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Dive Brief:

  • Michigan State University is facing a new lawsuit over its handling of information regarding Larry Nassar, former university doctor and convicted sex offender. 
  • A group of sexual abuse survivors and their family members Thursday filed the lawsuit against Michigan State and its board of trustees, alleging they breached state transparency laws by deciding behind closed doors to withhold roughly 6,000 documents related to the Nassar case. “The public was cheated,” the lawsuit said.
  • The plaintiffs also want communications between trustees leading up to and immediately following their decision not to release the Nassar documents — something that was already requested in April under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. They are not seeking money in the case, according to their lawyer.

Dive Insight:

In 2018, Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting young gymnasts and student-athletes. More than 500 of Nassar’s victims have come forward. 

The following year, the U.S. Department of Education fined Michigan State $4.5 million for mishandling the Nassar case. That same year, a state attorney general accused the university of intentionally prevented his office from investigating its actions while perpetrating “a culture of indifference toward sexual assault, motivated by its desire to protect its reputation.”

Michigan State has also experienced near-constant leadership turmoil since Nassar was sentenced, with tension largely concentrated on how to fix the culture referenced by the attorney general.

But university leaders’ secretive attitudes have not changed, according to Azzam Elder, the attorney for the survivors filing the lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the state’s attorney general requested Michigan State allow the release of thousands of documents related to Nassar. Enough trustees publicly backed the action that it seemed likely to happen, Thursday’s lawsuit said.

But in April, Board Chair Rema Vassar said in a statement that the university would not comply.

“We understand that for those who continue to push for this transparency, this is not what you want to hear,” she said. “On behalf of the board, please know that we are deeply sorry. We recognize that MSU is a continual site of trauma for survivors.”

Elder said the unexpected outcome must have stemmed from a closed-doors meeting to avoid scrutiny — something Michigan transparency laws, particularly its Open Meetings Act, prohibits.

“MSU Trustees have again betrayed the survivors and their families,” he said in a statement. “The lack of compassion and empathy is outrageous. You can’t just write a check and walk away.”

In a statement, Clasina Syrovy, a plaintiff in the case, questioned why Michigan State won’t release the requested information if it has nothing to hide.

“Aside from MSU violating the Freedom of Information Act and blatantly hiding 6,000 documents relevant to the case from us for five-and-a-half years, we have had our integrity questioned and character targeted by MSU, the board of trustees, and even the interim president,” Syrovy said.

Mark Bullion, Michigan State spokesperson, said Thursday the university had not yet seen the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation. 

“We can’t heal as a community until we know that everyone who enabled a predator is accountable,” Melissa Hudecz, another plaintiff in the case, said in a statement Thursday. “By protecting the 6,000 secret documents and anyone named in them, the board is adding to survivors’ trauma with their lack of institutional accountability.

“Students who are on campus now deserve to know they are safer than we were.”