Like so many Michigan State University alumni, I was sickened to hear the details of the Larry Nasser case and the role the university played in impunity for so many appalling crimes against girls and young women—there are allegations of assault against 260 victims. The crisis of sexual assault on campuses and more widely in the United States comes up frequently, yet there seems to be limited systemic change that would make real impact. Perhaps there is too little political will by state or other governments to tackle this huge issue; perhaps financial and other interests of universities are directly divergent to robust reform; or perhaps protecting countless victims from sexual assault is not sufficient motivation for universities who prioritize their prestige, athletic programs and income over the rights and well-being of their students.
In some campuses, it makes for a deadly combination when athletes and sports programs are idolized and are not held accountable for their actions, to the point of impeding justice. Beyond the Nasser case, Michigan State has been under Department of Education oversight since 2014, who has been involved since 2010, due to the university’s mishandling of sexual assault and gender discrimination cases. The cases that prompted the initial interventions concerned MSU’s mishandling of rape cases, one committed by two basketball players. Once again highlighting the university’s true priorities, last fall MSU requested an end to the oversight since MSU was acting in ‘good faith’; this request was made even though MSU had still, at the time of their request, failed to provide documents for the Nasser cases to federal officers.
At MSU, it has been said that there is a “pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression of such allegations by officials ranging from campus police to the Spartan athletic department.” Indeed, MSU has gone to great lengths to suppress information about sexual assault and how it has handled cases including legal battles to withhold athletes’ names from police records, deleting information from incident reports and refusing to release information from internal investigations concerning how sexual assault cases have been handled.
The culture of impeding rape investigations and silencing of the issue perpetuates the human rights crisis in the United States, on college campus and more widely. A few quick statistics:
1 in 5 women in the U.S. have experienced rape in their lifetimes. Based on population statistics at the time of the 2010 census, this amounts to approximately 31.4 million women.
1 in 20 have experienced other types of sexual violence (in the 12 months prior to survey).
A survey of undergraduate women found that 19% had experienced sexual assault since entering college.
Out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free.
Women who have experienced rape often suffer severe and long term health consequences:
94% experience PTSD;
33% contemplate suicide; and
13% attempt suicide.
It is difficult to measure the health and human rights implications for any individual victim, let alone for this scale of sexual assault; some include psychological and/or physical trauma and mental health implications, invasion of bodily integrity and autonomy, the list goes on. Slightly easier to quantify, in 2008 alone, sexual assault came at a hefty price, costing the United States $750 billion in health care costs.
While perhaps (and hopefully) not illustrative of the wider issue of sexual assault in the United States, the Nasser case and non-action of Michigan State serves a useful—albeit painful—example of how ineffective universities can be at handling sexual assault and broken justice systems. While there have been rape cases reported against Nasser since the 1990s, victim’s voices were silenced or university officials failed to take action. Indeed, at least 14 MSU officials knew of rape allegations against him and did nothing. Consequently, it took a period of 25 years during which hundreds of preventable assaults occurred, with cases so predatory and despicable, to remove this man from a position in which he was able to continue assaulting young women, and to finally bring him before the courts.
There has been some fallout and steps taken to improve the handling of sexual assault, including resignations from the president of the university and the head of the athletic department. The Department of Education, the NCAA and the Michigan Attorney General are investigating the (non) handling of the Nasser case. A potentially significant step, there is proposed legislation in the Michigan Congress which would improve how universities and the state respond to sexual assault, including by establishing a Title IX ombudsman at the state Department of Civil Rights and increasing resources available to rape survivors. While these measures will not prevent the violence and violations that have already occurred, perhaps the scale of suffering will motivate politicians and universities to step up and actually change things.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.