The former Olympic USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor, Larry Nassar, has been sentenced to 175 years in prison on the basis of over 150 claims of sexual abuse during a period of over 20 years. The crimes were committed against young gymnasts and athletes, most of whom were either minors at the time or students at Michigan State University. The case has brought up concerns about the ability and conviction of universities to look after the wellbeing of their students and to do enough to report and deal with complaints of sexual abuse or harassment.
The impact statements delivered by the victims revealed Nassar to be a master manipulator and brainwasher, skilled in grooming techniques. He inflicted long term and devastating emotional damage on to his victims, most of whom were too young to understand what was happening or were convinced that his treatment of them was normal. After all, Larry Nassar was the world-famous Olympic doctor with immense standing. Who were they to question his methods?
Over 20 years, there was no meaningful investigation conducted, despite many complaints being filed
However, many of the athletes he abused were students at Michigan State University, where he was based, and therefore old enough to understand that something was amiss with this so-called legitimate medical treatment. Time and time again, victims addressed the role of Michigan State University and the blind eye that senior members of staff, such as MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon, had turned to complaints made over a span of 20 years. Simon has been criticised for not attending the hearings, as well as not offering support or providing meaningful comment on MSU’s role in allowing Nassar to get away with committing these crimes. After huge pressure, she has finally resigned. But has she really taken responsibility for the clear abuse of power and trust that took place on her campus?
Simon does not concede to having any part to play and has been condemned for seemingly blaming the situation on the publicity of the scandal. This comes as a disappointment to many after multiple victims told of their experiences of trying to alert MSU of Nassar’s conduct from as early as 1997, only to be shut down each time. Over 20 years, there was no meaningful investigation conducted, despite many complaints being filed.
One in three women face sexual abuse or assault on university campuses
The handling of the crisis by top officials is disappointing to say the least. It is frightening to think that a university does not have the best interests of its students at heart and would choose, rather, to propagate an employee due to his reputation. To regain credibility and restore the faith of its students; the parents who trust them with the safety of their children, and everyone else involved, MSU will need to answer to criticism and make amends.
Although happening under very different circumstances to the horrific abuse of Nassar, we cannot avoid taking the opportunity to address the accountability of UK universities in cases of sexual abuse, in light of these events. In 2015, The Telegraph claimed that one in three women face sexual abuse or assault on university campuses. Moreover, according to a more recent 2016/17 Guardian investigation, in which Freedom of Information requests were sent to 120 UK universities, it was found that at least 169 allegations were made against staff between 2011 and 2017. Yet many of those who made complaints mentioned they were dissuaded from making official complaints and so withdrew. Others told The Guardian they never reported harassment for fear of it impacting their education, suggesting numbers may be far higher than known. Amongst the universities with the highest number of allegations were Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, UAL, Essex and Cambridge. Like McKayla Maroney, one graduate student reported to the newspaper that her university offered her a settlement to pressure her into dropping her complaint against a senior member of staff. She refused and only a small inconsequential investigation took place; the member of staff is still employed by the university.
We cannot allow the shame or blame to fall on victims
Universities need to be accountable, vigilant and take allegations of this kind seriously. Above all, universities ought to be safe spaces for students to speak out and to be heard. Too many girls and boys are afraid to speak up for fear of being ignored, belittled or simply not believed. The Larry Nassar case shows that such ideas are not unfounded. Victim after victim has expressed the incredible guilt they felt for not speaking up or not pushing harder when they were initially ignored, wishing they knew and could have done something to protect Nassar’s future victims. We cannot allow the shame or blame to fall on victims. Not when the major organisations in their care, who were responsible for the appointment and the ability of Nassar to continue his manipulation, do not have the proper frameworks in place for mandatory reporting, proper education, or even the conviction to do the right thing.
Of students who have been victims of sexual assault, 40% experienced this on campus in the Copper Rooms
Warwick Student Services have dedicated a page to education and advice surrounding sexual assault, with information on who to contact if you experience assault. A recent Tab Warwick article revealed the results of their Sexual Assault Survey, which showed that of students who have been victims of sexual assault, 40% experienced this on campus in the Copper Rooms. It is clear that the SU’s #WeGetConsent campaign could not have come at a better time, allowing students to take a leading role in reporting and speaking out about sexual violence. Accompanying the increasingly popular #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, Warwick’s campaign offers an online module on consent and a support system for survivors; societies across the university are also getting involved to support the cause. All seek to provide a voice for those scared to come forward, and simultaneously put pressure on the institutions that protect predators to make a change, so that something of this scale never takes place again.