MSU must become a collective force to change culture

The journey has been arduous and awful, but Michigan State University may finally be on a path toward a much overdue change in culture.

Signs were evident at the special Board of Trustees meeting last week during which controversial interim President John Engler was shown the door — along with a unanimous vote to accept his resignation immediately, a week earlier than his preferred date.

The selection of Satish Udpa, a well-regarded administrator and distinguished professor, as acting president reflects a keen understanding of the need for a temporary leader who will lead by displaying respect for the community he serves.

Seven of the eight elected leaders were present (Trustee Melanie Foster, an Engler backer, was not). Six of them spoke, offering their varied perspectives on the crisis MSU has faced over Larry Nassar, the 20-year campus physician who was in fact a serial sexual predator whose victims numbered in the hundreds.

Their collective remarks included pledges to support leadership that reflects the university’s values, to continue working together, to listen to the university community and to support Nassar survivors.

It was a powerful moment, hearing from almost every trustee the depth of their concern and their pledge to improve. The three newest trustees, at only their second meeting, showed compassion and insight. All who spoke acknowledged the need for more change.

A year ago, when trustees picked the former Republican governor as the university’s temporary leader, circumstances were far different than they are today.

In the throes of the sentencing hearings, many people were realizing for the first time the depth of Nassar’s depravity and the immense failures at MSU that allowed it to happen. There was not yet a $500 million settlement with hundreds of victims who had sued the university.

Former Dean William Strampel had yet to face charges tied to sexual misconduct, including his own sexual abuse of female medical students, and with mishandling a 2014 complaint against Nassar.

Former president Lou Anna Simon and former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages had not yet been charged with lying to investigators about their knowledge of Nassar’s conduct.

The Attorney General’s special prosecutor brought in to review what happened at MSU had not yet given his report saying that MSU put its reputation before making things right on its campus.

The board has lived through those things. The university community has lived through those things. Everyone is wiser now, perhaps realizing in ways they didn’t previously understand just how much has not changed at MSU and how much work is left to be done.

Simon’s failing as president was her inability to acknowledge that the culture at MSU was deeply flawed.

Engler understood there was a problem, but he didn’t understand that culture isn’t altered by changing structure and process alone.

Culture is about people and their attitudes and behavior. People who lead by example.

In his remarks at the meeting, Trustee Brian Mosallam recalled a letter that new acting President Udpa wrote a year ago. In it, Udpa acknowledged the anguish of the Nassar survivors. He also urged the campus community forward with a challenge that Mosallam quoted: “Our collective will to be a force of good must prevail.”

For the first time since the Nassar scandal became public, the majority of MSU’s elected leaders individually displayed an understanding of the problem yet to be solved and took responsibility for it.

That’s a giant and essential first step on the path toward fixing it.

While they continue the work, may they live up to Udpa’s words and become a force of good that prevails.