Last week, Michigan State University’s Interim President John Engler sat down with The Detroit News‘ editorial board. In their on-the-record conversation, Engler said he was done with investigations into former MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s decades of sexual abuse on the Lansing campus, even though the University still has not commissioned a fully independent investigation into the matter. He also claimed that the reinstated Healing Assistance Fund would not be accessible by all Nassar survivors, a statement the Board of Trustees disagrees with.
But most egregiously, Engler posited that Nassar survivors were “enjoying” the “spotlight” borne from speaking publicly about being victims of the largest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
“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 News 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.
“Awards and recognition.” It might be a new year, but Engler is exactly the same as he always has been. It’s well past time for the Michigan State Board of Trustees to fire him.
Going into this year, it seems board members were hoping the controversy surrounding Engler would die down enough so they could simply focus on finding the next permanent president of MSU. His latest comments, however, have sparked fresh outrage. It will take the support of five of the eight board members to fire Engler, and so far, four of the trustees have publicly condemned Engler’s comments — chairwoman Dianne Bynum, outspoken Engler critic Brian Mosallam, newly-elected board member Kelly Tebay, and newly-appointed board member Nancy Schlichting .
But public condemnation is not enough. Engler’s stint at the helm of the reeling university has been a disaster since he was first appointed, almost a year ago, after former President Lou Anna K. Simon was reluctantly forced to resign amid fallout from Nassar’s sentencing hearings.
Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan who did not have a strong record of supporting women and survivors, was a questionable choice for the job from the start. Yet, when the board first appointed Engler, trustees assured the public that he would “reflect our desire to keep a focus on survivors and the victims,” and Engler said he would “move forward as though my own daughters were on this campus.”
Instead, Engler has alienated and belittled survivors every step of the way, both publicly and privately.
In March, Nassar survivors worked with a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers to write a package of bills that would make more people mandatory reporters of child sex abuse and increase the statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault victims. Engler directly met with the same lawmakers to oppose the legislation, and in the process, got into a public war-of-words with Rachael Denhollander, the first survivor of Nassar’s abuse to come forward publicly.
In April, at a public Board of Trustees meeting, 18-year-old Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar survivor, accused Engler of offering her $250,000 in a private meeting if she dropped her civil lawsuit against the school. During her public comments, Lorincz referred to MSU Vice President and Special Counsel to the President Carol Viventi as Engler’s lawyer, and Engler became visibly upset.
“She’s not my lawyer,” Engler said. “Be careful.”
Lorincz also said in her private meeting with Engler, he told her that Denhollander had already provided the university with a settlement number. Denhollander, however, denied ever doing such a thing.
In June, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Detroit Free Press reported on emails in which Engler accused Denhollander of taking “kickbacks” from her lawyer. After that, more than 120 survivors released a public letter urging the Board of Trustees to fire Engler.
“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 read.
When Engler offered a hollow apology, the Board accepted it as sincere, and moved on.
In the months since, Engler has gone on to call Lorincz a liar under oath during a congressional hearing, and attempted to permanently shut down the Healing Assistance Fund, which is supposed to help all survivors pay for therapy expenses. These latest comments — which, as a reminder, were on-the-record during a sit-down with the editorial board of a local newspaper — show that he hasn’t gained an ounce of empathy or understanding during his time as leader; he’s merely grown into even more of a bully.
Mosallam, a former MSU football player who was one of the only trustees to regularly speak out against Engler in 2018, has indicated that trustees are working hard to figure out the next steps.
“His comments were totally inappropriate, yet par for the course for John Engler,” he told reporters.
In a message to The Chronicle, Schlichting said that she was “appalled” by Engler’s comments, and said that there would be a response by the board later this week.
Tebay, who just began her first term as trustee at the start of the month, also refrained from commenting on Engler’s future, though she did express support for ousting Engler during her campaign.
“Interim President Engler’s comments regarding survivors were unacceptable, and I am disgusted by them,” Tebay said in a statement to ThinkProgress on Wednesday morning. “Additionally, his comments on the new Healing Fund are inappropriate and do not reflect the intentions of me or my fellow board members.”
Bynum, who was just elected as the new chairwoman of the board, has also called his comments “ill-advised.”
The disgust for Engler’s words are as close to universal as it gets, and yet the eight members of the MSU Board of Trustees are the only people in the world who can do something about it. If they don’t fire Engler now, there’s simply no respectable way forward for the Spartans.
UPDATE (1/16/18): The Board of Trustees will meet at 8:00 a.m. ET on Thursday morning. According to the Wall Street Journal, they have asked Engler to resign. Trustee Brian Mosallam tweeted, “JOHN ENGLER’S REIGN OF TERROR IS OVER.”
JOHN ENGLER’S REIGN OF TERROR IS OVER. https://t.co/lyumRnuwW4
— Brian Mosallam (@Bmosallam63) January 16, 2019