The actual words make the statement more personal, more human. It ascribes ownership, personal reflection and resolve, even a bit of humility.
It’s possible, just possible, that Michigan State University’s leadership took a long-overdue look at its own feet, reflected on its poor behavior, and made the first steps on what will be a very long journey.
As I’ve blogged here and here, MSU’s leadership—from the exiting President Lou Anna Simon through the consistently insensitive Board of Trustees—failed to show any contrition or demonstrate any meaningful empathy for the hundreds of women sexually abused by sports physician Larry Nassar. After weeks of national outrage that ramped up considerably after the Board affirmed Simon, dismissed critics and minimized the victims, trustees assembled meekly on Friday for a tear-filled public apology. It was a remarkable change in tone.
From a crisis communications perspective, the trustees largely hit the right notes. They took ownership of the failures that allowed Nassar to abuse young athletes for 20 years. They promised to re-engage with the victims to hammer out a “fair and just resolution”—the university already faces many civil lawsuits from the scandal. They pushed for third-party involvement in investigations and vowed to be transparent with results. They pledged to listen to all stakeholders, including holding open forums, with a promise to change whatever needs changing.
Most importantly, they showed remorse, apologizing individually and collectively.
“I am so truly sorry,” said Trustee Brian Mosallam. He sobbed his next sentence: “We failed you.”
“We made mistakes. I made mistakes,” said Trustee Diane Bynum.
“I’m truly sorry for our collective inaction, and I’m sorry for my inaction,” said Trustee Joel Ferguson, among the most criticized for dismissive statements he made in an interview early this week.
Board Chair Brian Breslin seemed to acknowledge the root of MSU’s lack of contrition—fear of lawsuits—in part of his statement: “The focus for MSU needs to shift from lawsuits to pursuing the right decisions to genuinely participate in helping victims and survivors with your healing.”
This link includes a video of the full meeting (fast forward to the 19-minute mark for the start of trustees’ comments).
There were still a few caveats in the Board’s statements and actions, still a few lifeboats kept ready in case MSU eventually dislikes the course this journey might take. But for the moment, the conversation seemed to indicate a better direction.
Only time will tell. MSU must understand that an hour-long “sorry” session, regardless of tears shed, by itself won’t fix the damage that’s been done. Words are important, but sincere actions summon change. Much of that action will be painful—tough investigations, hard questions, fundamental changes, people (including trustees, whom I still believe should resign) owning the failures and suffering the consequences. But that pain is nothing compared to the pain endured by the women Nassar abused, a pain exacerbated by MSU’s callousness.
Students, families, alumni, lawmakers, the public at large, and most importantly the victims, have every reason to be skeptical. They will be watching. It’s up to MSU leadership to meet—no, to exceed—the expectations they tried to establish on Friday. That will take a consistent, relentless, heartfelt effort for years to come.