Michigan State: Special Counsel Finds a Culture Problem

William Forsyth, the special counsel working with the Michigan Attorney General in investigating how Michigan State handled the sexual abuse allegations involving convicted sex offender Dr. Larry Nassar, has issued an interim report. That report concludes that there was and is a “culture” problem at Michigan State that continues as evidenced by the conduct of Michigan State during the investigation: “(1) issuing misleading public statements, (2) drowning investigators in irrelevant documents, (3) waging needless battles over pertinent documents, and (4) asserting attorney/client privilege even when it did not apply. Mr. Forsyth added, “These actions warrant extended discussion because they highlight a common thread we encountered throughout the investigation into how the University handled allegations against Nassar. Both then and now, MSU has fostered a culture of indifference toward sexual assault, motivated by its desire to protect its reputation.”

Michigan State has responded through a spokesperson noting the university has been “very cooperative,” and that it has a “right” to assert its attorney/client privilege. According to the report, university lawyers accompanied all employees to their interviews with the special counsel.

One of the problems with this investigation is that there are still criminal charges pending that the Michigan Attorney General’s Office is handling, including against the former president of the University, a former dean, and the former gymnastics coach. ‘Tis a fine ethical line to walk to have the same office conducting a public investigation as those defendants prepare for their trials. Mr. Forsyth admitted as much, noting that he could not issue a final report as long as those charges are pending. In the Penn State Sandusky case, Penn State hired a private attorney (former FBI director Louis Freeh) to conduct an investigation, thus freeing him to release a full report and conclusions apart from what are still the pending final dispositions of cases against administrators there. Michigan State did hire independent counsel to investigate the Nassar sexual abuses, however, the report was one that prepared the university for defending itself in anticipation of litigation.

While Michigan State has made process reforms on its investigation processes for allegations of sexual abuse, Mr. Forsyth is correct. The tone at the top still does not signal the critical need for transparency and truth. In short, there is a difference between legal posturing and ethical conduct. Michigan State is still in the legal Kabuki dance mode. True reform comes when the mask and fancy footwork are dropped.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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