Words Matter at Michigan State

Board of Trustees pushes out interim president John Engler after nearly a year of tumult and eye-opening comments at Michigan State, including recent suggestion that some abuse victims enjoy "the spotlight."

January 17, 2019
 
Michigan State University/Derrick L. Turner
John Engler (center) announced his resignation as Michigan State interim president Wednesday.

John Engler’s words caught up to him Wednesday as the interim president of Michigan State University decided to resign in the face of an ultimatum from trustees.

A former governor of Michigan who took the helm of the university in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, Engler was asked to resign by a board that was prepared to fire him, according to reports in the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. The board was moving to act after Engler made another round of controversial comments about those who suffered Nassar’s abuse.

Engler planned to resign in a week, he said in an 11-page resignation letter.

"As you are aware, I am out of town heading to San Antonio to attend my late father-in-law's internment [sic] service at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on Friday morning with Michelle and our Texas family," Engler's letter said. "Given that, in compliance with your request that I resign and in order to ensure an orderly transition to my interim successor, I hereby resign the office of President of Michigan State University effective 9:00am, Wednesday, January 23, 2019."

But the Board of Trustees decided this morning to move up the date of his departure, accepting his resignation with "an accelerated date" of Jan. 17. The board also named Satish Udpa, a professor who was executive vice president for administrative services, as interim president. The vote to make the changes was unanimous, with one trustee absent. (This article has been updated to reflect the board's actions this morning.)

Engler's departure caps a tumultuous year as interim president for Engler, who oversaw the university as it reached a landmark $500 million settlement with hundreds of abuse survivors but who also made numerous statements and decisions that drew outrage. The last straw came after The Detroit News on Friday published comments Engler made to its editorial board about those Nassar had abused.

“You’ve got people, they are hanging on and this has been … There are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven’t been in the spotlight,” Engler told The Detroit News editorial board, according to an article published Friday. “In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition. And it’s ending. It’s almost done.”

Trustees felt compelled to act after those words, scheduling a meeting for today at which they were reportedly ready to fire the interim president.

"What we have is a repetition of instances where there has been despicable comments, and this has created a setback for the community and cost the trust and credibility for the university and the survivors as they continue to heal," the board chair, Dianne Byrum, told The Detroit News.

Another trustee, Brianna Scott, told the newspaper that the majority of the board felt something needed to happen after Engler’s comments. And a third, Brian Mosallam, took issue with Engler’s personality.

“I have watched Engler not only interact with our courageous survivors but our faculty, employees and students as well,” Mosallam told The Detroit News. “He's not only a bully, he is a mean-spirited human being. His time is up.”

Mosallam had tried to oust Engler before. In June, the trustee failed to muster enough votes to prompt the board to fire the interim president. Mosallam mounted that effort after emails surfaced in which Engler alleged one of the survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse was receiving kickbacks from lawyers and that others were being manipulated by lawyers. Engler apologized for those statements.

Engler's resignation did not contain an apology for his recent comments. It listed what he sees as his numerous accomplishments at Michigan State, including everything from initiating cultural change to managing a visit by "white identity provocateur Richard Spencer" to taking steps to address relationship violence and academic success by student athletes in the classes entering from 2008 to 2011.

"The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago," said the letter, which described the university as an institution in crisis when Engler took over. "The many changes we have made are substantive and offer [sic] far-reaching in their impact. At the same time, our leaders across the university are energized, organized and communicating in far more effective ways than had been the case."

A lawyer representing Nassar's victims issued a statement painting a much less rosy picture of the departing interim president.

"John Engler has always treated survivors as the enemy," said the statement from the lawyer, John Manly. "He took actions to obstruct and undermine criminal investigations of the university and its administration by the Michigan attorney general. His reckless and vile personal attacks upon individual survivors and their legal counsel continued to revictimize them. It is sad that Engler actually had to say publicly that he believed that survivors ‘enjoyed the spotlight’ brought about by their abuse for the university to finally force him to resign as president. It was long overdue."

Trustees took a "giant step" toward reclaiming Michigan State's reputation and placed the university on the path to reconciliation with survivors, Manly added.

Engler's letter pointed out that dynamics on the Board of Trustees have shifted since he was appointed. It started by saying that three new Democrats created a new majority on the board, and that Engler had been advised that five Democratic members of the board requested his resignation.

Two trustees who were up for re-election opted not to run this fall, and a third resigned amid health issues. Then governor Rick Snyder appointed Nancy Schlichting to the board in December as George Perles's term wound down, while Scott and Kelly Tebay won statewide elections for the open seats.

Faculty members who have voiced concern about the direction of Michigan State hailed the new-look board’s actions on Wednesday.

“This is a sign that we really do have a new board, and I think that’s really good news,” said Anna Pegler-Gordon, a social relations and policy professor at Michigan State and a member of Reclaim MSU, a group of students, employees and alumni that has been trying to convince leaders to conduct a public search instead of a closed search for the next permanent Michigan State president.

“It was the old board that hired him,” she said. “They sought input from faculty, staff and students and then completely ignored that input and made their own decision. Now we see just how bad that decision was, and I think it’s really important that the new board doesn’t make the same bad decisions.”

