a system change that welcomes Nassar survivors … and campus survivors now. Their voices absolutely need to be there too because they're current and they know what just happened.” 

Even though the Nassar documents are still unreleased and there is immense progress to be made, Von Frank, Schulz and Erickson said they feel hope that the new board is headed in the right direction. The unredacted release of the Honigman and Quinn Emanuel reports by the board show a huge shift in transparency, Von Frank said.

“Now is the time for action,” Schulz said. “We have continued to work towards putting this board in place. We have helped get rid of Ferguson. We have helped to get rid of Foster. We are very hopeful that this is the board that is going to do right by the university, by the institution.”

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During her comments at the board meeting, trustee Renee Knake Jefferson reiterated her position in favor of releasing the Nassar documents. In December 2020, Knake Jefferson reviewed the unreleased documents and voted for their release at that time. She says her position has never changed.

“It's really important for us to be understanding what's happening on this campus, as difficult as it is and as much as you don't want to have to talk about it,” Knake Jefferson said. “There's clearly much more work that needs to happen.” 

When asked about the difference between the Quinn Emanuel and Nassar investigations after the meeting, board chair Rema Vassar did not speak on the possibility of reevaluating the release of the Nassar documents. She clarified she was not on the board at the time of the investigation.

“When I finally arrived, the attorney general had concluded their investigation,” Vassar said. “I can't really speak with a lot of institutional knowledge about why those reports and those documents weren't released at that time.”

As difficult as it is to continue fighting and advocating for survivors, Shulz said she will continue to do it as long as it takes. Erickson said that POSSE is continuously fighting not only for the Nassar survivors, but for all Spartans.

“It's very important that people understand that we don't just speak for the 505 sister survivors,” Erickson said. “We are speaking for all students of MSU in our concerns for fixing things. It's a university-wide problem.” 

Administration reporter Alex Walters contributed to the contents of this article. 

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