MSU's Denial as a Cultural Issue

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A Chronicle of Higher Ed article blames Michigan State University's ambitions and culture for their leaders' lack of response to years of sexual abuse on campus. More than 12 people knew of complaints against physician Larry Nassar, but the abuse continued for years.

Lou Anna K. Simon's leadership is questioned in the article. Although clearly a committed leader to the university, Simon is criticized for focusing so much on "two decades of status-climbing" that a culture of denying any wrongdoing evolved. One of the trustees summed up the issue in a letter and emphasized "We must embrace our obligation to apologize and offer justice."

Apologizing may be a sore subject for the trustees because Simon avoided it in the case of Larry Nassar's victims, according to the Chronicle article:

She talked about how “it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.” She often used “regret,” “sympathize,” and “acknowledge” in her written statements, but not “apologize.” She emphasized that sexual assault is a societal problem, not a Michigan State one. She highlighted all of the steps the university had taken to prevent sexual misconduct.

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  • Analyze the trustee's letter. What principles of business writing are followed? What are the strengths of the letter, and what could be improved?
  • The trustee encourages MSU leadership to listen. What does he mean by this, and how would listening help the situation?
  • What is the value of apologizing and admitting failure? What are the potential downsides, particularly for a university trying to improve its stature?
  • This story illustrates several failings of leadership character. Which can you identify, and which do you think are most relevant here?