Indeed, Engler had faced opposition virtually from the moment he was named to the position. Survivors of Nassar’s abuse initially worried that Engler, a Michigan State alumnus and Republican who spent three terms as Michigan governor from 1991 to 2003, was not independent enough from the university’s entrenched culture.

Concerns soon grew beyond Engler’s background and his words. He was accused of offering $250,000 to settle a lawsuit with a survivor when her lawyer wasn’t present, then took heat for the university’s response to the Nassar crisis while testifying in front of a U.S. Senate panel. He reportedly cut features about the Nassar case from the university’s alumni magazine and was recently blasted by activists speaking at a meeting for not making eye contact with them.

In December, Engler redirected a fund that was intended to cover counseling for Nassar’s abuse survivors, moving $8.5 million from it into the fund for the legal settlement with survivors. That move cut the amount the university needed to borrow to pay for the settlement to $491.5 million but angered critics who already felt the university’s reaction to the scandal was tone-deaf.

The $10 million closed fund had been created when Lou Anna Simon was still Michigan State president and the university was facing increasing pressure to address the Nassar scandal. It had been suspended in July amid concerns about fraud not committed by victims or their family members.

Simon resigned in January of last year as the Nassar scandal threw Michigan State into crisis. She has since been charged with lying to police as they investigated the case.

Victims have been sharply critical of the way Michigan State responded to complaints about Nassar over the years. Some said they complained about him to the university, but that it did not take any significant action and failed to report abuse to authorities, allowing his abuse to go on for far longer than it would have if their warnings had been taken seriously.

In light of the missteps and massive negative press, faculty members seemed willing to dismiss any concerns that the board was being too activist in pushing out the interim president.

“Sometimes boards may become too interventionist, but under the circumstances in which MSU is suffering reputational damage from an extended failure to prevent or stop sexual mistreatment of MSU students and thereafter from maladroit comments to and about the victims, the active engagement of the board appears to be prudent,” said Mae Kuykendall, a law professor at Michigan State, in an email.

University academic leaders also backed Engler's removal. A group of 23 leaders, most of them deans, addressed a letter to the Board of Trustees dated Wednesday saying they did not support Engler and asking for “appropriate” action.

“The pattern of comments by Interim President Engler, including his most recent statement suggesting that some of the survivors of sexual abuse are 'enjoying' the spotlight, further harms the very people it is our responsibility to support,” it said.

Michigan State’s actions throughout the unfolding Nassar scandal have consistently flabbergasted experts with experience managing organizations through crises and communicating during them. But some could see why a board would have wanted to appoint someone with Engler’s résumé.

Although faculty members may not have been happy with a nonacademic, a former governor who is well connected politically could be seen as an asset at a time when the university faced massive financial and reputational liabilities.

An interim still needs to stay out of his or her own way, said Brian Tierney, the CEO of Brian Communications, a marketing, advertising and public relations firm in suburban Philadelphia.

“The first thing is do no harm,” said Tierney, a former publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer who is also a trustee at Widener University. “You would think a three-term governor of the state is somebody who has been through the battle. They’re going to have good relationships with the Legislature, which is critical.”

Yet Engler continued to make controversial comments in settings where officials usually expect to be monitored. Most know not to make inflammatory statements in emails that can be copied or that are subject to public information requests. They also try not to make news when visiting with editorial boards.

Some who are intimately familiar with the university and the state of Michigan weren’t surprised it didn’t work out with Engler, however.

“I’m very comfortable saying that when he was chosen by the board, I thought he was a poor choice,” said Donald Heller, who was dean of Michigan State’s College of Education before becoming provost at the University of San Francisco in 2016. “Not just because he hadn’t had experience in academe, but more so based on his track record as governor, where he really wasn’t known as someone who was a unifier, someone who was conciliatory, someone who worked across constituencies.”

Michigan State’s board now has to find an interim to take over for the ousted interim until a permanent replacement can be named. They were said to be discussing options Wednesday and were expected to have a name today.

It could be a difficult job to fill. Experts recommended someone who is transparent and who will be visible -- but probably someone who doesn’t have a background as a politician or who tends to be a lightning rod.

For the long term, Heller brought up the idea of following the script written by Penn State University after the Jerry Sandusky case. The university’s provost, Rodney Erickson, took over after the scandal brought down President Graham Spanier in 2011. Heller was not advocating for that specific course of action, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan State followed it.

The university then hired someone who was familiar with it in 2014. Eric J. Barron had been at Penn State years before the scandal broke but had also been away for a time. Barron was at Penn State from 1986 to 2006, most recently as a dean. He served in several positions elsewhere, including as president at Florida State University, before taking over at Penn State.

Some faculty members are adamant that an external candidate is needed, though. Michigan State has frequently been criticized for an insular culture.

“We have this tendency to hire from within,” said Pegler-Gordon. “It doesn’t lead to institutional change. Frankly, I don’t think it leads to institutional courage, because when people rise up within the existing system, they understand how it works, and they maintain it.

“We really need change,” she said. “We need institutional courage at this moment.”

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