How John Engler’s MSU reign fell apart

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
John Engler answers questions from The Detroit News Editorial Board and reporters at The Detroit News on Friday, January 11, 2019.

The meeting was almost over when John Engler answered the question that triggered his downfall at Michigan State University. Engler, MSU's interim president, was speaking with The Detroit News' editorial board about his troubled tenure when he was asked about the challenges the next president would face.  

During an hour-long interview, Engler had highlighted growth in Michigan State's enrollment, promoted changes made to prepare for the next president and shared his thoughts on how MSU had failed to respond adequately to the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

But then — seated at the head of a table in The News' third-floor conference room — he veered into more controversial territory. 

The former governor said his successor would need to be a good manager and fundraiser, adding that he hoped to do some fundraising himself before leaving office this summer. Then he offered his thoughts on the difficulties he and others faced in coping with the fallout from Nassar's crimes.

"It's very tough," Engler said. "You’ve got people, they are hanging on and this has been … there are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven’t been in the spotlight."

"In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition. And it’s ending. It’s almost done.”

Six days later, Engler was done, forced to resign from "my beloved university" in the face of a fierce backlash generated by yet another comment that seemed to disparage victims of one of the nation's most prolific sexual predators.

Even before making the remark, Engler faced built-up animosity from Nassar survivors who saw him as hindering rather than helping them and the larger MSU community heal. The Republican former governor also was confronted with a political shift that had transformed a generally supportive Board of Trustees into one controlled by Democrats.     

Turn off camera

The chain of events that triggered Engler's departure began at 11 a.m. Jan. 11, a Friday.

He arrived at The News' Fort Street office dressed in a dark gray suit and accompanied by Emily Guerrant, the MSU spokeswoman he had hired shortly after taking office last year.

Before Engler sat down at the head of a long table, in a room decorated with framed copies of historic Detroit News front pages, he questioned the presence of video camera at the other end. He said he didn't want to "have to pay attention to a damn camera."

Although The News videotapes some editorial board interviews with public officials, the camera was left off at Engler's request.

Engler began the meeting by saying the university's retention of students continues to improve and that MSU had just enrolled its largest freshman class with 8,442 students, including 4,415 women — also a record. He also said applications for this fall are up more than 20 percent, including a 30 percent increase in out-of-state applicants.

This fall's increase comes after applications fell 10 percent for last fall's class.

"Where do you stand in terms of implementing your plan, your plan for dealing with the aftermath of the Nassar scandal?" Engler was asked.

He responded even before the questioner was finished.

 "My plan is obviously to get Michigan State ready for the next president," Engler said. "That's day one, job one."

Engler was then asked again about his plan to address the Nassar scandal.

"Oh yes, that's well along," Engler said. "We've been very successful there. It is a profoundly different campus today than it was 11 months ago when I arrived."

Kathy Morrow, left, and Leslie Miller, right, mothers of sexual-assault survivors Hannah Morrow and Emma Ann Miller, respectively, yell at Interim President John Engler and MSU trustees during a board meeting June 22, 2018.

Engler spoke of many changes, including new guidelines on how athletic trainers relate to the medical staff that supervises them and the hiring of more staff to work on education and prevention, in the Office of Institutional Equity.

He also discussed additional safeguards put in place to ensure that doctors are accompanied by chaperones during treatment, measures aimed at preventing a repeat of Nassar's abuse of gymnasts and other athletes.  

"It's very clear when so many parents were in the room with their daughters that isn’t adequate for chaperoning because the parent wants that daughter to be able to get back out and compete and I don’t think the parent knew what was going on," Engler said.

He added later: "Not a single complaint from 175 parents in the rooms with their daughters was ever filed. Not one."

MSU also required in-person training on sexual misconduct for incoming students, Engler said.

"There are a lot of subtle things but they are all significant," Engler said."What happened should never, ever be allowed to happen again. I feel very comfortable in saying that a Larry Nassar could never happen again at MSU, with the changes that have been made."

Different approach

Engler made a few jokes during the interview, including when he was asked what he would do differently.

"Not take the job," Engler deadpanned, prompting laughter. "Not be a volunteer."

"Sure there's always things you would do differently," he continued. "The challenge of running a very complex university is there are lots of moving parts. What we've done in so many of these areas is apart from the issues that we've had with those who were damaged by Larry Nassar, or the students on campus who were assaulted in a residence hall or by a faculty or staff member. And we've tried to deal with those in a way that's compassionate."

Toward the end of the interview, Engler was asked what went wrong at the university that allowed Nassar to abuse so many for so long.

"There are 100 little things that, if any one of them had been different, might have changed this outcome or led to an earlier detection," Engler said. 

He added that over the years that Nassar was abusing women, just two complaints were made about Nassar — a figure that is much lower than numerous other reports.

Engler said one of those incidents occurred in 2004, when Brianne Randall-Gay reported Nassar to Meridian Township Police; the department did not inform MSU Police, Engler said.

