COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – At Ohio State University’s full Board of Trustees meeting each November, survivors of former university physician Richard Strauss participate in a near-tradition that always starts the same.
Someone from the board – many times, Ohio State’s president – repeats an iteration of introductions’ past: They apologize for Strauss’ abuse and the university’s mishandling of it at that time. They explain that the board has reserved time for survivors to speak. They emphasize that due to ongoing litigation, board members will not be able to respond or answer survivors’ questions.
“On behalf of the entire university, I’m deeply sorry. Strauss’ actions were a betrayal, and the university’s failure to act at that time remains unacceptable,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said at the full board’s Nov. 17 meeting.
After five years of survivors – some publicly, others anonymously – addressing the board, many of them pleading with the board to “do the right thing,” survivors said the Nov. 17 meeting was likely the last time they will be permitted to speak. Instead, Ohio State told victims that it is developing a new avenue for them to communicate with university officials – as long as they’ve settled their lawsuits against Ohio State.
“OSU doesn’t dispute that Strauss abused us,” Tom Lisy, a former Ohio State wrestler, 1991 graduate and survivor, said to the board. “You continue to issue hollow apologies while fighting us in federal court, you invalidate our claims on the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations isn’t intended to reward you for orchestrating a cover-up.”
Emails reviewed by NBC4 corroborate survivors’ claims, although an Ohio State spokesperson was unable to provide more information or explanation beyond what was in the emails.
Strauss was an Ohio State physician and varsity team sports doctor from 1978-98. During his tenure, he sexually abused and harassed hundreds of students – nearly all men – under the guise of medical exams.
Strauss died by suicide in 2005, but his abuse didn’t come to light until 2018. Since then, more than 400 victims and their families have filed lawsuits against Ohio State for its failure to prevent and address the abuse, which an independent investigation found in 2019 that university officials were aware of as early as 1979.
Ohio State spokesperson Ben Johnson said in an email that the university has settled with 296 survivors for more than $60 million, and that “all male students who filed lawsuits have been offered the opportunity to settle.”
But those who haven’t settled, like Lisy and most of the survivors who have addressed the board over the years, have said that the university’s settlement offers didn’t provide them with much of a choice.
Although the majority of settlement agreements are confidential, Ohio State published the contract for its Individual Settlement Program on its website. The program, which ran from May to September 2021, invited survivors in active lawsuits against the university to individually settle for an amount of up to $252,551.02, not including additional sums for “extraordinary injury.”
As part of that agreement, survivors pledged not to sue Ohio State again, to never seek non-public records from the independent investigation related to their abuse, and to agree to the university’s non-disparagement clause.
“OSU recognizes that, in order to promote the healing process contemplated by this settlement, it is important that steps begin to facilitate that restorative goal,” the contract read. “To that end, nothing in this Release shall preclude Claimant from speaking about his past experiences with Dr. Strauss as part of the healing process. However, Claimant agrees to immediately cease, and not to engage in the future, in any disparagement of OSU’s handling of this matter since March 2018, of the terms of this Release or Program Protocol, or of the Program.”
Grievances against the ‘university of today’
Stephen Snyder-Hill, who has become one of the most prominent faces – and the lead plaintiff – in survivors’ continued lawsuits against the university, told NBC4 that his grievances nearly exclusively stem from actions the university has taken since Strauss’ abuse became public.
“I think that everything that they’ve done so far is a vehicle to their own means,” Snyder-Hill said of Ohio State.
In September 2020, a judge ruled that Ohio State broke public records law when it intentionally withheld records about Snyder-Hill in order to release them along with the rest of the independent investigation in 2019.
In 2021, Ohio state Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) told a survivor in an email that House Bill 249, which would have allowed Strauss victims to sue Ohio State, was never intended to pass. In April 2022, a public records request filed by Ohio State’s student newspaper The Lantern revealed that Ohio State had lobbied against the bill, at one point urging the statehouse speaker to prevent it from moving out of committee.
More recently, Ohio State has continued its battle with victims in court. After a district appeals court in September reversed a lower court’s decision to throw out victims’ lawsuits, Ohio State asked for all 16 judges on the Sixth Circuit to review the case in a rarely granted en banc review.
The lower court agreed with Ohio State’s assertion that the two-year statute of limitations on civil sexual abuse cases should have run out two years after each victim left the university. The three-circuit panel on the appeals court, however, ruled the cases should proceed to trial due to evidence of the university’s knowledge and cover-up of Strauss’ abuse. Ohio State’s request for a full panel has not been reviewed by the court, according to court documents.
“If Ohio State, if this board gets their way, I’ll never be deposed. If this board gets their way, there’ll be no discovery in my case, no public examination of the facts,” Lisy said at the Nov. 17 board meeting. “If this board gets its way, those who were complicit in the sexual abuse of students will remain nameless.”
Moving beyond the Board of Trustees
Snyder-Hill said he’s worried that Ohio State’s proposed new communication forum for survivors who have settled will not only silence complaints about the university’s recent actions, but will also move the discussion out of the public eye. He said the purpose of addressing the trustees each year was not to rehash the abuse victims endured at the hands of Strauss, but rather to respond to actions the university has taken since the abuse became public – including by fighting victims in court.
“Every year, it more profoundly gets worse for people,” said Snyder-Hill. “So, it’s not like that we’re meaninglessly trying to speak to the board. But it is a public university. It is a public forum.”
Ohio State would not explicitly tell NBC4 whether it will deny survivors’ requests to address the board going forward, but an email sent to Snyder-Hill by the board’s secretary suggests that it will.
“As an alternative to addressing the university during Board meetings, after the November 2022 meeting, we will be developing a new forum to allow survivors who have already settled to engage in dialogue with university officials,” the Sept. 1 email read. “Survivors still engaged in active litigation are welcome to share information with the university through counsel per the parameters of the ongoing legal process.”
Ohio State did not provide an estimate as to when the forum will roll out, nor did it provide comment or explanation on its reasons for developing the new forum. That hasn’t stopped Snyder-Hill from speculating about it.
“What I realized over these past five years is the only thing that they truly care about is their money,” Snyder-Hill said of Ohio State. “We are seen as a liability to them.”
In the interim, Snyder-Hill said survivors and their families will continue to stage protests on Ohio State’s campus. As fans descend on Ohio Stadium on Saturday for the Buckeyes’ game against the University of Michigan, Snyder-Hill said victims will be there, too.