LSJ Reporter Details Process Of Investigation Into Sexual Misconduct At MSU

Feb 2, 2021

A more than year-long investigation by the Lansing State Journal found at least 11 university employees who violated its sexual misconduct policy were still affiliated with the school.

At least 49 faculty and staff at Michigan State University have been found in violation of its sexual misconduct policy since 2015.

That’s according to a new Lansing State Journal investigation.

Of those employees, at least 11 remain at or are still affiliated with the university. MSU says more work is being done to improve consistency in disciplinary action and accountability.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with the Lansing State Journal's Kara Berg, who reported the story.

Interview Highlights

On Why Some Offenders Are Still Working At The University After Receiving Discipline Multiple Times

The deans and the heads of the departments or colleges that the employees were at are the ones who are in charge of handing down the punishments. So, they mostly got suspensions. One of them was given a copy of the sexual misconduct policy and told more or less, "Here's what this policy is. Don't do it again." But other than that, the only thing that would make sense as to why they were given less of a punishment or why they weren't fired, is because they are tenured and because it is so much more difficult to punish or terminate somebody who does have that tenure.

On What It Was Like To Report This Story

It was pretty awful reading some of the accounts. A lot of it was redacted which made it pretty difficult to get a full picture of what exactly happened. But there was definitely enough left that you could tell that some of the people who made these complaints were pretty affected by it.

On What The University Is Doing Going Forward To Address Violations Of Its Sexual Misconduct Policy

The university has said that they are creating a new policy to address behavior that may not meet the level of the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy, but still isn't something that the university wants of their faculty and staff. So, this will address behavior kind of in that middle point between acceptable and a violation of the RVSM policy, and that should be something that's presented to the university this year.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

At least 49 faculty and staff at Michigan State University have been found in violation of its sexual misconduct policy since 2015.

That’s according to a new Lansing State Journal investigation. Of those employees, at least 11 remain at or are still affiliated with the university.

MSU says more work is being done to improve consistency in disciplinary action and accountability.

Kara Berg reported out this story for the newspaper. She joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Kara Berg: Thanks for having me.

Saliby: What made you decide to start looking into how the university has been handling cases of sexual misconduct?

Berg: This was something that we've been working on for quite a while now. Individual cases kept coming up of sexual misconduct, and we were interested to see how big of a problem it was at the university.

So, we ended up requesting all of the cases involving faculty and staff that had been resolved within the past five years, and the number ended up being a lot bigger than we thought it was which is kind of what prompted the investigation.

Saliby: There are plenty of cases you detail in this investigation that are of serial offenders or people who had been disciplined or investigated multiple times. What were some of the reasons the university gave as to why they were allowed to stay in their positions?

Berg: So, the university didn't really give any reason as to why they gave the punishment that they did. The deans and the heads of the departments or colleges that the employees were at are the ones who are in charge of handing down the punishments. So, they mostly got suspensions. One of them was given a copy of the sexual misconduct policy and told more or less, "Here's what this policy is. Don't do it again."

It is so much more difficult to punish or terminate somebody who does have that tenure.

But other than that, the only thing that would make sense as to why they were given less of a punishment or why they weren't fired, is because they are tenured and because it is so much more difficult to punish or terminate somebody who does have that tenure. It's a long, lengthy process. One of the people who is at the university right now, David Foran, is currently in the process of having his tenure revoked.

Saliby: In your investigation, did you find there was a difference in how cases were handled prior to and then after the Larry Nassar scandal?

Berg: No. It didn't really seem like there was a difference prior to and after. But the first cases we got were from 2015 which is when the Office of Institutional Equity was created.

So really, there was only a couple before Larry Nassar, and once the Nassar scandal hit, it was more just that there was a huge influx of cases being reported, rather than the university handling it differently.

Saliby: In advance of the article being published, MSU President Dr. Samuel Stanley Jr. sent out an email acknowledging inequities in how cases were handled. What else did he say to explain these systemic problems?

Berg: We did not talk to President Stanley. We had a statement from one of the spokespersons at the university, Dan Olsen, and he said that this was something the university was working on and they have done a lot to create culture change, but it's not something that happens overnight.

Olsen said that there's no mistake, we have more work to do, but the university is committed to that work. Stanley's only statement was what he said in that email that was sent from him and the three top administrators.

Saliby: This investigation took a year and a half. The paper made 25 public records requests to the university and paid nearly $2,000 for those records. I also imagine how hard it must have been to read these accounts of misconduct. What was it like to report out this story?

There was definitely enough left that you could tell that some of the people who made these complaints were pretty affected by it.

Berg: It was definitely frustrating at times, especially with how long some of the records requests took to come back, and the pandemic definitely didn't help that. It slowed things down quite a bit.

It was pretty awful reading some of the accounts. A lot of it was redacted which made it pretty difficult to get a full picture of what exactly happened. But there was definitely enough left that you could tell that some of the people who made these complaints were pretty affected by it.

Saliby: Has the university indicated any specific changes to how people are disciplined and held accountable for sexual misconduct going forward?

Berg: There's not something that's been implemented yet, but the university has said that they are creating a new policy to address behavior that may not meet the level of the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy, but still isn't something that the university wants of their faculty and staff.

So, this will address behavior kind of in that middle point between acceptable and a violation of the RVSM policy, and that should be something that's presented to the university this year.

Saliby: And what has been the response on this investigation from advocates of sexual assault survivors?

Berg: I have heard from several advocates and several survivors who have said they're horrified at the university's response to this. And the Associated Students of Michigan State University have also said they want to implement measures to make sure that the university takes these cases more seriously in the future.

Saliby: Kara Berg is a reporter for the Lansing State Journal. You can read her full investigation on the LSJ's website. Thank you for joining me.

Berg: Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.