The Fine Art Of Not-Resigning

Aly Raisman at last week’s Nassar trial hearing

As a distinguished alumni of Michigan State University, an award I received in 2014, I’m appalled by the Larry Nassar case.

I’m heartbroken for the young women gymnasts abused by Nassar, who was based at MSU, and whose pleas for help went unheard by adults who might have prevented them from harm.

I’m also kind of stunned that MSU’s president, Lou Anna Simon, has not yet resigned, given the university’s association with Nassar.

But, then, neither has President Trump, in the face of allegations that he paid off a porn actress, on top of everything else that has happened during his presidency.

Nor did Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, when members of his administration were charged in the Flint water scandal.

There is clearly, now, a fine art of not-resigning.

It’s an exquisitely cynical reflection on what has happened to our society and our sense of moral outrage in the lightning fast media age.

In the past, any of these stories might have ended with a simple conclusion: they would have stepped down.

After all, Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that famously read, “The Buck Stops Here.”

Every business leader of any note will tell you that the chief executive is ultimately responsible for any nefarious activities, by the CEO or at the company, that took place while they were in charge.

It’s true in other parts of society, too.

As a Roman Catholic, I have been shaken by the priest abuse scandal, which brought down cardinals and you might argue, led to the retirement of a pope.

As a sports fan, I also was in shock at the Penn State University abuse story, which toppled one of the most famous coaches in college football history.

But, just a few short years after Penn State, the country’s emotional temperature no longer rides as high in the face of scandal.

And, given the Vatican funeral that former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law received, memories apparently are fading quickly, too.

One of the most talked about movies this year is “I, Tonya.” It paints figure skater Tonya Harding as a victim of her own troubled circumstances, rather than someone who set out to destroy the career of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994.

This weekend, the Chicago Tribune posted an excerpt on its Facebook page from a column that read in part, “Tonya Harding is having her redemption” which, as you might expect, set off some heated comments.

(The column actually argued that Kerrigan also deserved a redemption, causing some on Facebook to ask, “Redemption from what? She was the victim.” )

Harding has never slunk away in shame, and in fact, is having something of a moment at awards shows and in interviews.

She might seem tone deaf to what people actually think of her, but she’s enduring, as are Simon, Trump and Snyder.

How is this possible? I asked John Baldoni, the author and noted expert on leadership, to help me understand it.

Baldoni believes both Trump and Snyder have hung on because they are elected officials.

And, barring a push for impeachment and conviction, in Trump’s case, or a statewide recall campaign, in the case of Snyder, they simply get to keep their jobs. They haven’t resigned, because they don’t have to resign.

That isn’t as true, he notes, in the corporate world, because CEOs are accountable to boards of directors and the shareholders who invest in their businesses.

“I will say that if Trump or Snyder were execs in either corporate or nonprofit organizations, they would be history,” Baldoni says. “Perception of wrong doing would have eliminated them from credibility. Sad to say standards for elected officials are much lower.”

In the case of Simon, she received the support last Friday of her bosses, the MSU Board of Trustees, albeit the least-supportive support that any college president could ask for.

“Through this terrible situation, the university has been perceived as tone deaf, unresponsive and insensitive to the victims. We understand the public’s faith has been shaken,” the board said in a statement.

But it concluded, “We continue to believe President Simon is the right leader for the university and she has our support.”

Simon, who I met when I received my Distinguished Alumni Award, is an MSU lifer.

Unlike many people who rise to become university presidents, she’s never worked anywhere else. She’s been in East Lansing since arriving there to work on her doctorate in 1974.

She loves MSU, knows the fine art of university politics inside and out, and is as cemented to the campus as the Sparty statue.

Too, East Lansing is just distant enough from the big city fray of Detroit or Chicago to avoid a constant spotlight.

This has allowed the Nassar case to get perhaps less attention than it might have received had it happened in Ann Arbor or Evanston, even though there has been steady reporting by news outlets such as the Indianapolis Star and USA Today for the past two years.

Now, Nassar’s abuse is finally getting the exposure it should have received all along, thanks to the multiple victim statements that are being read at this sentencing hearing, including a widely noted one by Olympian Aly Raisman.

And, the pressure is mounting on Simon, as is the incredulity at her perseverance. Still, that might not be enough to dislodge her.

Clearly, the MSU lawyers are reading a broader public sentiment.

They’re seeing that the country, in general, isn’t automatically demanding that its leaders step aside when they’re treading in mire. Simon, they may be gambling, might just be able to wait this one out.

That strategy may be effective, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.

Says Baldoni, “When the public acquiesces to bad behavior, they lower the standards of acceptance. Hence, Trump is ‘normal.’ What suffers is respect for integrity and accountability.”

If he were alive in 2018, Truman might need to get a new sign.

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter at Micheline Maynard

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store