When former Michigan State University president Lou Anna K. Simon finally resigned in January — under heavy pressure from survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse who questioned her leadership during their victim impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing hearing — it was supposed to signal the dawn of a new day at MSU, and shepherd in an era of accountability, action, and change.
Instead, under the direction of interim president John Engler, it’s been more of the same from the Spartan administration.
On Tuesday, 120 survivors of Nassar’s horrific sexual abuse — including Olympic champion Aly Raisman and Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar survivor to come forward publicly— released a scathing letter calling for the Board of Trustees to remove Engler from his position.
“President Engler’s abhorrent behavior — including gaveling down a survivor who only wanted him to listen and belligerently abrasive statements unmasking a survivor who only sought the comfort of confidentiality — has sent a chilling message across MSU’s campus, causing damage that cannot be repaired until he is gone,” the letter says.
The letter is another powerful, brave show of solidarity and leadership from the Sister Survivors. But it does beg the question: why must they always be the ones leading the way? Why does any measure of accountability or progress on the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct only materialize when survivors stand up and shout their stories from the rooftops, time and time again? How has the MSU Board of Trustees not learned its lesson?
How in the world is Engler still the leader of MSU?
Seriously, I realize these questions seem rhetorical and naive, but I still think they’re worth asking until we’re given some answers. Making one small corner of the world a safer place — a place where people are not sexually assaulted, or if they are, a place where they have the support of their community when they come forward — should not be a responsibility that rests entirely on the shoulders of young sexual assault survivors. It’s literally going to take all of us. And yet, when it comes to MSU, it often feels like the survivors are working alone.
We could recount the litany of missteps Engler has made in the less than six months he’s been at the helm of the university. But let’s just focus on the past week: In emails reported on by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Detroit Free Press, Engler baselessly accused Denhollander of getting a “kickback” from her lawyer, John Manly, for her role in bringing Nassar to justice.
“The survivors now are being manipulated by trial lawyers who in the end will each get millions of dollars more than any of individual survivors with the exception of Denhollander who is likely to get kickback from Manley (sic) for her role in the trial lawyer manipulation,” Engler wrote in an email to Carol Viventi, a Michigan State vice president and special counsel.
Yes, you read that — Engler is accusing Denhollander, a victim of sexual assault, of only being in this for the money.
The email exchange came after Engler publicly threatened 18-year-old survivor Kaylee Lorincz at a Board of Trustees meeting after she disclosed that Engler offered her $250,000 to drop the civil lawsuit against the school in a private meeting where her lawyers were not present.
I’ll repeat: How does Engler still have a job?
In their letter to the trustees, the survivors talked about the chilling effect that Engler’s comments would have on other survivors who might want to come forward on campus in the future:
We recognize that the greatest measure of an abusive culture is how survivors are viewed, and whether perpetrators and enablers will be held accountable and the environment in which they thrive remedied. On all these metrics, President Engler has only reinforced the culture of abuse at MSU. Our deepest concern is the impact his statements and behavior will have on survivors who are still living in silence, and in creating an unsafe environment on campus by communicating a demeaning and derogatory attitude towards survivors of abuse who still seek the confidence to speak up. This is not leadership. President Engler’s statements and behavior are subtle threats against anyone who dares to speak up against their abuser and the environment that enabled their predatory conduct, lest they be ridiculed, lied about, and shamelessly mocked by a person of immense power.
There is a new MSU Board of Trustees meeting at the end of this week. Two board members have already spoken out against Engler, which suggests he still has the support of six trustees. If three more trustees turn against Engler, then he could be out of a job on Friday.
The survivors hope their letter makes the difference.
“We have made our motivations clear at every turn: we never want there to be another survivor of sexual abuse on MSU’s campus who fears to speak up against their abuser and whose cries go unheard by its administration,” the letter reads.
“The environment which will allow this dream to become a reality requires leadership whose statements and behavior engenders trust and models exemplary conduct — not leaders who destroy trust and set a bad example.”
Hopefully, the trustees are listening this time — though they should all be ashamed by what it takes to get their attention. MSU enabled the biggest sex abuse scandal in U.S. sports history; if the people in charge aren’t doing everything in their power on a daily basis to make sure that the same thing never happens again, then they’re simply not doing their job.