The new acting chief compliance officer of Michigan State University has a clear sense of his mission at the troubled school — moving the school from a perception that it cares more about its brand than it does about doing what is right.
“I am here to ensure compliance,” Nicholas Wittner told the Free Press in an exclusive conversation. “I’m not here to protect Michigan State’s brand as you call it.
“I’m a Spartan. My wife is a Spartan. I’m embarrassed (by the university’s response to the sexual assault scandal involving Larry Nassar). I’m heartbroken (for the survivors). We can’t have anything like that happen again. I will do everything in my authority to make sure it never happens again…. I have broad authority.”
Wittner is in charge of creating a new Office of Enterprise Risk Management, Ethics and Compliance, which interim President John Engler established last month after calls from MSU board member Brian Mosallam for just such a position. MSU hasn’t said how long Wittner will serve in his role.
The office comes as a reaction to the Nassar and William Strampel scandals, where multiple people knew about complaints regarding sexually inappropriate behavior, but never briefed board members. The new position will report to Engler, but also directly to the eight-member MSU board.
Nassar is the former MSU doctor accused of molesting more than 200 women under the guise of medical treatment; Strampel, his boss and former dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, is facing four criminal charges. They include using his position to “harass, discriminate, demean, sexually proposition, and sexually assault female students,” according to court documents.
Engler has called the position a person to check up on those doing the checking across campus.
Wittner agrees with that definition, but said he’ll be working on more than just that. He’ll be working across the university with existing compliance officers to make sure regulations are followed, but also with schools and departments that don’t have compliance officers in place.
He’ll also be looking at a code of ethics and how the university might develop one consistent code instead of having different ones for different units within the university.
It’s all part of an effort to “have consistency” across the campus and to get rid of “silos” that could allow various places to sweep issues under the rug.
That was part of the problem with the Nassar situation. Multiple people knew about the complaints, but those reports never made it to the school’s board. This new position will help get rid of that, Wittner said, because he reports directly to a board committee.
“I’m independent,” he said. “There needs to be an office that brings together all the reports and compliance efforts.”
That’s possible, he said, because while there’s no commonality between the regulations the athletic department must follow and the science department must follow, there is something that binds them.
“There are fundamental policies that emphasize compliance with all regulations, but that’s only half of it. There’s also creating a culture.
“After a university spends $500 million (the amount being paid to Nassar survivors in a legal settlement), it needs to stand back and say, ‘What lessons have we learned?’
“We need to make sure MSU is living up to the standards it has set for itself.”
That will include looking at promises MSU has made in terms of how it responds to reports of sexual assault and then auditing the university to make sure it is meeting those requirements.
“We will audit it. Then we will report it to the board,” Wittner said. “I make those reports. I’m directly reporting to the board. There’s no one I have to go through to get to the board.”
That independence is key, experts said.
“He will have an important challenge driving cultural change at Michigan State, and will need strong support from Mr. Engler and his leadership team, and from the board,” said David Jaffe, an attorney specializing in compliance and the former vice president, general counsel and secretary of Guardian Industries Corp. of Auburn Hills, along with being a former partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn in Detroit.
Wittner, currently a professor of law in residence at MSU’s law school, said he’ll draw on his background as he starts his work as CCO.
Wittner spent 20 years with Nissan North America’s legal department, where he helped develop a safety and regulatory compliance program.
He also was a trustee of the California-based St. Joseph Health System, where he was a member of both the Audit and Corporate Responsibility Committee and the Quality Committee.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of compliance reports,” Wittner said. “I know what the board needs to understand.”
He also is a life member of the prestigious American Law Institute and is part of a multi-year ALI project recommending standards and best practices in compliance and risk management law. More recently, he joined another ALI project, Student Sexual Misconduct: Procedural Frameworks for Colleges and Universities.
“I want this office to meet and outperform the standards in that document,” he said. “My mission is to safeguard the MSU community. There’s no way to restore the reputation (of MSU) unless you achieve that first, which is to protect the students.”
Source: Detroit Free Press