Appalling. Nauseating.Numbing. Nobody with a functional conscience can read about or watch videos of the testimony of the Olympic gymnasts and other women athletes abused by Larry Nassar and not be shaken to the core. Sally Jenkins, great sports writer at the Washington Post, in a scorching column called it, “…the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports — and maybe in the history of this country” and that is saying a lot in the age of #MeToo. Legendary Sports Journalist Christine Brennan wrote in USA Today that the sexual abuse scandal is “the darkest stain in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement” and she calls the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) an “…out-of-touch, antiquated organization unable to grasp the magnitude of this reprehensible situation.” How could anyone not “grasp the magnitude” of the sexual abuse of more than 160 young girls over a long period of time?
So much can and must be said about this utterly reprehensible scandal and the people who failed to protect the children, but I want to focus on one particular aspect right now: the responsibility of colleges and universities to confront the conditions that foster and coddle the perpetrators of sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University where Nassar worked, rightfully resigned last evening after Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison for his crimes. But Simon and her defenders on the Michigan State board were slow to act and obtuse about the horrors as they unfolded. Reports of Nassar’s ongoing practice of sexually abusing women athletes had circulated for years at Michigan State with some investigations ensuing but no concerted action by the university leadership to confront the problem. Numerous commentators point out the obvious parallels between the Nassar/Michigan State case and the horrific sexual abuse case at Penn State involving football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and leading to the firing, indictment and conviction of Penn State University President Graham Spanier and other officials for their failure to report to the police in a timely way.
How much can a university president be expected to know about criminal activity and breakdowns in policies and procedures on campus? In a story in Inside Higher Education, writer Rick Seltzer states, ” While some might say it isn’t practical to hold a president to the standard of knowing everything happening on campus, advocates retort that clear expectations, good personnel and strong policy should allow presidents to know what cases are important and when they need to get involved.”
Here’s my answer: as president, I am responsible for everything that happens on campus. Period. No fudge language. No finger-pointing or wriggling out of it with mushy words about being kept in the dark or couldn’t have possibly known or wasn’t my job. That is no guarantee that bad things won’t happen, or that I can fix everything directly, but the first and most obvious step in leadership is accepting the burden of widespread responsibility even, and perhaps most importantly, for the unseen and unexpected and deceptive and warped human behaviors that are the basis for so much criminal activity and sexual abuse.
Acknowledging responsibility for what goes on also means that I have to have people, policies and procedures in place to act when stuff happens — the minute I hear a report of something going awry, I have to insist that we get inside of and underneath what is going on. I don’t do the investigation myself, of course, but I have to have honest, forthright leaders in key positions who will tell me the truth and do what is necessary to get at it.
At Trinity, we have strict policies on Harassment (covering all kinds of harassment, not just sexual) and Sexual Misconduct, and we maintain a web of resources on sexual assault. The federal law known as Title IX that protects women’s rights in school has also covered sexual assault, and Trinity’s Title IX Coordinator China Wilson handles cases as they arise along with our support team in Student Affairs, Health Services, Campus Safety and other resource centers. We offer programs at orientation and other times throughout the academic year, and our personnel must complete routine training on harassment and assault prevention.
We take student safety very seriously, and we investigate every complaint immediately. We can and do confront inappropriate individual behaviors, and we have and will continue to take action, including termination, when individuals violate our policies on harassment and sexual misconduct. Most of all, we don’t wait for a major case to arise — by acting effectively on every complaint and investigating rumors, we are able to address bad behaviors immediately.
Having the right “tone at the top,” strong policies and vigorous enforcement is no guarantee that something bad will not happen. But taking ownership for a strong environment for protecting students and everyone on campus from sexual predators helps to manage the context for incidents before they become huge. In almost every notorious case — whether Larry Nassar or Jerry Sandusky or others — including an appalling list of cases in the Catholic Church — the incidence of sex abuse could have been stopped if people in positions of authority and responsibility had acted immediately to call the police, separate the predator from the institution, and take all steps necessary to make sure that victims were cared for to the greatest extent possible.
I invite comments and suggestions from everyone in the Trinity community on ways we can improve Trinity’s environment for safety and freedom from sexual harassment and abuse.
See my article “President Simon’s Resignation: Too Little, Too Late” in the Chronicle of Higher Education