MSU and Me

Google search my name and Michigan State University and you’ll find some bad stuff. I want to share a few facts that the are not in those news stories.

In 2010, Colleen and I befriended a sexual assault victim. We welcomed her into our family and treated her like one of our own children. She successfully graduated from MSU and began her career. We remained friends and cheered her on.

Seven years later, the university was mired in the horrific scandal surrounding Dr. Larry Nassar. That event triggered many assault survivors. Without warning, this young woman decided to re-imagine our relationship in the worst possible way.

She put together a package of half-truths, claiming I created “a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment,” during her time as an intern at what was then called the MSU Alumni Association. In the white-hot atmosphere surrounding the Nassar situation, interim leadership wanted to be seen as taking a strong position against harassment.

Being one of the most recognizable names and faces at MSU made me an easy target.

Aside from distributing the extensive manual of university policies, we were given no training or focus on the university’s definition of harassment when I went through employee orientation in 2010. Like many, I signed for the book and only read the parts the human resources people pointed out.

Many years later, when the full impact of the Nassar tragedy became known, the university put teeth into both the policy and training surrounding it. Every employee had to recertify their awareness of the rules annually. Being a lifelong believer of diversity, equity and inclusion, and a highly visible supporter of assault victims, I passed each test with 100% scores.

In the late winter of 2018, I received an email from the MSU Office of Institutional Equity, stating our former student was charging me with sexual harassment.

Michigan State violated their own internal policy by outing my name to the press on April 17, before the investigation concluded. It made headlines around the state, likely impacted the outcome in a negative way, and, I believe lead to my father’s death at 3am the next morning.

It quickly became evident that the investigators already concluded I was a violator. My witnesses’ clearly documented evidence disputing this received no real consideration.

Naturally, I did not want any reputational stain to spread to the Association so I relinquished the job of a lifetime, buried my father in the spotlight of horrific news coverage and tried to move on.

In August, the university decided that I did in fact create a “pervasive atmosphere of harassment.” MSU released a highly redacted and inaccurate summary of the investigation to the press and I became unhirable.

Several months later, a federal court discredited Michigan State’s investigations, forcing the university to make major changes to both policy and practice. MSU did nothing to address any of the dozens of previous determinations, including mine.

I believe that had my case been judged with the due-process consideration afforded by our constitution and now required of the university by court order, the outcome would have been dramatically different.

In the #MeToo era, few law firms were interested in helping me right this wrong. They quoted stratospheric fees with no guarantee we would prevail. Even as a class action on behalf of students harmed under the discredited policy began to move forward, nobody cared about impacted faculty or staff.

“No company wants to be seen as going against Me Too,” was the common response. “You were caught in the perfect storm.”

Why did this student we truly loved do this? Legal professionals I consulted point to “transference,” where the victim, unable to prosecute their true abuser, transfers their hatred to someone who tried to help. I learned this triggered just about every instance of alleged harassment that major firms still encounter.

Since no company would hire someone with an internet trail like mine, I created a pen name and have had a mildly successful career as an author of detective fiction. Our family launched an initiative to provide resources and support for the parents of children with Down syndrome. I was lucky enough the among the first to participate in the Moderna vaccine trial. In 2021, Colleen and I wrote “Juliette and the Mystery Bug,” the foremost children’s’ book teaching kids how to navigate the Covid pandemic.

My life’s purpose is centered on helping others. My resume shows a long track record of promoting women and minorities during my leadership career. I enjoyed the mentoring opportunities which came with those experiences. When the news broke about my MSU situation, I heard from dozens of former team members who told us how Colleen and I positively impacted their lives.

The prospect of career castration awakened the clinical depression gene that is a family trait. For many weeks I considered suicide. I came closest on the day we received the ice-cold determination, without a shred of the compassion I once believed was central to the culture of an institution I had dedicated my life to. Thanks to a gifted psychiatrist and an expensive course of daily medication, I have been able to control the constant whispering desire to give up and end my life.

To this day, I run into situations where my contributions are abruptly cut off when someone happens on the news coverage surrounding that horrible time. I’ve tried to put these events into perspective. We live in an era where people make judgements without all the facts. Where big lies gain easy traction in fearful minds. Where ghosting and the cancel culture toss many to the curb without an ounce of consideration.

One thing has become very clear to me. Everyone is dealing with something the world isn’t aware of. We’re all hurting in some corner of our hearts. We have all been wronged. And we are all afraid if we do the improper thing, people will abandon us. This is the atmosphere that divides us as a nation today. Fear clouds judgement, opening  uneasy minds to the seductive voices of opportunists who would promptly sacrifice others for their own benefit.

My father’s last words to me were: “Don’t let one bad person stop you from doing good things.”

I have tried to live this mantra ever since we got the 3am call, telling us he died.

And I have a unique understanding of the ignorance of prejudice. We label others because of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion, their perceived disabilities and whispered rumors. Millions deal with this unfair reality every day. Politicians exploit it to get power. In the worst cases, futures have been destroyed and lives have been lost.

I’m trying to transform my nightmare into a meditation about sensitivity, assessment based on behavioral patterns, not a single incident or ingrained cultural paradigms.

But it’s hard. I now know first hand what it feels like to be excluded from opportunity because of a preconception. “Why take the risk,” is on everyone’s lips. I get it.

Few of us do our homework. Even fewer recall the wisdom of Matthew, verses 1 – 6. What goes around, comes around.

Every day is a battle. I hope I can find the strength to continue to fight it and prevail.