How Institutions Handle Atrocities Can Change the World—Or Not

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Feb 27, 2018

Feb 27, 2018 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

It seems now that every few months there's another horrifying sexual assault scandal at a university. The latest, of course, is Michigan State University's complicity in the abuse Larry Nassar inflicted on athletes at that school and after he left to join the USA Olympic Gymnastics program. Before MSU, there was Baylor's football program (more than once), and before that, Penn State's child abuse scandal, at the center of which was assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and what long-time head coach Joe Paterno did and didn't know over the years that Sandusky abused children. The University of Oregon tried to brush a gang rape by three basketball players under the rug, allowing them to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament and then transfer to other schools before they got in real trouble—then harassing the accuser in unconscionable ways.

If you were a woman, say, and a journalist who covers higher ed and sexual assault, you might feel like moving to an uninhabited island from sheer exhaustion after all of this.

Journalist Jessica Luther, who helped break the story about Baylor University's complicity in the crime(s) committed by its athletes, has pressed on. Dvora Meyers, staff writer at Deadspin, has relentlessly covered gymnastics and Nassar's crimes and trial. The point is, we don't give up. We can't. Someone has to hold these institutions' feet to the fire—because if we don't, they won't do the right thing. They won't feel ashamed and act accordingly.

How Universities Handle Atrocities

Jemele Hill, ESPN host and journalist, recently wrote an article for The Undefeated about MSU, which happens to be her alma mater. It's the place where she started her journalism career. She writes, “Michigan State needs to wear this shame. The university deserves this humiliation, derision, doubt, discomfort and every unkind word. We need to listen to every word from the victims and absorb all of their anger. They've dealt with this betrayal and violation of their trust for years. Michigan State only has to survive a few news cycles.”

Hill even points to comparable situations at other schools: “Michigan State is getting off light compared to the outrage directed at Baylor and Penn State during and in the aftermath of their sexual abuse scandals.” But the point she's making is the point we're all trying to make—institutions only act in their own self-interest, despite what they may preach in their mission statements: “When protecting institutions, friendships, business partnerships and image become more important than protecting vulnerable people, you get what you deserve.”

Every institution facing unbelievable pain that their own failures helped inflict only has one path: One of deep apology. Shame. Grief. And if these outpourings are sincere, healing. But the problem is, colleges and universities are too quick to push the pain under the rug, sacrificing the victims on the altar of public image. And the consequences are dire.

Who Will Come Forward Now?

One could ask (indeed, these questions are asked all the time): how can predators like Nassar, Sandusky and others commit their crimes with such scope and over such a long period of time? The answer is the same for any serial perpetrator (serial rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw comes to mind): the victims are afraid to come forward, and when they finally do, no one believes them or has urgency to act upon their word. (Holtzclaw deliberately selected women who were poor and with outstanding warrants as his victims—no one who would come forward to report him.)

Let me repeat what I just said: perpetrators of sexual assault depend on their victims being afraid to come forward, being disbelieved and being disregarded. Those three things make sexual assault perpetrators feel invincible. And the responses of institutions to Nassars, gang rapes and Sanduskys create environments that either nurture victims or nurture perpetrators. Institutions have a choice about the message they send—not just to their own constituents, but to the wider world.

We have done a horrible thing. We have allowed a horrible thing to happen. The horrible thing was all our fault. We will never, ever allow it to happen again. You are safe here, now. We swear it.

It seems so easy to change the world. And yet it isn't when your public relations team is telling you that simple words like that might put you and your institution at risk.

If you're an administrator, and you are reading this column, and you are facing a choice, I beg you.

Say those words.

Tomorrow, a rape might be reported that otherwise might not have been. And that might avert another. And you might create a culture where a Nassar can never be.

That's why MSU needs to wear its shame. And so should Baylor and Oregon and every school that puts its reputation or sports above the welfare of its students.