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MSU ends John Engler’s ‘reign of terror’

Presidential search continues under new leadership

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With John Engler’s resignation as president of Michigan State University, officials there hope to craft a renewed vision of healing and accountability on campus. It’s a refreshing mentality that many said might have been all but impossible under a bullheaded former governor with a penchant for saying the wrong thing.

Engler’s brief and often highly criticized tenure — amid possibly the darkest period in the university’s history — was marred by distrust from the start. And shortly after his appointment last year, another fire began to burn. Many students felt blindsided after officials opted to put the often brazen political operative behind the wheel.

“For a person who was a very effective governor, Engler was just out of his league as the president of MSU,” explained retired State Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing. “It became very clear, very early on, that he was not ready for that environment over there. He was kind of like this beeper guy living in a smartphone world.

“His time was the 1990s; It wasn’t 2018. He was just out of touch with how to effectively communicate.”

As Michigan’s Republican governor from 1991 to 2003, Engler developed an uncanny reputation for his artless approach to politics. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and often shot from the hip to achieve his goals. His mindset arguably helped serve the state, but not so much a university focused on healing past missteps.

A student mounted the board table in protest after Engler’s unanimous appointment last January, and that helped set the tone for 2018. After convicted pedophile Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison, students wanted assurance they’d be involved in properly mending the wounds. And Engler just wasn’t cut out for the job.

Although the MSU Board of Trustees was initially confident in its selection, a series of offensive statements from Engler eventually helped turn the tide. Hundreds of students and staff urged him to resign less than a month after the original appointment; It took university trustees about a year to finally land on the same page.

“Leadership climate is set from the top — and it has been clear from Engler’s repeated disparaging remarks toward survivors that he is not the person to be charged with creating a safer environment at MSU,” said U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly. “I called on him to resign in June; I support his decision to step down now.”

A unanimous board vote last week effectively opened a new chapter at the university as trustees accepted Engler’s forced resignation and appointed MSU administratorSatish Udpa to serve as president until they can land on a more permanent selection. And perhaps MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam best summarized Engler’s presidential tenure as a “reign of terror.”

“Today is a new day at MSU,” Mosallam said, noting the campus had been “held hostage” by Engler over the last year. “On this new day, our courageous survivors no longer have to go to bed in sadness, feeling no one would listen to them.

Today, the healing can truly begin. John Engler’s reign of terror will finally be over.”

Former President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned last January as Nassar was sentenced for sexually assaulting hundreds of women under the guise of medical treatment. Questions abounded: Who knew about the abuse? When did they know about it? And board members were ultimately left to select a new leader to fill the gap.

As the state Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into “systematic issues with sexual misconduct,” the board was left to choose between Engler and former Democratic Gov Jim Blanchard. After an initial deadlock, closed-door negotiations (and funding pressures from a Republican Legislature) led the board to select Engler.

Some — like Ingham County Commissioner Thomas Morgan — contended that Democratic Trustee Joel Ferguson ultimately flipped his initial preference for Blanchard to give Engler majority support on the board. Engler’s behavior in office, however, would ultimately lead officials to regret that decision less than a year later.

Ferguson, for his part, was the only board member to withhold comment during discussion of Udpa’s appointment. He also declined to be interviewed for this story. Many have since called for his resignation as well. For the university to truly move forward, Morgan argued Ferguson ultimately needs to follow Engler out the door.

“A wrong has been righted today,” Trustee Kelly Tebay said before the vote. “I’m sorry it took so long.”

Engler reportedly offered to cut a six-figure check to sexual assault survivors in exchange for dismissed lawsuits. He accused others of receiving “kickbacks” for continued legal action. He also leaned on former colleagues for important university jobs and moved to gut funding that was initially designated for those victimized by Nassar.

“In choosing Engler, MSU prioritized its own political image over the university’s need for cultural change,” said State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “It was clear from Day One that he lacked the understanding and compassion to lead MSU through what should have been a period of healing and accountability.”

The university’s “Spartan” alumni magazine last year also sought to address the scandal, but Engler intervened and shifted the narrative to a more positive light. The university had a reputation to protect; Engler had a public perception to manage. And his unapologetic attitude only helped catalyze an institutional crisis.

Rumblings for Engler’s resignation reached a head when an interview was published Jan. 11 in The Detroit News. Engler suggested that Nassar survivors might be “enjoying” the media spotlight. Survivors, students and advocates fumed. For the board, it was the final nail in Engler’s presidential coffin.

“It came together organically,” explained Board Chairwoman Dianne Byrum. “Following John Engler’s latest, ill-advised, inappropriate and hurtful comments, people started to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For all the reforms we’re making, we keep slipping backwards. That’s when we started having these conversations.”

