Some advocates for survivors of sexual assault say an investigation by the Lansing State Journal into the way Michigan State University disciplined employees for sexual misconduct demonstrates a systemic problem at the university.
The Lansing State Journal’s investigation into sexual misconduct at MSU revealed that 49 faculty and staff have been found in violation of policy since 2015. Eleven of those people still remain at, or are associated with the institution.
Elizabeth Abdnour worked as the Title IX senior investigator at MSU during the Larry Nassar scandal. She said the university cannot create a safe environment while still keeping these faculty employed.
“I think that the report clearly shows that even today MSU has perpetrators on campus that they're not getting rid of," Abdnour said.
Professor William Donohue teaches communications at MSU and was named in the investigation. He has been found responsible for sexual misconduct on three different occassions. Abdnour said she doesn't believe MSU has ever provided a clear answer on the impact it has had by continuing to keep professors like Donahue employed.
"Do colleagues who work with him who are women, and do students who learn under him who are women, or who are men or another gender identity, feel comfortable in the learning environment that he's in?" she asked.
Abdnour said she would like to see a clear process from MSU when it comes to faculty violating the university's sexual misconduct policy.
"When we're talking about sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, relationship violence, those issues create such a potential hostile environment, that there needs to be a different and fast track procedure for discipline and termination," she added.
According to Emily Guerrant, a spokesperson for MSU, when a faculty member at the university is found to be in violation of sexual misconduct, the human resources department works with the dean of the college the employee is a part of and the provost's office to determine the appropriate and relevant punishment. Today the university no longer grants emeritus status automatically once a faculty member retires.
"When there is a retirement, there is a pause, a moment of reflection to review the person who's retiring and to make sure that they don't have something on their record or in their past that would require us to consider not giving them emeritus status," Guerrant said. "And then secondly, we are going back and looking at cases in which there was inappropriate behavior or findings, and revoking those emeritus statuses from the relevant personnel."
Valerie von Frank, a mother of a survivor of Larry Nassar's abuse and founder of Parents of Sister Survivors Engage, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual violence, believes the problem of sexual misconduct by faculty at MSU is systemic.
"I think that having reported perpetrators continuing to remain at the university or being given emeritus status shows that, despite words to contrary, that nothing much has changed unfortunately. Even in the wake of all of the efforts of the survivors, since 2018," she said. "Actions speak louder than words."
Von Frank said based on the investigation from the LSJ, it is clear that the university has a lot of work to do when it comes to supporting survivors of sexual violence.
"I think the university has to come to its own recognition that this is a problem. I think that the university and the individuals in these cases continue to abdicate their own responsibility and role in these situations," she said.
As for the faculty and staff named in the investigation, Guerrant said everyone has been disciplined and the university is continuing with changes to improve accountability.
"We were going to be developing a task force to talk about the consistency of disciplinary actions, which is something the Lansing State Journal article did point to: a lack of consistency --we're aware of that and know that we need to work on that.”