Less than 24 hours before Larry Nassar stood in an Ingham County courtroom, pleading guilty last November to sexually assaulting seven women, three Michigan State University board members were about 20 miles northwest, waiting to board an airplane flying them to a weekend of MSU basketball games.
Joel Ferguson, Melanie Foster and Mitch Lyons all were members of the traveling party that spent the Thanksgiving holiday watching high-level basketball courtesy of the university. The three trustees, plus two Foster guests and one Lyons guest, are listed on documents showing the official traveling party for the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational. The plane left about 5 p.m. Nov. 21. Nassar, the former MSU doctor, pleaded guilty the next morning.
The presence of board members on trips by the basketball or football teams isn’t unusual. A Free Press review of five years of travel records — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — shows that six of the eight current board members have traveled with one or both of the teams. The six — board chairman Brian Breslin, Ferguson, Foster, Lyons, Dianne Byrum and Brian Mosallam — were taking advantage of a perk most other Big Ten universities don’t offer.
At MSU, the university will cover the costs for a board member and a guest to travel with a team. It’s unclear from the records how much each trip cost or what the cost for the trustees was — the records provided under FOIA simply list the names of the traveling party.
Board members’ travel with the teams raises questions about the oversight the board gives to athletics, especially in light of the Nassar case and ongoing questions about the athletic department’s response to complaints about sexual assaults.
“I will never forget the day that I sat in court to watch Larry Nassar sentenced in federal court, while photos were swirling online of the MSU Board of Trustees partying in Portland to celebrate Phil Knight’s birthday,” Nassar survivor Morgan McCaul said in an interview with the Free Press.
“It was an incomprehensible slap in the face, and I believe it speaks volumes as to the priorities of the board: money, reputation, and athletic success. And it was those twisted priorities, placed above the safety and well being of students and athletes on campus, that allowed Larry Nassar to prey upon young women for literally decades.
“They couldn’t have shown their character more clearly.”
While there’s nothing legally wrong with board members taking the trips, Armand Alacbay, vice president for trustee and government affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said it can be problematic.
The role of a trustee is to ask tough questions and be the “rudder” of the institution, Alacbay told the Free Press. That can be tough if the board is traveling with the school’s sports teams.
“It can lead to an appearance of favoritism,” he said.
Combined, MSU trustees were listed in the traveling party 41 times, including:
- Ferguson, 19 times
- Lyons, 7 times
- Foster, 7 times
- Mosallam, 6 times
- Breslin, 1 time
- Byrum, 1 time
Mosallam said he gave up his seats on two of the flights he’s listed on travel records to MSU development at the last minute.
No travel perks from other schools
MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said trustee travel is limited to the trustee and one guest. Any other guests are responsible for covering their own costs,
That’s not the case elsewhere.
At the University of Michigan, regents don’t “routinely” fly on team planes, although spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said there may have been special instances in the past where a regent might have done so.
At the University of Wisconsin, members of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents are only offered tickets to home football games and one bowl game every season. Expenses for the regent are covered by bowl proceeds. Guest expenses must be reimbursed
At Penn State, trustees don’t travel. Neither do board members at the University of Iowa, unless they pay their way.
One place that is somewhat similar is the University of Nebraska. “Invitations to trustees to travel with the team are extended only on an infrequent basis,” spokesman Jim Bush told the Free Press. “Any spouses or guests accompanying trustees on those occasional travel opportunities are treated as university volunteers. The associated transportation and lodging expenses would be paid through athletic department funds, all of which are generated from outside the university.”
At the University of Minnesota, “board members (plus guest) have traditionally been invited to attend one away football game each season as part of a donor trip organized by athletics and the university’s foundation. Expenses are covered by the university and foundation,” Emmalynn Bauer, a spokeswoman for the university, told the Free Press.
MSU’s records do not provide a complete picture of who was traveling with the teams. The university heavily redacted the documents given to the Free Press in response to its open records request, including crossing out the names of any students, including the players it promotes heavily, from the list. In a few instances, MSU also redacted the names of people listed under the Board of Trustees heading on the travel list. For example, on the travel list for the Nov. 11, 2015, football game at Nebraska, Lyons is listed under the section with the header BOT’s. The second name under that section is blacked out on the document provided to the Free Press.
MSU said in its letter accompanying the documents that it redacted information to protect student’s identities and also cited a provision allowing the withholding of “information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”
Three of the board members — Breslin, Ferguson and Lyons — did not return requests from the Free Press for comment. Byrum noted she only traveled once and Mosallam said he occasionally traveled and in a couple of the cases he gave up his seats at the last moment.
Foster said she goes on the trips to build relationships, like she has across the university with folks. She also said she’s generally speaking to an alumni group or donors on behalf of the university.
She said she didn’t think any restrictions needed to be placed on the travel.
“I’m not aware of anyone taking advantage of the trips,” she said.
An appearance of a conflict of interest
Alacbay said “the problem with accepting benefits like these is the appearance of conflicts. (They) need to remember they are public fiduciaries.”
The travel also leads to a broader question — why is a person serving on a board?
“A board of trustees isn’t a social club, there’s serious work to be done,” Alacbay said.
In addition to the scandal involving Nassar, who is accused of molesting more than 200 women and students, two federal lawsuits have been filed against MSU alleging coverups of sexual assaults of female students by athletes.