In February, under Engler’s specific direction, MSU had established a risk management, ethics and compliance office.

That department, however, was later reportedly merged with an existing office on campus and the financial stream to support the new operations were temporarily dammed. Engler continued to face criticism.

Emails also surfaced last year that detailed how Engler had claimed Rachael Denhollander — the first of many to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse — had received a “kickback” for encouraging other gymnasts into coming forward with allegations. Engler apologized about a week later, but tensions were already reaching a climax.

Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz later said Engler offered her $250,000 to drop a lawsuit against the university. The backlash from the campus community continued while some officials, at the time, labeled the accusation as “fake news.” Denhollander still maintained that Lorincz’s claim was truthful and scolded Engler on Facebook.

“He is so used to bullying, manipulating, and focusing on money and power that he can’t conceive someone else does not,” Denhollander said earlier. “I honestly pity him at this point. What an empty way to live.”

The following month, Engler drew criticism for appointing former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Young to the university’s legal team. Many argued Young — who was appointed to the court when Engler was governor — was unfairly picked for the position because of his existing, collegial relationship with the former governor.

The university in July also froze the $10 million Healing Assistance Fund for Nassar survivors after concerns about fraudulent payments surfaced. It was reopened this year, but for many survivors the damage by Engler had already been done. And it was growing clear that Engler was balancing reputation with meaningful action.

In June, the trustees considered a motion by Mosallam to fire Engler, but it failed. Republicans ensured he’d remain at the helm until two Democrats landed on the board earlier this year and continued to push for leadership changes amid the backlash.

“Good riddance,” added Progress Michigan Director Lonnie Scott. “It’s too bad Michigan had to suffer more than once with the insufferable lack of leadership that is John Engler. It has always been clear Engler was unfit for such a critical position at a critical time for the university. This was long overdue.”

In December, state investigators issued a scathing report about a “culture of indifference” toward sexual assault at MSU in favor of protecting its reputation. It noted the university issued misleading statements, drowned investigators in irrelevant documents and waged needless battles over the release of pertinent materials.

Among the findings? Eleven MSU employees failed to report Nassar’s abuse. The university’s Title IX office failed to investigate allegations in 2014. The common thread: MSU employees routinely gave the benefit of the doubt to Nassar instead of the young women who came forward with allegations against him.

Investigators labeled the response a “failure of people, not policy” and advocated a “top-down cultural change at MSU.” By then, Engler had became the most obvious — and outspoken — obstacle to that shift.

For his part Englerblamed his recent departure on the new political makeup of the board. He was essentially forced to resign or risk being fired, he outlined in a lengthy resignation letter. He included a list of his “accomplishments” and argued the university was better off after a year under his leadership.

John Truscott, founder of Truscott-Rossman Public Relations and Engler's gubernatorial press secretary, said the Democrats on the board were “looking for any reason” to send Engler packing — and they found it in his recent statements to The Detroit News. “They were simply out to get him,” Truscott contended.

“He was hired to clean up probably the worst mess of any university in America,” Truscott added. “That’s pretty tough to do if you’re tiptoeing around the issues and not making a lot of decisions. His letter explained it, but he set MSU up for a much brighter future. You can’t ignore his accomplishments since he took office at MSU.”

Engler donated his $510,000 salary to university programs and touted a list of other achievements. Among them were the implementation of 24-hour counseling services, restructured health colleges and clinical programs and the creation of a relationship, violence and sexual misconduct work group staffed with therapists and advocates.

But for many, Engler’s progress has been largely overshadowed by his repeated, public missteps in office.

“The disrespect for survivors was so disheartening,” said East Lansing City Councilman Aaron Stephens.“I’ll start recognizing Engler’s accomplishments when he starts recognizing the damage he did through his comments, his procedures and his total inability to cooperate with state investigators about those problems.”

The search for a new president will continue under Udpa’s temporary leadership; Byrum hopes to have a permanent replacement by the summer as a nationwide search continues. In the meantime, newly elected Attorney General Dana Nessel wants to interview Engler as the investigation at MSU continues into another year.

AG spokeswoman Kelly Rossman Mckinney said Nessel’s office is still fighting in court over the release of 29 university documents related to the handling of the Nassar investigation. She declined to mention the content of the upcoming interview with Engler but said the goal is to “really determine who knew what and when.”

“I don’t believe it’s over,” added MSU Trustee Dan Kelly at the recent meeting. “I don’t think it’ll ever be over. I think this is a chapter in our history that we can’t ignore or forget. We have to learn from it. I think it would be a mistake to suggest to the new president that they’re coming in here with the belief this has all been done.”

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com

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