Can Michigan State Recover and Chart a New Path for Higher Education?

July 2018

Even as MSU struggles to respond to the worst crisis in our institutional history, there are signs that the powerful voices of more than 300 sexual abuse survivors, victims of former MSU physician Larry Nassar, are shifting the culture of higher education. Amplified by the global impact of the #MeToo movement, their courage and testimony compel us in higher education to confront the power dynamics that can make academia a haven for predatory behavior and abuse.

At MSU, we are beginning to make overdue changes in how we respond to allegations of sexual misconduct and the systems by which we provide health care. Over the last few months, we have expanded our commitment to safety beyond the health care realm by developing an academic organizational structure that ensures transparency and responsiveness, and by engaging and empowering the voices of patients, families, staff, providers and students. Yet, so much remains to be done.

Findings from state, federal and NCAA investigations will need to be addressed with transparency and with a clear commitment to making comprehensive changes to transform our culture. As our university works its way through legal, legislative, personnel and other processes, we believe there are three imperatives of culture change at MSU that will become a catalyst for transformation across higher education.

First, even as we implement policy, procedural, and structural changes to better detect a predator, we must avoid the temptation to put the Nassar crisis behind us. Rather, we need to keep this crisis and the lessons we are learning from it in front of us. The injury inflicted on the vulnerable is a symptom of a deeper cultural problem within society related to power, voice and silence. Keeping the crisis in front of us requires us to acknowledge that the very institutions created to transform individuals and communities through education can easily be derailed by self-interest, insecurity and competition. Academia is called to cultivate institutional habits of truth-telling and truth-hearing, critical self-reflection and accountability. We must consciously and intentionally empower these habits to rise to meet this calling.

Second, if we are honest with ourselves in the trauma of the moment, many other unjust and inequitable structures must be interrogated and redressed. This involves reconsidering our systems of evaluation and reward, including institutional rankings, tenure and promotion processes and metrics of scholarship. These all must be realigned with the core values of the academic mission. At this time our stated core institutional values are quality, inclusiveness and connectivity. Yet, the metrics by which academic institutions are often judged – raising funds, constructing buildings, and elevating reputation and ranking – too easily foster a tolerance for behavior that falls short of what we know to be just. It is time to revisit our lodestone. Institutions of higher education ought to be judged by their capacity to educate conscientious human beings capable of putting their values into practice in meaningful ways. This requires the creation of learning communities that speak to true inclusiveness and are equitable, trusting, transparent and safe. These communities are inherently difficult to nurture, but nonetheless must be created.

It is time to acknowledge that we have fallen short of our values, reaffirm them in light of our current situation, and align our reward system accordingly. Only then, can we fulfill the transformative role higher education was established to create for the communities we serve. Change must begin with us.

Finally, in an academic culture that draws individuals committed to be agents of societal change, perhaps all too often there is a paradoxical acceptance of being free agents within the university; neither being critical to the success of the broader university mission, nor empowered to impact its fate. The culture we need requires each of us who has some power to effect change to put our effort, influence, and weight on the side of creating more trust and equity. Such a transformation of the academy is only possible if we commit ourselves to holding one another accountable in our daily interactions to the values that shape our shared educational mission. Leadership in this sense must permeate the entire institution, from the staff to the governing board, from students to the faculty and across all levels of administration.

These three imperatives – to keep the lessons of our current crisis in front of us, to interrogate and redress all unjust structures, and to create a culture of shared empathetic leadership -- point to a paradigm shift in higher education. Only by creating communities in which everyone has the opportunity to be heard, feel valued and ultimately to succeed, we will create a new culture of inclusion and empowerment.   

Note: These views represent those of the authors and not necessarily the MSU Council of Deans.

Written by:

  • Norman J. Beauchamp Jr., Dean, College of Human Medicine
  • Rachel Croson, Dean, College of Social Science
  • Prabu David, Dean, College of Communication Arts and Sciences
  • Ronald Hendrick, Dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Thomas D. Jeitschko, Dean, The Graduate School
  • Mark Largent, Interim Dean, Lyman Briggs College
  • Christopher P. Long, Dean, College of Arts & Letters
  • Cheryl Sisk, Interim Dean, College of Natural Science