New Engler appointee played historic role at MSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler turned once again to a longtime political ally Tuesday, announcing that Kathleen Wilbur would replace Mark Burnham and take an expanded role including the university’s top lobbyist job.

Kathleen M. Wilbur

He also named Emily Gerkin Guerrant, a former Republican legislative aide and senior vice president for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., to the newly created position of vice president and university spokeswoman.

They’re at least the fifth and sixth high-level positions Engler has filled since taking over for Lou Anna Simon, who resigned amid fallout from the scandal surrounding pedophile Dr. Larry Nassar.

Wilbur, the second new vice president Engler has plucked from among former political aides, rose through state Republican ranks before moving into higher education. She received her doctorate in higher education administration from MSU in December, polishing credentials that, with her new role, could position her as a candidate to succeed Engler.

Emily Gerkin

She said Tuesday that her top priority will be to ensure MSU’s visibility is strong in all areas for which she is responsible: government relations, communications, development and fundraising.

“But also to be very transparent so that people know what we are doing,” Wilbur said. “We will always be transparent and open.”

She famously cast the deciding vote as a trustee in a previous MSU controversy. Wilbur was the lone Republican to vote with Democrats to appoint football coach George Perles to the dual role of athletic director over the objection of then-MSU President John DiBiaggio in 1990, a vote she does not regret.

“I thought at the time it was an appropriate move for the university to make,” she said Tuesday, although she does regret the controversy surrounding her vote.

When MSU was searching for a new president in 1992, Wilbur weighed in while she was Engler’s deputy commerce director, saying MSU’s next leader should have school ties but no “political position.” She served on the MSU board from 1984-90 and resigned to accept a post in the cabinet of then-Gov. Engler.

Wilbur replaces Mark Burnham, who worked in government relations at MSU for nearly 12 years. A university press release said Burnham was leaving to pursue other opportunities. He could not be reached for comment.

She said she and Engler sought each other out regarding the new position.

She will step into Burnham’s role and have even broader responsibilities in the position that has been elevated to an executive level reporting to Engler, said spokesman John Truscott.

Wilbur built her career in higher education and state government. Her most recent position was at Central Michigan University, where she served since 2002, achieving the rank of vice president for government and external relations. She also briefly served as interim president.

Prior to that, Wilbur was the only woman who has ever directed three Michigan state departments: the Department of Consumer and Industry Services, Department of Commerce, and Department of Licensing and Regulation. She also was deputy director of the Michigan Department of Commerce.

Wilbur, who earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees from MSU, was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007. She will be paid $320,000 annually.

She’s among a growing number of political allies Engler has appointed in the wake of the Nassar scandal.

Last month, Engler tapped former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. to work as the lead counsel coordinating numerous investigations and Title IX complaints involving MSU and Nassar. Engler has made numerous other appointments since he picked up MSU’s reins.

Guerrant make $180,000 annual as the primary spokeswoman for MSU. She will build a team to respond to media requests.

She replaces Kent Casella, associate vice president for communications and senior public relations strategist, who left the university last week. The position is new and elevated and will report to Wilbur, he said. Casella took over chief spokesman duties from Jason Cody, who was reassigned following Simon’s resignation.

“This is a time of transition for MSU and adding Kathy and Emily to the leadership team is a strong step in moving our university forward,” Engler said in a statement.

Guerrant was senior vice president of communications, marketing and public relations at MEDC. She also was vice president of John Bailey and Associates, managing director for Lambert, Edwards and Associates and deputy press secretary for the speaker of the House, and held other positions in the Michigan Legislature. Guerrant earned her master’s degree from MSU and bachelor’s degree from CMU.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of rebuilding a new culture at MSU, one that is focused on collaboration and transparency,” she said.