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Engler Calls Professors ‘Girls,’ Again Raises Questions About Leadership at MSU

Republican former Governor John Engler has come under heavy criticism on whether his track record lends itself to being the proper leader for a university searching for its identity post-Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, and his latest recorded comments calling distinguished female professors at Michigan State University “girls” isn’t helping.

The recording comes from a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month and was posted by  #ReclaimMSU, an alliance of students, staff, and alumni of MSU that bills itself as a coalition “working for institutional and cultural change at MSU.” Specifically, part of what the coalition is working toward is increasing the role of students and faculty as part of the university’s Board of Trustees, said Natalie Rogers, communications coordinator for the group.

In the recording, Associate Professor Andaluna Borcila of James Madison College questions how Engler will change MSU’s culture and questions him over a possible “disconnect” between how Engler perceives the university and how others perceive it.

“With all due respect, we need to talk about the position we have as a Faculty Senate at this point, in relation to the board’s response and lack of response to our vote of no confidence,” Borcila says. “It would be great if you could transmit this (message) to the board … I think there’s a big disconnect between how you see things and how we see things.”

Engler responds, “I would say it’s not so much in how we see things as it is what I’m working on, because my goal is to try to get this settlement done. You girls spend time trying to get the elected eight members (of the board) to resign so Governor Snyder can make eight appointments. Maybe that can be done, I don’t know. You’ve given a number of reasons that should be the case, meanwhile … I’ve got to do this management job.”

However, Borcila is never heard saying Republican Governor Rick Snyder should appoint board members. In fact, Reclaim’s website says it merely wants to consider the merits of possibly changing the state Constitution such that four new positions are added – two for students and two for faculty.

“There was a lot of confusion. People were kind of like, did he just say that?” Rogers said of the reaction after Engler called two professors “girls” – a term generally reserved for women well under the age of 18. Rogers said even the professors (which also included James Madison Associate Professor Anna Pegler-Gordon) were unsure Engler called them girls until listening back to it.

The professors did not wish to provide further comment, Rogers said.

And that’s not the only time during the meeting that Engler’s statements seemed to fly directly in the face of the hundreds of survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse and women in general.

Earlier in the meeting, Engler continued to sound obsessed with merely balancing the books at MSU and not necessarily creating a culture change. Another professor can be heard asking Engler about his plans on that matter, and while Engler acknowledges that needs to be dealt with, he immediately retorts, “But until we get this Nassar thing settled, that’s standing in the way of us getting at some of these other questions. It doesn’t stop us, but everyday somebody wants to say, ‘But you’re not listening,’ (or) ‘you don’t heal the same.’ But the people saying that are all in a lawsuit against us, and the only way to make a lawsuit go away is not to change behaviors but to write a check.”

And when pressed later in the meeting on whether he would support the inclusion of additional members on the Board for greater institutional inclusiveness, Engler again shirked. He claimed that he had told the Board “my place was not to be involved in politics.”

Yet, Engler has been involved in politics since his appointment as interim president at MSU.

He actively attended and spoke at a committee hearing just days before this faculty meeting, raising concerns about legislation moving through the legislature that sought to address sexual assault in the wake of the MSU tragedy, even going so far as to say MSU students and taxpayers would be on the hook for such settlements.

And at the meeting, Engler responded to the question of changing the board makeup by saying, “I’ve always supported getting rid of the elected board process and I’ve supported different combinations to that.”

But Rogers said when she talked to Engler after the meeting about signing the group’s petition, he reiterated he wouldn’t get involved in politics.

“So it seems like he’s selective on the politics he gets involved in,” Rogers said.

The full meeting can be heard below, or by clicking here: Faculty Senate Meeting 3-20.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson