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Crisis Management FAIL: Michigan State Paying the Price for Their Systemic Failure to Address the Nassar Sex Abuse Accusations

By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications

On September 5, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was fining Michigan State University $4.5 million for “a systemic failure to protect students from sexual abuse.” The fine is the latest fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal, which has embroiled MSU in lawsuits, a succession of high-profile firings, resignations and retirements among senior staff including the former president, a crisis of confidence among faculty, staff and students, and one of the most notable examples of reputation annihilation to hit higher education.  When The Atlantic wrote about the case a year ago – when a university trustee was accused in a lawsuit of helping conceal Nassar’s behavior – it titled the article “The Moral Catastrophe at Michigan State.”

Details of the Nassar case can be found in ten pages of Google documents that include stories from virtually every major news outlet in the United States and beyond.  In a nutshell, Nassar was accused of sexually assaulting more than 330 young women and girls during a period that spanned more than 20 years while he served as a sports doctor at MSU and as a team doctor for USA Gymnastics.  For those crimes, and for possession of child pornography, Nassar received multiple sentences ranging from 40 to 175 years in prison.

Last year, Michigan State agreed to pay $500 million to the hundreds of women who accused Nassar of abuse.  There appears to be a lot of guilt to go around:  news reports detail the wide berth Nassar apparently enjoyed among numerous officials at the school who allegedly knew of his behavior, but failed to take action. As one reads these stories, it is almost beyond comprehension that this culture of abuse persisted without someone in the university advising its leadership, in the starkest terms possible, of the potential consequences of not stopping Nassar.  If someone did, that advice apparently went unheeded.

Michigan State clearly had an issue it failed to address.  Because of that inaction, the university now must deal with the aftermath of a crisis that may threaten the institution’s future for years to come. There’s no question Nassar’s behavior would have had serious negative consequences for Michigan State even if the allegations had been a complete surprise, his actions had been known to no one and there was no attempt to cover them up or excuse them when they came to light.  It would have been a crisis of major proportions under any circumstances.  However, it might have done significantly less long-term reputational damage (not to mention financial damage) if the university had a process in place to identify and appropriately act on behavior like this as soon as it was discovered. 

That process, an issues identification and management system, is one organizations of all types – not just institutions of higher learning – should move to the top of their “we should do this” list.  It works hand-in-hand with a well-planned and comprehensive crisis preparedness program and actually reduces the amount of response work a crisis management team will be asked to do. In essence, it identifies the problems and threats an organization faces, and puts a plan in place to address them before they become full-blown crisis events.

Granted, many crises occur without warning and in spite of rigorous policies, procedures and training. But others often happen because of oversights, short-cutting, ethical lapses, budget cuts and other behavior. These are the ones judicious issues management can help mitigate.

If you’re charged with taking the long view of your organization’s future … if you’re one of the stewards of its reputation … talk to us about expanding your crisis preparedness with an issues identification program.  If you already have an issue you believe could benefit from some organized, systematic management, we be happy to provide a strategy for that process as well.

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