Engler to lead MSU as interim president

Jonathan Oosting and Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan State University Board of Trustees has chosen former Gov. John Engler to serve as interim president and steer the university through fallout from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, according to a source with knowledge of the choice.

Trustees planned on Tuesday to make the pick unanimous at a 9 a.m. Wednesday public meeting, according to the source.

MSU trustees see Engler as a decisive leader capable of improving communication and leading the university through the turmoil resulting from the scandal.

Praised by Republicans, the choice riled Democrats and outraged some survivors who suffered abuse at the hands of Nassar. Engler is connected to MSU boosters such as Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia, who chaired two commissions under the former governor. And Engler presently sits on the board of Universal Forest Products, the company Secchia led.

Engler is “the right choice” to serve as interim MSU president, said State House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, who is seeking the GOP nomination for state attorney general. In December he became the first high-ranking public official to call for Simon’s resignation.

Engler is “a strong leader with a proven track record of reform, and the school needs someone who is able to come in from the outside, stand up to the status quo and make immediate changes,” Leonard said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the interim president on new reforms that will better protect women, the students at MSU and the local community.”

Engler, a Republican, is expected to hold the interim post while the trustees — four Democrats and four Republicans — conduct a longer national search for a new president, a position the former governor is not seeking.

President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis resigned last week, capping off one of the most tumultuous periods in university history.

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An investigation by a university defense attorney found no evidence that anyone other than Nassar knew of his criminal behavior, but the probe did not yield a written report. A subsequent Detroit News investigation found that 14 representatives of MSU were aware of sexual abuse allegations involving the doctor over two decades. Simon told the knews she learned of a Title IX complaint and police report against an unnamed sports doctor in 2014 but said she never received a copy.

Former Engler press secretary John Truscott said Tuesday he had talked to the former governor about the possibility of becoming MSU’s next leader.

“We’ve talked about it, how sad the situation is. Of course, he would have definite ideas about how to fix it. He always does,” Truscott said.

“He’s certainly not seeking it. He told me that if they come calling, he’s plenty busy. But he told me he has a love of the university, and I’m sure he would help any way he could.”

Criticism of Engler’s expected appointment came mostly from those wary of his political background.

House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said Engler would not have been his first choice.

“Though I would have preferred an independent outsider for the position, if Governor Engler is named interim president, I will work with him to ensure that the right changes are made so survivors and our community can begin to heal,” he said in a statement.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon noted that Engler recently endorsed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette’s campaign for governor. His appointment as interim president is “another conflict of interest” as Schuette’s office leads an investigation into the university, he said.

Schuette on Saturday announced that longtime Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth would lead an investigation into who knew what at MSU about Nassar. Forsyth was roasted by Secchia at a December 2016 retirement party.

Rachael Denhollander, a Nassar victim who helped expose him by taking her accusations public in September 2016, told The News that she was “disappointed and dismayed” by Engler’s selection.

She called the former governor a “political insider with close ties to MSU and MSU insiders at a point we most critically need outside leadership and accountability.”

“The board made great statements about outside accountability, but when they act, it’s clear it is business as usual, institution before the victims,” Denhollander said. “We need a truly outside perspective, and Engler is the polar opposite of that.”

Later, Denhollander added on her Facebook page that she hopes Engler will act with leadership and integrity.

“The Board issued good words a few days ago about moving away from litigation and towards healing, but they have yet to act on those words,” Denhollander said. “My hope is that Engler will be the first leader to truly act on what is right, and put immediate action behind the Board’s statement.”

Sterling Riethman, a Kalamazoo resident and another victim of Nassar’s abuse, agreed.

“There aren’t enough words to express my disappointment and frustration with this decision from the board,” said Riethman, 25. “We have been adamant about the need for new leadership with an unbiased perspective and I have little faith he will be able to provide that. Yet again, we go unheard by the board of trustees.”

MSU’s College Democrats posted a statement of dismay and called for students to flood the trustees’ meeting.

“The College Democrats at MSU expresses no faith in this choice for our university president,” a statement on Facebook read. “We demanded change. A change that is unlikely to come from the leadership of a retired political figure who does not represent the interests of the students of MSU.

“Join us as we flood the board, tomorrow at 9 a.m. Stand for the survivors, stand for change.”

Engler, 69, served as Michigan governor from 1991 to 2003.

Engler retired in February 2017 after heading the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Engler graduated from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in 1970 and earned a law degree from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1985.

Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat, also was in consideration for the interim president post. He may serve the university in some new capacity, but his role is not expected to be part of Wednesday’s board announcement.