Michigan State University’s interim president apologized Thursday for comments he made privately about the first woman to publicly level sexual assault allegations against Larry Nassar, the former university sports-medicine doctor accused of molesting hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.
John Engler, a former governor of Michigan, has been interim president since the school’s longtime president resigned in the wake of the scandal. Engler has faced mounting pressure to step down, with two members of the school’s board of trustees, many of the state’s top political leaders and more than 100 of the women who accused Nassar saying the former governor is the wrong person to lead the public university. In a public statement Thursday, he addressed some of those concerns.
This week, scores of women who accused Nassar of abuse issued a statement saying, “While our hope had been that President Engler would bring accountability, transparency, and change to MSU, it is clear to us that he cannot.”
“President Engler has failed miserably,” the statement said. “President Engler and leaders at MSU have refused to listen. They persist in attacking our character, our integrity and our intelligence. These attacks send a clear message that survivors who speak up will likewise be attacked. They send a clear message that perpetrators and enablers will not be held accountable.”
The women also said it is clear that the mind-sets at Michigan State that allowed Nassar to abuse children for decades had not changed. The university cannot move forward, they wrote, until there is a new interim leader who will stand against an abusive culture.
Last week, the Detroit Free Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Engler, a Republican, had emailed a university official speculating that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, was getting a kickback from her attorney for manipulating other victims.
Denhollander told The Washington Post last week that she was not getting kickbacks and that personal gain was never a motivation for speaking the truth about the sexual abuse she had endured. She said it was disgusting that Engler would make the suggestion and imply that the other women who had summoned the courage to testify were not smart enough to realize they were being manipulated by lawyers.
In his statement, Engler said that when his private email conversation from April became public last week, he was traveling and did not give it the consideration it warranted. “That was a big mistake. I was wrong. I apologize,” he wrote.
“When I started this interim position in February, it was never my intent to have an adversarial relationship with some of the survivors,” he wrote. “My speculation about the lead plaintiff receiving kickbacks or referral fees hurt her deeply and for that I am truly sorry. She and the other survivors suffered greatly and they are entitled not to have their sincerity questioned, either individually or as a group. I apologize to her and her sister survivors.”
On Thursday evening, Denhollander said she appreciated the gesture, and was happy to extend forgiveness, but said she was disappointed that it only came “after eight days of state leaders, members of Congress, senators, two MSU board members, and over 150 women whose character he attacked, have been calling for his resignation. One day before a critical board meeting. This does not signal a genuine change of heart. It signals political manipulation.”
The board has refused to assume a leadership role, she said. “They are clearly prioritizing something else above the safety of children and the safety of their students. I don’t know what they think is more important,” than those things, she said, “but they clearly have something else in mind.”
Michigan State has been grappling with the revelations about Nassar, with some accusations going back decades.
Last month, the university agreed to pay $500 million to settle lawsuits by 332 woman who alleged abuse by Nassar.
Engler was a controversial choice from the beginning, with students shouting in protest at a board meeting when he was appointed and faculty leaders voting no confidence in trustees. Others welcomed new leadership and a strong hand to redirect the university and ensure accountability.
The board is to meet on campus Friday. Several people who have accused Nassar of sexual assault planned to address the board Friday to demand Engler’s dismissal, and protesters plan to give board members copies of a petition, digitally signed by more than 1,000 people as of Thursday afternoon, calling for Engler’s appointment to be terminated immediately.
wrote that he would use his remaining time as interim president to make changes “that serve to increase safety and respect on our campus.”
Read the Sister Survivor Joint Statement here: