GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A former Michigan State University athletic director says the campus culture allowed former sports doctor Larry Nassar to sexually abuse his patients for years.
“This is the most egregious case I’ve ever heard of or seen in this country,” Merrily Dean Baker told 24 Hour News 8.
Nassar was a well-respected doctor for MSU and USA Gymnastics for more than 20 years. Now, more than 265 girls and women — high school, collegiate and Olympic athletes among them — say he sexually assaulted them under the guise of providing medical treatment.
Baker has been watching the progression of and fallout from the Nassar case from her Florida home.
She helped shape federal Title IX regulations that first went into effect in the 1970s. Since leaving her post as MSU’s athletic director in 1995, she has served as an expert witness in Title IX litigation cases.
“In my estimation, without equivocation, I think that Michigan State has been in violation of its compliance with Title IX,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “Anytime someone employed by a school is told about alleged sexual harassment or abuse or assault or violence, the employee’s obligation, their legal mandate, is to report the information to a supervisor.”
Michigan State’s attorneys have been arguing otherwise. They’ve filed a motion to dismiss a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of several victims, claiming the women didn’t report Nassar to the right people.
“That’s absolutely a scapegoat,” Baker said.
In 2014, Amanda Thomashow reported Nassar to MSU after she said he molested her during an appointment. That triggered a Title IX investigation, but it didn’t lead to any significant change. Nassar was allowed to keep seeing patients.
“I don’t think their investigation was done properly,” Baker said of the 2014 case. “I don’t think it was done completely.”
That wasn’t the only time someone complained about Nassar. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit laid out nine other instances over the course of 18 years in which someone reported him — directly to the police, in one case — and nothing was done.
“The bigger question to me is when a coach was told this by a student athlete, a gymnast in 1997, why wasn’t it stopped then?” Baker wondered.
“Had I known that you were such close friends, I would’ve never told” former MSU women’s gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about the abuse, that athlete, Larissa Boyce, said in court last month. “She protected you (Nassar) over me, a child.”
Recent ESPN reports allege a culture of cover-ups in MSU’s athletic department, one in which everyone is urged to keep sexual assault allegations involving student athletes quiet.
“I do believe that there is a cultural problem at Michigan State University,” Baker said. “I felt that 23 years ago. I’ve seen nothing to change that and as I look at the unfolding of this particular series of events, I’m convinced that the problems are still there.”
When Baker moved to East Lansing in 1992, she brought her years of teaching Title IX enforcement. She said it fell on deaf ears.
“I would venture to guess that the words ‘Title IX’ were barely ever heard after I left. That was just the attitude,” she said. “I tried speaking to the Board of Trustees about it numerous times. I tried speaking to the president. There were just a lot of people in those positions that didn’t want to hear about it.”
The only current trustee who also sat on the board in the 1990s is Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson. Citing his comments on the radio last month, which many said demonstrated a serious lack of understanding of the magnitude of the Nassar case, Baker said she sees him as the embodiment of the culture MSU must address.
“There’s so many more things going at the university than just this Nassar thing,” Ferguson said in the radio interview, also laughing off a comparison to the Penn State sexual assault scandal.
He later apologized for his comments but said he has no plans to step down.
“Do you really need to hear anything more about the cultural crisis at Michigan State University?” Baker said. “Or the genesis of its core practices… It’s just appalling that the institution is that tone deaf.”
“When protection of the brand is more important than protection of its consumers, inevitably there will be a stain on the brand,” Baker continued, “and I think that’s what has happened at Michigan State.”
But there has been a public outcry for reform. A number of campus organizations, including a majority of the faculty, have called for the entire Board of Trustees to resign. Late last month, hundreds of people held a demonstration to make it clear something needed to change.
Nassar’s third and final criminal case wrapped up Monday as an Eaton County judge sentenced him to between 40 and 125 years in prison for sexual assault. That’s on top of the 60 years in prison he got for federal child pornography charges and the 40 to 175 years an Ingham County judge ordered for a sexual assault case there.