The newly hired Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Paulette Granberry Russell was the Title IX coordinator at Michigan State University (MSU) when MSU doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of female students.
In a campus-wide email on July 1, President Armstrong announced the addition of Russell to Cal Poly’s senior leadership team. Cal Poly students and staff have expressed concern due to Russell’s previous position as Title IX coordinator at MSU during Nassar’s sexual assaults.
MSU sexual assault case
As Title IX coordinator, Russell was responsible for overseeing investigations regarding sexual abuse and misconduct on campus.
During the investigation against Nassar, investigators found handwritten notes from two May 2014 meetings between Russell and former MSU President Lou Anna Simon. The notes provided evidence that the subject of the meeting was Nassar and his abuse, MSU’s student-run newspaper, The State News, reported.
The notes said, “Sports Med, Dr. Nassar, SA.” SA stands for sexual assault, Russell told investigators. This indicated to Michigan State Police that the subject of the meeting was Larry Nassar and the complaints against him, according to a report from The State News.
An affidavit by Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. William Arndt alleged that Simon did not tell investigators the truth of her knowledge regarding Nassar’s abuse.
“Simon’s statement that she was not aware of the nature of the complaint that generated the 2014 Title IX investigation was false and misleading as revealed by the documentary evidence,” Arndt’s affidavit read.
Russell served as a key witness in the trial against Simon, who was charged but not convicted of two felonies and two misdemeanors for having previous knowledge of Nassar’s sexual abuse.
During the April 9, 2019 trial, Russell said that she had no “independent recollection” of the meeting between herself and Simon and “[could not] recall stating to President Simon a matter involving Larry Nassar,” according to the Lansing State Journal.
Russell said during the trial that she was unable to recall what was discussed, including whether or not the meeting occurred in person or by phone.
The 2014 meetings between Russell and Simon were an essential aspect of the criminal charges against Simon, according to Michigan News M Live.
Without more evidence from Russell’s testimony, Simon’s case was dismissed by Judge John Maurer.
Title IX at MSU
After the sexual harassment claims against Nassar were made, the Department of Education launched an investigation into MSU.
In September 2019, the Office of Civil Rights found multiple violations in the Title IX investigation against MSU. The university was ordered to pay a $4.5 million fine and the university had to hire outside counsel to review all sexual assault decisions that came into the Title IX office.
“The crimes for which Larry Nassar and [former Michigan State dean] William Strampel have been convicted are disgusting and unimaginable,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said. “So, too, was the university’s response to their crimes. This must not happen again — there or anywhere else.”
Russell worked as MSU’s Title IX coordinator from 1998 to 2015. During the Department of Education’s investigation, she had already switched administrative roles to the senior adviser to the president for diversity.
The meetings regarding the sexual abuse allegations against Nassar occurred in 2014.
Armstrong’s email and subsequent follow-ups
Russell was an emergency hire to “maintain momentum and continuity of leadership within [the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion] and the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts,” Armstrong wrote in an email.
Armstrong included Russell’s previous accomplishments as the MSU Chief Diversity Officer since 1998 and her position as the first female president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), beginning in March.
The email did not include her previous experience as the Title IX coordinator at MSU.
In another email obtained by Mustang News, Armstrong responded to concerns raised by faculty and staff about Russell.
“There was no connection with, or wrongdoing by, Paulette,” Armstrong wrote. “It is unfair and unethical to consider an innocent individual to be guilty by association — and therefore unhirable — because they were employed by the university at the time the scandal occurred.”
Interim Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Denise Isom also reached out to faculty and staff to express her support of Russell.
“I then had an opportunity to speak with Paulette and she answered every question I had and made clear her lack of involvement,” Isom wrote in an email.
Cal Poly community concerns
As Title IX coordinator at MSU, Russell’s office was responsible for investigating sexual assault and abuse allegations on campus, so her office received the reports against Nassar.
This led some Cal Poly staff and faculty members to question Russell’s ability to effectively execute her responsibilities.
“Armstrong’s assertion that Russell ‘had no connection to past misconduct issues at Michigan State University’ seems disingenuous at best. Her involvement is documented,” english professor Brenda Helmbrecht said.
Russell is not the first former MSU employee to transfer to Cal Poly. Cal Poly’s new provost, Cynthia Jackson Elmoore, worked at MSU from 1994 to 2020 as the MSU Honors College Dean, and Armstrong worked at MSU from 2001 to 2011 as the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and as an animal science professor. Russell worked at MSU from 1998 until being hired at Cal Poly.
Elmoore, Russell and Armstrong worked at MSU at the same time.
Russell was a finalist in 2017 to be hired as the Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, but Jozi De Leon was hired instead, university spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News.
Past leadership officials have been selected through national searches and broad campus consultation, Lazier wrote.
This time, Cal Poly faculty, staff and students were not consulted, Helmbrecht said.
“I can vouch for the fact that faculty were not consulted at all. The search process was not transparent and seems to have been kept confidential,” Helmbrecht said.
In response to these concerns, Lazier wrote that Armstrong moved forward with an emergency hire of Russell to promote cohesion in the leadership team and the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion.
“When President Armstrong was informed that De Leon intended to retire, he wanted to move quickly with an emergency hire, to help maintain continuity of leadership and momentum for the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion during this critical time in our history,” Lazier wrote.
Despite Armstrong and Isom’s calls for acceptance of Russell, some staff and faculty said they remain apprehensive.
“The issue isn’t criminal liability, but Russell’s spectacular failure to enforce Title IX effectively when she was head of that office. The result was that Nassar operated with zero accountability for years,” history professor Sarah Bridger said.
A Change.org petition that calls for the the university to rescind Russell of her offer for Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion has been circulating social media. The petition has gathered more than 7,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
On Friday, Cal Poly faculty and staff began to circulate a demand letter to be delivered to President Armstrong that requests clarification on the process by which Russell was selected for the position as well as how Russell was vetted “beyond taking Russell’s word that she bore no responsibility for any aspect of the dysfunction and abuse at MSU.”
The letter began circulating on Friday night and as of Monday morning has gathered almost 1,500 signatures from Cal Poly faculty, staff, alumni and students.