"He could have been stopped in 2004 if the Meridian Township Police had told the campus police, and they didn’t," Engler said. "There wasn’t a requirement. Today there is an interlocal agreement that requires (reporting)…"

Besides the complaint to Meridian Township Police, Engler said there was another complaint about Nassar in 2014, a Title IX complaint filed by Amanda Thomashow.

"Those are the two complaints — 2004 and 2014 — and in 2016 when it became public, Nassar was suspended immediately," Engler said. "He was fired in two weeks."

But Engler's account is vastly different from reports by victims, detailed in many media accounts, including a Detroit News investigation showing that at least eight women made reports about Nassar that reached at least 14 MSU representatives.   

William Forsyth, Special Independent Prosecutor investigating Michigan State University's handling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

There's also a huge gulf between Engler's account and a recent report by William Forsyth, the former special prosecutor appointed a year ago to investigate MSU's handling of the Nassar scandal. 

Forsyth's report found that 13 women said they had reported Nassar’s abuse to an MSU employee between 1997 and 2015, nearly a dozen more than Engler said.

Asked about Engler's portrayal of the complaints against Nassar to MSU, Thomashow called it incomplete and named numerous other women who have said they alerted university employees, including Larissa Boyce, who has reported complaining about Nassar in 1997.

"Those are my sisters," Thomashow said. "They matter. Do not erase them from the story to fit your narrative of what happened."

The beginning

Engler's tenure began as the #MeToo movement was evolving nationally and with the university engulfed in a full-blown crisis as more than 200 women testified in two courtrooms over nine days about how Nassar had molested them over nearly three decades.

Nassar, a former sports doctor, admitted sexually abusing MSU athletes and Olympic gymnasts while treating them. He also admitted to possessing 37,000 images of child pornography. He received three prison sentences that will keep him locked up for the rest of his life.

A year ago, Ingham County Judge Rosemarie Aquilina handed Nassar the harshest of his three prison sentences: 40-175 years for criminal sexual conduct. Facing growing outrage over MSU's response to the scandal, President Lou Anna Simon resigned under pressure that night, followed a few days later by Athletic Director Mark Hollis.

The trustees also were caught in the blowback. 

Members of the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature, including then-Speaker Tom Leonard, were looking into impeaching the entire board. There also was talk of lawmakers penalizing Michigan State by cutting its state funding.

Trustees tapped Engler —  a former three-term Republican governor who had a reputation for getting things done — to replace Simon. The hope was that Engler, a well-connected politician and lawyer, could protect MSU's interests in Lansing, deal with lawsuits filed against the university by Nassar's accusers, and help the university put the scandal behind it. 

Engler accomplished the first two tasks, but the third proved to be his undoing. He upset Nassar victims with a series of remarks about survivors that many felt were insensitive at best. One example: He suggested in an email that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, was getting a "kickback" from a lawyer for encouraging other victims to sue MSU.

Engler's actions as president also upset them, especially his decisions to suspend and later close a $10 million fund created to help victims pay for counseling.

Despite the controversy surrounding him, Engler enjoyed enough support on the board to survive an attempt to fire him in June. But months later, the election of two new trustees and the appointment of a third shifted sentiment away from Engler. During their first meeting Jan. 5, the trustees voted to restore the counseling fund.

Furious reaction

Six days later, Engler sat for his fateful meeting at The News, which published two stories about the interview. One included his comment about Nassar victims "enjoying" the limelight.

The remark went viral, provoking an intense and immediate backlash among Nassar victims, who were incensed at the idea that they were enjoying anything about their experience.

"You mean, like having to change the day I grocery shop so my 3 kids don't see a photo of their mom demonstrating what was done to her body?" Denhollander tweeted shortly after the comment appeared online. "Tell me more about how enjoyable this spotlight is."

The following day, Trustee Brian Mosallam, an advocate for Nassar's victims who had led the failed effort to oust Engler in June, said he got calls from other board members about Engler's comments — the first time that had happened — and knew it was the end for him.

He said that with Engler's latest comment, too much "gas had been thrown on the fire." 

"He's like Trump," Mosallam said, comparing Engler to President Donald Trump. "He can't help himself."

In the following days, board members sought input from the leaders of MSU student, faculty and staff organizations on another interim president.

On Wednesday, Byrum asked Engler to submit his resignation, telling him she had the votes on the board to dismiss him. Engler complied, issuing an 11-page letter announcing his resignation and listing his accomplishments during the previous 11 months.

The following day, on Thursday, the board accepted Engler's resignation and replaced him with Satish Udpa, MSU's executive vice president of administrative services.

After the meeting, Byrum described how the board's hopes for Engler's tenure had faded.

"John had a reputation of being decisive and being able to implement changes very quickly," she said. "But the insensitivity and the ill-advised comments that he made continued to take the university backward and be hurtful and harmful to survivors and that was what was not acceptable and didn't represent the values of MSU."

Christian Perry, a Battle Creek senior at Michigan State, was walking across campus a few hours after the trustees had replaced Engler.

"It's probably the most positive piece of news we've received as MSU students," said Perry, "since people came forward about Nassar."