John Engler, a former Republican governor and alumnus of Michigan State University, was named interim president Wednesday as the university struggles to move forward after a sexual abuse scandal — a decision that provoked an outcry from some students and faculty members.
After trustees voted unanimously to appoint Engler, a student leader climbed onto a table and told board members seated around it that students oppose the choice, drawing cheers.
A faculty leader announced that the Faculty Senate would call for a vote of no confidence in the board. If such a vote succeeds, Faculty Senate member Laura McCabe said, the entire board would be asked to resign immediately.
Her words sparked loud applause in the meeting room.
After the vote, Engler spoke, saying that as a father of three daughters he could empathize with the victims and their families, and as a longtime leader he could move swiftly to enact change. But he faced contentious questions after his words, and as he left the room at the end of a news conference, students shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Student and faculty leaders said they were blindsided by the choice, which they learned about through news reports after meeting with trustees the day before. Several said a longtime politician was a bad choice for a school that is already polarized and in need of a dramatic change in culture, and said an academic leader is needed to restore trust.
The choice of an interim president has been closely watched, as Michigan State has been embroiled in a sexual assault scandal that led to the resignation of longtime president Lou Anna Simon last week. Earlier this month, more than 150 women spoke out about the sexual assault they endured from Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State doctor and USA Gymnastics team physician. Public outrage over the abuse intensified as woman after woman spoke of the abuse, and expressed their frustration and sorrow that their complaints over the years were not heeded.
The university’s leaders face a rising number of challenges ahead, including lawsuits and state and federal investigations. Moody’s Investors Service is assessing whether to downgrade the school’s credit rating after Nassar’s conviction, and will review potential financial, legal and reputational impacts on the school as well as the strength of its management and governance.
Lorenzo Santavicca, president of the 40,000 undergraduates in the student body, told the board he was deeply disappointed by the selection of Engler.
McCabe, the president of a university leadership group, the steering committee, read from a joint statement from faculty leaders during the meeting, which was live-streamed by WDIV-TV. “Our hearts have broken for the scores of courageous survivors who have come forward to share their stories of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, a member of the MSU faculty,” she said. Faculty leaders pledged to those survivors to help change Michigan State to ensure such abuse could never happen again.
Their efforts had thus far been thwarted, she said, “by a myopic and entrenched administrative structure that has placed political expediency and institutional branding” above the need to regain trust and promote healing. Faculty members had strongly expressed to trustees Monday that appointing a political leader with no academic experience would not further healing, especially in such a politically polarized climate.
They suggested a longer process to select an interim president, and a preference for a woman from academia.
They objected to both the choice of Engler and the process, which “gave the appearance of consultation” with faculty, students and deans.
The push for a vote of no confidence is significant, said Mae Kuykendall, a professor of law at Michigan State who is researching a book about no-confidence votes at universities and other institutions of higher education. Those actions arise when a faculty has serious issues with leadership over time that have reach a crisis point.
An expert in academic governance noted that several of the largest higher education associations have jointly agreed on principles for selection of a president, with emphasis on cooperative work with the faculty because of a president’s dual roles as an executive and an academic leader.
Engler graduated from Michigan State and spent decades in politics, including leading the state as governor from 1991 to 2003. He pushed for education reforms, such as charter schools.
This fall, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos named Engler to chair the board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card,” which evaluates U.S. education.
Engler will lead the university while the board begins a national search for a permanent president. Another former Michigan governor, Democrat James Blanchard, will have a senior role at Michigan State.
Brian Breslin, chairman of the board of trustees, said the panel wanted someone from outside the institution to provide strong leadership.
“This is a watershed moment for Michigan State University,” said trustee Brian Mosallam, who on Friday apologized through tears to Nassar’s victims, saying, “We failed you.”
As one of the Democrats on the board, Mosallam said, he had disagreed with many of Engler’s policies in the past, but believed that unity was important and that the university’s leaders must move forward together.
“I have one mandate for you,” he said. “MSU must be a campus of integrity.”
He urged Engler to do whatever necessary to change the culture and make the university safe for all.
Trustee George Perles said, “It doesn’t get any stronger than this — Blanchard and Engler together. That’s quite a team.”
“When something’s on fire, you really don’t call the fire department three days later,” trustee Joel Ferguson said, thanking both former governors for their willingness to step in to lead the university. “You want to move right away.”
The collegial meeting was disrupted after the vote, when a student sat in the middle of the long table where trustees meet and decried, in a loud voice, the lack of democratic process, and said he was not proud to go to the school.
The College Democrats of Michigan State had called for students to fill the board meeting, telling trustees they would sit in until their concerns were heard. “We are tired of being dismissed. We are tired of being passed over,” they wrote in a statement beforehand. Dan Martel, president of the group, referenced Ferguson’s comments about acting swiftly, and evoked women who said they were sexually assaulted by Nassar long ago.
“You did not call the fire department for 20 years,” he said. “I suggest new leadership is needed.”
Later Wednesday morning, Engler spoke to those gathered in the board room, saying his main concern would be the survivors and doing everything possible for them, so that their legacy could be a better Michigan State.
Engler said he could understand the concern, frustration and anger. He spoke to the parents of Michigan State students: “Be assured that I will move forward as though my own daughters were on this campus.”
And, he said, “Mark my words: Change is coming.”