Howes: Why MSU's Engler pick is unsettling

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

As confidence-building measures go, Michigan State University’s decision to name John Engler interim president doesn’t rank among the best of them.

Former Gov. John Engler was unanimously voted in Wednesday by MSU trustees Dianne Byrum, left, Melanie Foster, Joel Ferguson, Brian Breslin, George Perles, Dan Kelly, Mitch Lyons, and Brian Mosallam.

Instead of a steel spine connected to a fresh face, the trustees privately decided at least a day before their open meeting Wednesday to unanimously name the former Republican governor to perhaps the hottest college presidency in the nation. And to appease the Democrats officially comprising half the board, it appointed former Gov. Jim Blanchard a “special adviser” to Engler.

All of this maneuvering under enormous pressure exposes just how nakedly partisan the governance of MSU really is — and how irrelevant faculty and students are to key board decision-making. Forget about transparency. The trustees are demonstrating they have no intention yet of wooing an outsider to clean up the mess left by the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal and the MSU’s botched management of it.

Doing the right thing the right way would be too hard and too unpredictable. It would be too likely to culminate in conclusions people accustomed to controlling things could not control — emblematic of The Club in East Lansing whose only door is painted green and white.

Hail return of the well-connected Old Guard, familiar faces comfortable working the cozy corridors of power and its informal networks. Sure, Engler has a well-earned reputation for making tough calls. But, as you’d expect from a three-term governor, he also has long-term connections to his alma mater, MSU, and some of its most prominent donors.

Like Peter Secchia, the one-time U.S. ambassador to Italy, mega-booster of the Spartans, chairman emeritus of Grand Rapids-based Universal Forest Products Inc. and its largest shareholder. Engler, retired CEO of the Business Roundtable, has been a director of Universal Forest Products since 2003. Funny how that happens.

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Even as MSU’s trustees are taking the radical step of electing Engler interim president, the former governor has said he’ll back Attorney General Bill Schuette’s bid to be the next governor. That’s the same AG reluctantly pushed into launching an investigation into what MSU brass knew about Nassar’s serial abuses and when they knew it.

Schuette’s choice to lead the investigation? William Forsyth, a long-time prosecutor in West Michigan whose retirement party was partially financed by Secchia. He’s a Republican kingmaker whose influence will be critical for securing the coveted gubernatorial nomination later this year.

The Spartan football coach, Mark Dantonio, wrote the foreword to Schuette’s book, “Big Lessons from a Small Town.” Occasionally Secchia is seen courtside chatting with the Spartan basketball coach, Tom Izzo, more often Dantonio — perfectly acceptable habits illustrating just how close some boosters are to the programs they support.

If this all feels a little too cozy, especially given the enormous stakes for the university, its reputation and its prized football and basketball programs, that’s because it is. But it’s also how power is exercised in the governance of Michigan’s Big Three universities, whose trustees are the only ones in the nation elected by at-large statewide ballots.

That’s no recipe for accountability, as the sordid mess by the Red Cedar is demonstrating. The theory behind trustees directly elected by voters is that they’ll be directly accountable to voters, too ... every eight years. In between, as a practical matter, they’re effectively untouchable absent a protracted set of hearings executed by the sitting governor.

Perception here is reality. It’s The Club. And only those with the wallet, political connections or personal ties get preferred membership. Trustees Brian Mosallam, a Democrat, and Mitch Lyons, a Republican, both played football for George Perles, a head coach-turned-Democrat. After his emotional firing in 1994 by then-President Peter McPherson, Perles more than a decade later was elected to the board of trustees, twice.

Trustee Melanie Foster, a Republican, was first appointed to MSU’s board in 1991 — by Engler — and left office the following year. She was re-elected in 2004, lost her re-election bid in 2012 to Mosallam and Vice-Chair Joel Ferguson and then won her seat back in 2014.

And Ferguson, first elected to MSU’s board during the Reagan years, is a well-connected Democrat-cum-real estate developer who knows how to work both sides of the political aisle. In his line of work, you have to — especially in the state capital.

President Clinton appointed Ferguson to the board of directors of Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. He was a member of the Democratic National Committee for 20 years. He’s credited with helping the Rev. Jesse Jackson win Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary in 1988. And, in 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder named Ferguson, a rabid booster of Spartan athletics, to Flint’s Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

The trouble with letting members of The Club call the shots at times like these is that they tend to deliver results benefiting them. A crisis like the one squeezing Michigan State’s leadership and tearing at its community requires hard decisions that may be unpopular.

But they’re often necessary to excise the cultural rot eating an institution from the inside out. Case in point: Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy, led not by one of the usual suspects in Lansing but by a Washington lawyer, Kevyn D. Orr.

He had a job to do — and few political ties here to encumber his ability to do it. Members of MSU’s elite club? Not so much.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.