The interim president of Michigan State University faced intensifying calls for his resignation Friday, amid outrage over comments he made about a victim of sexual abuse.
John Engler, a former Republican governor of the state, was appointed by the board of trustees after the university’s longtime president, Lou Anna Simon, resigned amid a sex-abuse scandal at the school. But there continues to be anger over the actions of the university’s former sports doctor, Larry Nassar, who abused girls and women under the guise of medical treatment. There is dismay, too, over the university’s response to the allegations over the years.
For many, the anguished voices of so many women echoed the national #MeToo movement and symbolized the need for a culture change at Michigan State.
On Friday, Engler said he was looking forward, even as two trustees publicly broke with the interim president.
Engler should step down immediately, board member Brian Mosallam, wrote on Twitter: “This university needs new leadership that sets a tone of empathy and compassion toward our courageous survivors, and reembraces them as important members of our Spartan community. John Engler cannot do that.”
On Wednesday, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on an email exchange, released through a public-records request, between Engler and a university leader. The two discussed an accusation that Kaylee Lorincz, a gymnast and Nassar victim, had made at an April board meeting. She said Engler had tried to pressure her into taking a cash payout, asking her if she would take a check for $250,000. In the email exchange, Engler wrote that the victims were being manipulated by trial lawyers, and that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, was likely to get a kickback from her attorney for helping.
The emails reported by the Chronicle and others from the Detroit Free Press touched off another wave of disgust at a university that had been criticized for treating women who brought complaints about Nassar as potential litigants rather than victims deserving compassion.
“I thought the content of those emails was despicable,” trustee Dianne Byrum said. “They were hurtful to survivors,” and made it more difficult for the university to move forward. Earlier this week, she called for a public apology. When that did not happen, she said Friday she had concluded Engler was not the right person to lead Michigan State.
“There’s a growing chorus of voices calling on him to resign,” she said, referring to calls from political leaders and others.
Other trustees did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
Denhollander said Friday that she was not getting kickbacks and that personal gain was not her motivation for speaking out about Nassar. She said it was disgusting that Engler made that suggestion and disgusting that he suggested other women who testified were pawns who were too stupid to realize they were being manipulated by lawyers.
“I honestly find it remarkable,” she said, that many of the board members “can’t even be bothered to distance themselves from attacks on survivors.” The go-along-with-the-group mentality is what enabled Nassar to continue molesting for years, she said. “They should have half the courage that those women had.”
The impact of Engler’s words is profound, said Denhollander’s attorney, John Manly. “Even though they’ve agreed to pay this money, they continue to treat these women as if they’ve done something wrong.” Engler has been condescending and insulting to the women who were molested at the university, he said. With Engler as president, “What person who’s been abused at Michigan State would come forward . . . and expect to be believed? The message he’s sending to whistleblowers is, ‘I will destroy you.’ ”
Last month, the university agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits by 332 woman who alleged abuse by Nassar.
University officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Engler’s selection was controversial, provoking shouts from students, and faculty leaders voted no confidence in trustees. But some welcomed his efforts to change the university culture and hold people accountable.
Engler issued a statement Friday saying he continued to look ahead.
“Whatever the tensions were before, we have successfully negotiated a settlement agreement — something that is fair and equitable to both sides, and that both sides agreed to,” Engler said. “We are now committed to continuing our efforts to strengthen sexual misconduct prevention on and off campus and to respond promptly to and appropriately if prevention fails.”
Protesters planned to be at a trustees meeting Friday and to call for Engler’s removal.
Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) wrote on Twitter, “It is impossible for @MichiganStateU to move forward from this tragedy with Gov. John Engler continuing to serve as interim President. His comments are inexcusable and show a complete lack of empathy for the survivors of Nassar’s horrific actions.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) also called on Engler to step down.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said Friday that Peters had long called for “outside, independent leadership at MSU to make major changes to the culture at the university — and he stands by his past statements that John Engler is not the right person to effectively make those changes.”
The board has an adviser helping to begin the search for a permanent president, Byrum said, with the expectation of hiring a search firm in the fall to formally launch the process. Board members hope to have a permanent leader by next June.