By David Jesse
Detroit Free Press
Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon will step down as leader of MSU, the school announced late Wednesday.
"As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable," she said in statement. "As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me. I urge those who have supported my work to understand that I cannot make it about me now. Therefore, I am tendering my resignation as president according to the terms of my employment agreement."
She made the announcement hours after a judge sentenced Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison as part of a plea deal on seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving more than 156 girls and women over more than two decades.
She said in her resignation statement there was no cover-up at MSU.
"The survivors' accounts are horrific. They are tragic, heartbreaking, and personally gut-wrenching. I take solace that many victims have indicated that the opportunity to confront Nassar is a step toward healing. I am proud of the exceptional work of the Special Victims Unit led by Lieutenant Andrea Munford with the steadfast leadership of Chief Dunlap. I am proud of my support of their work even though the results have been very painful to all who watched.
"As Nassar's legal journey to prison was drawing to a close, more and more negative attention was focused on Michigan State University, and on me. I am pleased that statements have been made by Mr. Fitzgerald and Board members about my integrity and the fact that there is no cover-up. I support wholeheartedly the Board's decision to ask the Attorney General's Office to review the events surrounding the Nassar matter. This is an important step toward providing more assurance to the university community and to the public. In the past, I have provided assurances to the Attorney General of my full cooperation, and I will continue to do so."
Simon had spent her entire career — from the mid-1970s on — at the University.
Board chairman Brian Breslin praised her.
"President Simon has served with distinction as MSU's President for 13 years and has been a constant presence at the university for more than 40 years. She literally has devoted her entire professional life to this institution, and more than anyone else has helped make MSU a national and international leader in higher education.
We will be working through the details of transition with President Simon through the rest of the week and will announce them as soon as we can."
Board members had ratcheted up their succession planning in recent days, including at a nearly five-hour closed-door meeting on Friday.
Unknown is when an interim leader would step in and for how long, people with knowledge of discussions said.
There are a number of names that have been raised to the board as possible interim presidents, including former Michigan Govs. John Engler, James Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm. Also raised as a possible interim choice is former Grand Valley State University President Mark Murray, who also served as president of Meijer, Inc. Engler, Blanchard and Murray were all mentioned as a possible MSU president when Peter McPherson left in 2004 and Simon was promoted from provost to president. Engler and Blanchard are Michigan State graduates.
Simon has been under incredible pressure for several weeks to step aside. That pressure has increased during the last two weeks as 156 sexual assault victims appeared in court to testify about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, which reached back as far as 1997.
"We've been telling our stories for 18 months, and you've yet to answer a single question I have," Rachael Denhollander said in court. Denhollander filed the first police report in 2016 that led to Nassar's guilty plea and sentencing.
"You issue a press release ... playing word games, saying there was no cover-up because no one believed. The reason no one believed, is because no one listened. It has been 18 months and I am still asking questions, and I am still getting the same answer."
"No one handled the reports of abuse properly. Victims were silenced and even forced to go back for further sexual assault. They did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 1999 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014."
Many have taken time to call out MSU and Simon for her handling of the situation, repeatedly talking about how they notified MSU officials of the abuse.
Simon has said she received a report in 2014 of Nassar being cleared by the University in a sexual assault claim, but said she did not receive the full case file.
That didn't matter to the victims.
"Come hell or high water, we will take every last one of you down that could have stopped this monster," Amy Labadie, a victim and former gymnast, said in court.
"I don't know how you can still call yourself a president, because I don't anymore," said Lindsey Lemke, a current MSU student and former MSU gymnast, about Simon. "You are no president of mine. ... You say you aren't responsible for this. I wish you would come up to this podium and be half as brave as all of us have had to be the past year and a half. To be brave enough to be a public survivor and a competing athlete of your university who let me down. To be brave enough to come up here and confidently tell us the reason why you don't think that you are responsible."
As victims' testimony came pouring out, the pressure on Simon to step aside grew. The MSU student government called for changes at the "highest levels" of the University. Politician after politician called for her to resign and asked the state Legislature to launch an investigation.
The board initially supported Simon. They met for five hours behind closed doors last Friday and emerged with a statement of support. Then, the next night, Trustee Mitch Lyons issued a statement calling for Simon to step down.
Then, on Monday, in a radio interview, Trustee Joel Ferguson said Simon would never leave and praised her.
She was defended by the university's highest profile employees — including basketball coach Tom Izzo.
"I have to say, though, that I have the utmost — the utmost — faith and respect for the leadership of our president, too, at Michigan State. That's a woman who has dedicated over 40 years — and I've been here 33 with her, and I think I know what she stands for."
In the end, the public pressure was too much, as victims, students, alumni, politicians, the state House of Representative and nearly every media organization in the state called for her to no longer be MSU's leader.
Simon was named president in January 2005, the final stop in her long journey at MSU, which began in the 1970s.
After getting her master's in student personnel and counseling from Indiana State University, she came to MSU, where she got her doctorate in higher education.
She started in the office of institutional research and continued to climb upward in MSU's administration, landing as provost — in charge of the day-to-day academic affairs of the university — in 1993. She was there until 2003, when she was named interim president when then-president M. Peter McPherson went to Iraq at the behest of President George W. Bush to help oversee the reconstruction of Iraq.
She was named president in 2004, becoming the first female president of MSU.
"We thought the best person was right here," said then-Trustee Scott Romney at the time of her hiring. "Her vision, her leadership, her capacities have been demonstrated to us over and over again."
Then-Board President Dave Porteous said Simon was a candidate during the board's national search in 1993 when it selected McPherson.
"As you looked around at the qualities all of us wanted, she measured up perfectly," he said at the time of Simon's hiring.