One lawsuit claims three Michigan State basketball players raped a student in 2015, one week after the Final Four loss to Duke, and the university’s counseling center coerced the woman not to report it to authorities.
Another lawsuit was filed by a female student who says she was sexually assaulted by former MSU football player Keith Mumphery in 2015. The lawsuit alleges MSU’s athletic department helped Mumphery come back to campus after he had been banned because of the assault. Mumphery, who never was charged in criminal court, played for the Spartans in 2011-14. He was expelled in 2016 from his graduate studies program.
Mumphery in turn is suing MSU in federal court. The lawsuit claims Mumphery’s wrongful expulsion has left him unable to complete his graduate degree in communications, costing him a job in the non-NFL world.
The federal Office of Civil Rights, as part of a broader investigation into MSU’s handling of sexual assaults, also is digging into the athletic program, multiple sources with knowledge of the investigation told the Free Press previously. It’s the second time the OCR has looked at MSU. In 2015, as part of a report heavily criticizing MSU for creating a hostile campus, the OCR found that several members of the athletic department, including head basketball coach Tom Izzo, weren’t following the proper process for reporting possible sexual assault claims.
Meddling in the athletic department?
Trustees have long been accused of meddling in the athletic department and supporting it over other areas of the institution.
“They’ve always loved football,” said Mike Wilson, 64, of Grand Rapids, an MSU alum who also has had three children graduate from the school. “Just look at what they did when the football players were accused of (sexual assault) a couple of years ago. They were all over that, getting updates and figuring out what was going on. But they say they didn’t know anything about Nassar.”
In 2016, three football players were accused of a sexual assault in January.
Michigan State University Police said the victim reported that one player invited her to “speak somewhere quiet,” then “pulled” her into a bathroom and forced her to engage in oral and vaginal sex. Two of the players were each accused of later forcing her to perform oral sex. Police also alleged that one player recorded himself having sex with the woman.
After it was reported later that spring, a few board members asked to see the investigation files, multiple sources told the Free Press previously. The board also held an hours-long closed door meeting with football coach Mark Dantonio and then-President Lou Anna Simon to discuss the issue before emerging to express support for the coach, then athletic director Mark Hollis, and Simon.
The three players, who cut a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to charges of seducing an unmarried woman and received probation.
Board members have long said they knew nothing about a 2014 investigation into Nassar that wrongly cleared him of sexual assault and don’t see reports of complaints. The board now has put into place a policy that requires the board to be notified of reports and has hired a new chief compliance officer who can bring reports directly to the board.
The records obtained by the Free Press show some board members travel often to high-profile sports events.
For example, as the MSU basketball team headed to New York City in early March for the Big Ten tournament, the front of the plane was loaded with top MSU administrators.
Bill Beekman, then the interim athletic director, sat in row six, behind head basketball coach Tom Izzo. Two rows behind Beekman sat Ferguson and his guests, including his long-time friend Gregory Eaton. Eaton and Ferguson have been around MSU basketball for decades, including a long-running relationship with the most famous MSU basketball player, Magic Johnson, that dates to before Magic was at MSU.
In the row behind Ferguson’s was Foster and a guest.
The plane carrying them flew from Lansing to Newark Liberty International Airport, where the guest bus from the airport to the Sheraton Times Square hotel was scheduled to arrive around 6:15 p.m. The hotel has a rack rate of around $200 per room. There were meals, basketball and then a flight home.
“I don’t understand how you go to that if you are a board member,” MSU alumnus Carrie Kuiper, 43, of Grand Rapids, said during a recent campus visit. “The institution is in the biggest crisis probably of any university ever and you’re flying off for a weekend in New York and having the university pay for it. Pretty sweet gig.”
MSU’s trustees are required to get pre-trip approval, which is signed off on by the secretary of the board. That was Beekman, who was secretary of the board before being named interim athletic director. Earlier this month, Interim President John Engler named Beekman — who has no athletic department experience — as the permanent director. The board unanimously approved the move and a big raise for Beekman. His new job has a base salary of $750,000, up from the $400,000 he got when he was named interim athletic director in February.
From 2015 to 2018, board members were on the traveling party for more basketball games than football games.
“It’s outrageous,” Mary Tillman, 21, a senior at MSU,said recently. “Why should they get to go to the games? Sounds like they wanted the teams to win so they could get to go to cool places. It’s all about athletics here.”
Multiple board members have personal ties to the sports program at MSU. George Perles was the football coach and athletic director. Mosallam and Lyons played football at MSU. Breslin is the son of the late Jack Breslin, who was an MSU administrator during decades of campus growth. The basketball arena is named for Breslin.
MSU has been under fire before for travel. In 2013, TV station WXYZ ran details about trips trustees took, including a trip to South Africa Foster took with her husband that cost about $20,000. Foster later reimbursed MSU for her husband’s expenses after questions were raised.Then- trustee Faylene Owen spent more than $26,000 in university money for a 10-day European trip, according to the report. During the trip, when the MSU basketball team was playing overseas, Owen attended a game, met with students and held alumni dinners. The trip included stays in a $1,300 a night hotel, about $3,000 in limousines and another $3,000 in stipends for her and her husband.
This article also appeared in the Lansing State Journal.