The embattled interim president of Michigan State University said in a letter Wednesday that he is resigning, becoming the school’s second leader in a year to step down under pressure because of the scandal involving a university physician convicted of sexually abusing girls and women.
John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan, is quitting amid outrage over comments he made about women who were sexually abused by the disgraced former doctor.
His year-long tenure sparked controversy from start to finish, as he took a firm executive hand at a public university in crisis, making changes intended to strengthen the school and prevent abuse. But he often escalated tensions with people who felt the university had wounded and betrayed them. His remarks about sexual abuse victims sparked headlines, and academic leaders sought assurance the university leadership would operate with empathy, honesty and transparency after revelations of sexual abuse, hidden for years, horrified the university and the nation.
The chairwoman of the board of trustees, Dianne Byrum, responded to questions with a link to Engler’s 11-page resignation letter. A university spokeswoman also responded to questions for Engler with the letter, which details changes he initiated at MSU, and how he moved swiftly to address crises at the university he loves, with bullet points about offices created, employees hired, reviews initiated.
“The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago,” he wrote.
Engler noted, in the first lines of his letter, that five Democratic members of the board had requested his resignation and that the election of two new Democrats and the replacement of a former trustee with another Democrat had created a new majority on the board.
The resignation is effective at 9 a.m. Jan. 23, he wrote.
Trustee Brian Mosallam said in an interview Wednesday that trustees would vote Thursday to terminate Engler if he did not resign.
“We cannot move forward with him at the helm,” Mosallam said. Engler has been a distraction from work being done on campus to improve student health and wellness, and to implement institutional reform, Mosallam said.
“No one is ever talking about that,” the trustee said. “All we are constantly talking about are John Engler’s incendiary comments. For that, he must step down immediately.”
Engler told the Detroit News editorial board last week that some victims are “enjoying” the spotlight after speaking out about abuse by Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State sports medicine doctor who is serving a sentence of at least 40 years.
The chairwoman of the Board of Trustees announced a meeting Thursday morning to consider a personnel issue, and Mosallam made his feelings clear on social media:
Members of the Dean’s Council, a panel of academic leaders at the school, wrote to the Board of Trustees that they do not support Engler’s continued leadership, given the pattern of his comments about women who have allegedly suffered sexual abuse, and asked the board to “take appropriate action.”
A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately respond to requests for comment or a response from Engler.
Engler’s tenure as interim president has been tumultuous from the beginning. Immediately after the board voted unanimously to appoint him, a protester climbed onto a table to tell him students opposed him, and people shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” as Engler left.
Student and faculty leaders said they were angry about the choice of Engler, predicting a former governor and longtime Republican politician would not help restore trust at a school they felt was in desperate need of a dramatic culture change. And they said they felt blindsided by his selection.
It was a raw moment on campus, coming after more than 150 women had spoken out about the sexual assault they endured from Nassar and about how their complaints over many years were ignored. The school’s longtime president, Lou Anna Simon, resigned in the wake of the national outrage over Nassar.
When he was appointed, Engler said the abuse victims would be his priority, pledging that a better Michigan State would emerge and that it would be the victims' legacy.
In May, the university agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits by 332 women who alleged abuse by Nassar.
In June, Engler apologized for an email to a university official in which he speculated that one of the victims was getting a kickback from her attorney for manipulating other women in the case. “That was a big mistake. I was wrong,” he said.
Later that month, the board voted to support Engler, despite pressure to replace him.
An attorney representing more than 180 women alleging abuse by Nassar welcomed the news.
“John Engler has always treated survivors as the enemy,” attorney John Manly said. “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.”