Engler is Out at MSU. What’s Next?

Former Governor John Engler, who last year was named to be the interim president at Michigan State University, has been forced into resignation by the MSU Board of Trustees after alleging some sexual assault survivors are “enjoying (the) spotlight.”

Engler submitted an 11-page letter of resignation yesterday evening and indicated his last day would be January 23, but the MSU Board – which met this morning for an emergency meeting originally intended to announce the termination of Engler’s contract – decided he would be relieved of duties as interim president effective January 17.

The decision was unanimous among members present – which included all of them except for Melanie Foster, who was appointed to the MSU Board by Engler himself from 1991 to 1992, then to the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2004. In 2004, she ran for and was elected back to the MSU Board.

Reclaim MSU, a group of students, faculty and staff dedicated to ensuring true accountability post-Nassar at the university, said today the decision by the Board to accelerate Engler’s departure was “a good step forward,” but they would like to see more action, especially for the attorney general’s investigation.

Specifically, Reclaim MSU hopes to see the university “correct its approach to the investigation by … (providing) actual transparency and cooperation, starting with the 177 documents” previously deemed by Engler and the university as having attorney-client privilege and thus not subject to oversight.

In the state legislature, the Progressive Women’s Caucus – whose executive committee includes Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit), Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), and Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Township), among others – said Engler’s failures were harmful on multiple levels.

“Engler’s failure to exhibit true leadership during this crisis has not only tarnished the name and reputation of Michigan State University but failed the survivors who bravely came forward and demanded justice. We are grateful the Board has finally acknowledged the need for new university leadership to help provide survivors the support and resources they deserve and create a campus culture that listens to survivors and holds perpetrators accountable,” they said in a joint statement.

Other reactions indicated a sense of relief paired with discontent on how overdue the action was.

“From the beginning he was never the right fit, but he had many opportunities to do right by the survivors of abuse at Michigan State University and repeatedly failed to do so,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement. “As an MSU graduate, I am relieved, and I expect my alma mater to seize this opportunity to establish a new leadership culture.”

Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D-East Lansing), whose district includes the university, agreed.

“In choosing John Engler as interim president, MSU prioritized restoring its own political image over addressing the university’s need for cultural change. It was clear from day one former Governor Engler lacked the understanding and compassion to lead MSU through what should have been a period of healing and accountability,” Hertel said. “This forced resignation is long overdue and is a direct result of the voices of Michiganders last November who said believe survivors, all survivors.”

Indeed, Engler’s statement that some survivors were “enjoying” the spotlight was hardly his first misstep, especially as it relates to women and sexual assault survivors. He called some female faculty “girls” during a meeting; he tried to provoke fear that Michigan taxpayers would be on the hook for settlements related to the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal; he allegedly tried to encourage a payoff of one survivor of Nassar’s abuse; and he alleged one of Nassar’s victims, whistleblower Rachael Denhollander, was getting kickbacks from Nassar’s case.

Even as Michigan Governor, Engler was dismissive of sexual assault claims by female prison inmates.

The MSU Board has already named Satish Udpa, MSU’s executive vice president for administrative services, as Engler’s replacement. Udpa told reporters at today’s Board meeting he is not a candidate for the permanent position – which a search committee, led by Democrat Trustee Dianne Byrum, expects will have a decision on by June this year.

The presidential search is a closed process – something which Reclaim MSU has said in an open letter to prospective candidates it hopes doesn’t hinder the selection of truly transformational individual. The group is also aiming for an external candidate “because our culture is broken,” they said in the letter.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson