The ‘big chill’ at our state universities

Senator Patrick Colbeck

Senator Patrick Colbeck

By Sen. Patrick Colbeck

7th Senate District

Our state universities and colleges used to be beacons of openness and free speech, where transparency was encouraged and few topics were deemed off limits. In recent years, however, this warm reception has been replaced by a “big chill.”

The dire consequences of this institutional culture of silence have been further brought to light during the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar. Over the past 20 years, Nassar was — incredulously — able to abuse over 100 women and young girls with impunity.

One of the survivors of this tragedy, Larissa Boyce, notified her trusted Michigan State University youth gymnastics coach of Nassar’s actions. Larissa has been passionate in saying the school could have stopped Nassar in 1997. But instead of notifying authorities or even Larissa’s parents, Larissa’s coach instead interrogated her and made her feel she had simply misunderstood a procedure that was in actuality a sexual assault.

It took many other courageous voices, including that of Rachel Denhollander, to bring Dr. Nassar’s despicable behavior into the full light of day.

If we continue to accept the policies of institutional silence at universities that were on display during the trial, we may no longer raise generations of courageous women like Larissa, Rachel and other survivors who were willing to relive painful memories to protect future students from such abuses.

We are fortunate these brave women spoke up in the first place. We are fortunate they were courageous enough to keep telling their stories of the horrific abuse they endured. We are fortunate that the university’s culture of silence could not keep their voices stifled.

But we simply can’t afford to rely on personal bravery to prevent the next Dr. Nassar. Our universities should encourage people to speak their minds and to always speak out when they believe something is right or wrong. In fact, we should encourage people to speak up on all issues. If nothing is done to increase the transparency and openness of our higher education institutions, we will really be teaching generations of students that they must remain silent on any topic that conflicts with the position of university authorities.

To be clear, this is not just a problem at MSU. Many universities throughout our state and across the country are afflicted by a culture that silences. We have all heard of incidents over the past few years of student groups being marginalized, administrators disinviting speakers to campuses, and voices being shouted down by those who are looking to intimidate others into not speaking. While there is a large moral difference between a university trying to silence reports of sexual abuse versus marginalizing students with differing views, both of these impulses stem from the same problem: Michigan’s colleges and universities are not transparent and have little accountability.

Universities in Michigan have been granted a significant degree of autonomy under our state constitution. With this freedom comes responsibility. Dr. Nassar’s behavior and the subsequent cover-up indicate that our university bureaucracies have forgotten these salient facts and need to be subject to better oversight by the peoples’ elected representatives.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck represents the 7th Senate District, which encompasses the cities of Livonia, Northville, Plymouth and Wayne, as well as the townships of Canton, Northville and Plymouth.

Posted in Colbeck-Editorials.