Michigan State University’s trustees voted Friday to keep the school’s interim president in place despite intense pressure to replace him.

Former Michigan governor John Engler was hired as interim president in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal that led to the resignation of the public university’s longtime president in January. Engler’s appointment was controversial from the start, and in recent weeks comments he made about sexual abuse victims generated outrage. That led to calls for his resignation from both U.S. senators from Michigan, other political leaders and more than 100 women who alleged they had been sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State sports doctor.

On Friday, a trustee forced the issue, calling for a vote to remove Engler — to applause from many in the audience. But that effort was defeated.

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Two trustees voted to dismiss Engler, and six voted against.

“I think John Engler got the message loud and clear,” said Brian Mosallam, the trustee who sought the vote to oust the interim president. The board had just finished a two-day retreat on campus, with blunt, spirited, sometimes emotional discussions about the university, its leadership and its future.

Last week, the Detroit Free Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education disclosed emails Engler had sent to a university official suggesting that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, was getting a kickback from her attorney for manipulating other victims. Denhollander has strongly denied the claim and said the suggestion that the women could be manipulated was disgusting.

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On Thursday, Engler issued a public apology.

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“When I started this interim position in February, it was never my intent to have an adversarial relationship with some of the survivors,” Engler 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.”

A spokeswoman for the university and Brian Breslin, chairman of the board of trustees, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

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Breslin said in a statement that a majority of the board appreciated Engler’s apology, and that they were moving forward with significant reforms meant to protect patients and encourage anyone who may have been a victim to come forward.

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“The majority of the Board believes Engler has played a significant leadership role developing our new approaches and has been a driving force in the rapid rollout of many of these reforms,” Breslin wrote. “He will continue to serve as interim president until a new president is selected.” Engler is not a candidate for the permanent position.

Many of the changes have been overshadowed by news about Engler’s comments, Mosallam said: “If he’s not going to step down, his tone has to change. All the institutional reforms going on fall on deaf ears if you’re adversarial with survivors.”

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The board backed several important changes Friday. Trustees approved in principle the $500 million the university agreed to pay to settle lawsuits by 332 women who alleged abuse by Nassar. Trustees also increased funding for counseling and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, and changed board committees to increase oversight. They added staff and took other steps meant to ensure complaints on campus are not ignored, and to reassure students and others they will be safe.

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Trustee Dianne Byrum, who also voted for Engler to be removed, said the search for a president will be expedited.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said he has urged Michigan State to accelerate its search for a president so the university can begin to restore trust.

“It is still a very emotional time at Michigan State,” Byrum said, “and you could see that in the public comments by survivors and others in the MSU community.”

The trustees spoke directly to survivors, Byrum said, “reflecting on what has happened over the last year, how we are trying to learn from what has gone on . . . and make sure they never happen again.”

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