The President of Michigan State University, Lou Anna Simon, resigned from her position yesterday. She was pressured to do so by those who have watched Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse victims give statements on what they suffered at MSU and other gymnastic facilities. The leadership of USA Gymnastics is under similar pressure, as it should be.
Simon submitted a six paragraph letter of resignation to the MSU Board of Trustees. After stating that “[t]he survivors’ accounts are horrific….tragic, heartbreaking, and personally gut-wrenching,” she goes on to say,
As Nassar’s legal journey to prison was drawing to a close, more and more negative attention was focused on Michigan State University, and on me. I am pleased that statements have been made by Mr. Fitzgerald and Board members about my integrity and the fact that there is no cover-up….As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger. I understand, and that is why I have limited my personal statements. Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to put Team MSU first. Throughout my career, I have consistently and persistently spoken and worked on behalf of Team MSU. I have tried to make it not about me.
You know what this ain’t?
No, Dr. Simon, this large-scale horror has not been “politicized.” It has simply been publicized. There is a world of difference between those two words. The truth has been brought to light, and people are rightly asking who is responsible for the decades of lies.
Furthermore, Dr. Simon, I wonder whether your overriding commitment to “Team MSU” is part of the problem. A true leader does not value the institution s/he serves at the expense of the individuals inside it.
Over and over again, MSU staff dismissed complaints of sexual abuse in order to preserve its athletic programs, its reputation, the status quo, and Larry Nassar, himself. At least eight young women made reports to at least fourteen MSU employees over twenty years about Larry Nassar’s conduct. This looks to me like a colossal failure of “Team MSU.”
If you cannot see this, Dr. Simon, then you are no leader. Despite your title and large salary. Despite whatever contributions you have made to MSU’s programs, financial position, and national standing.
A leader takes responsibility for everything that happens under her/him. A leader knows that the buck must stop with her/him.
If you are unwilling to take large-scale responsibility for your organization, then you ought not take leadership.
More than vision, more than charisma, more than organizational acumen, leadership is about taking responsibility.
I hold leadership in two places right now. And I do so with trembling.
Why? Because I know that I bear responsibility for all that occurs inside these organizations, that I’m accountable for the way the people served by them are treated.
To exercise true leadership is to bear the burden of responsibility. And to bear responsibility with integrity, we must consult more than PR firms and attorneys. We must seek the counsel of wise, mature people whose incentives do not perfectly align with our own. And we must sit long with their counsel in the private space of our consciences.
To do any less than this is to betray those under our leadership.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2018