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Nolan Finley interviews John Engler on his role as MSU interim president

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John Engler had the same question everyone else had when he returned to Michigan State University 10 weeks ago as interim president:

How had Dr. Larry Nassar’s serial abuse of hundreds of girls and young women on the MSU campus continue for so long undetected, and who at the university knew what and when?

“I was disappointed in what I found,” Engler told me in his first extensive interview since his appointment. “There was a lot of confusion. The processes I would have thought would be there weren’t.”

Instead, the former Michigan governor and MSU alum confronted a college administration he describes as “very diffuse and disorganized” without clear lines of authority or accountability.

Or more simply put, no one was clearly in charge of anything, making it harder to determine who bore the responsibility for the Nassar mess.

“This is a different kind of organization,” Engler says. “Everyone thought they reported directly to me. Not having an institutional history here, it is not a structure that I was comfortable with.”

Engler describes it, sarcastically, as “a great system. Everybody thinks they are empowered to say yes, but nobody is empowered to say no.”

As much as anything, in Engler’s view, the lack of a hierarchy of leadership enabled Nassar to get away with his evil work.

“When you don’t have strong processes it undermines your ability to have strong accountability,” he says.

What was missing when he arrived, Engler says, was a thorough and independent assessment of the Nassar incident that he could have used as a guide to begin the repair work.

“It would have been useful to know about the weaknesses in the way the osteopathic college (where Nassar worked) kept its records, the supervision in that college, and who were the people who may have been in the position of hearing something and here’s what they did or did not do.”

RELATED REPORT:Engler says MSU athletics addressing sex assault issues
MORE REPORTS:Previous coverage of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal

So far, Engler says, he has not found evidence of an MSU attempt to cover-up Nassar’s sexual assaults. He said, though, the university was immediately aware of the massive legal liability it faced.

“They recognized there was that probability and so began to prepare for that,” he says. “And that was inward looking.”

Nassar’s boss, osteopathic dean William Strampel, was on leave when Engler arrived, but he says he spotted him as a red flag right away. Strampel has since been charged with numerous sexual misconduct offenses.

“When I asked why he wasn’t fired, I was told at a university you fire someone by revoking tenure,” Engler says. “That’s a process, and it involves faculty. I was told it was hard to do. My response was, ‘I don’t care how hard it is, let’s begin the process.’”

In the meantime, Strampel remains on the MSU payroll, collecting a $217,000 annual salary.

Engler pushes back on the notion of a campus culture that excuses sexual assault. But he acknowledges the university community has been ill-prepared to handle complaints of sexual misconduct.

“When there was a clear understanding that there was an assault taking place, they were dealing with it,” he says. “But I don’t think there was an ability and a clarity about speaking up.”

Establishing a campus where everyone understands what inappropriate behavior looks like is one of Engler’s top priorities. In that, he sees the #metoo movement as an ally.

“One of the things we’re seeing today that we’re actually celebrating is that more people are coming forward to say, ‘Hey, what’s happening over here is not right. That was inappropriate and there should be consequences.’ Our pledge is that everywhere we find that, we’re acting on it. People who engage in inappropriate conduct won’t be part of Michigan State University.”

Engler describes his mission as two-pronged. First, he has to work through the investigations and litigation and help put the Nassar era to rest.

“This community is hurting,” he says. “It cares very deeply about these young girls and women who were abused by Nassar. They want to make that right. And that’s why the settlement talks and mediation are so important. No one wants to go through years of litigation. We need to get this resolved for the victims and the university community to come to closure.”

MSU likely faces settlement costs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Engler says the university has insurance, but added he’s “not certain about anything” in terms of how much the policy will cover.

Asked whether MSU is at risk if the settlements exceed insurance coverage, or if tuition hikes will be necessary, Engler says, “There will be consequences here. People can create all kinds of hypotheticals. All I can say is that we’re sensitive to a quest that if successful will create an equitable result for everyone.”

He noted the co-defendants in the 306 federal lawsuits filed by Nassar’s victims are the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, and he expects they will bear a large piece of the settlement burden.

Part of his job also involves putting in place a detailed plan for preventing, reporting and responding to sexual abuse on campus.

“We’re taking steps to foster a safer campus as we go into a whole strategy around prevention,” Engler says. “We have an opportunity to emerge as a university — because we’ve gone through the wringer and are scrubbing everything we can find to scrub — as the safest campus in the country.”

The plan, being developed by a commission that includes sexual assault experts, imposes stricter requirements on MSU health clinics, including much better record-keeping. Engler says Nassar went undetected in part because spotty billing records made it hard to track the procedures he was using on the athletes.

MSU is also putting in place stronger chaperone rules for both its clinics and its youth sports camps, and is doing criminal background checks on everyone who works with children on campus.

In developing the strategy, Engler says he will rely on Nassar’s victims for input, as well as on other victims of campus sexual assault.

“We want to know from them if there are any areas where there are gaps or weaknesses. The voices of survivors can tell us why prevention is important and how, when it fails, it damages a person. Their testimony is useful in educating people about the negative effects of abuse. That’s what their expertise is as victims.”

Engler’s second assignment is to prepare for the selection of a permanent president.

The interim president says he expects to be around until early next year, and that in helping craft a system for choosing the permanent leader, he is sensitive to the controversy surrounding his own selection.

“The board recognizes that because of the chaos on campus given the way I was selected — they talked with students and faculty on Monday about them being involved in the selection of an interim president and then on Wednesday it was announced I’d been hired; obviously that was pretty awkward — that the process matters.”

The university announced Friday it has picked two women who have previously held leadership positions in academia as finalists to advise the board on the presidential search. Engler says the preference for a new president is someone who has already led a university.

Engler served three terms as governor, from 1990-2002. I asked him if he had been governor when the Nassar scandal broke, would he have moved to replace the MSU board. His answer fell well short of defending the performance of his new bosses.

“We had this question when I was governor about the behavior of a couple of trustees,” he says. “We didn’t think we had the authority to do it, and that we would have lost the fight.”

Would he have asked the trustees to resign? “You know, they’re elected. I would have been more interested maybe in how they were responding. Again, I’m not second guessing Rick Snyder. I think he’s done a good job.

Engler took a lot of heat after one Nassar victim, Kaylee Lorincz, accused him of offering her a $250,000 settlement in a private meeting. He won’t discuss the session, beyond saying, “We have different memories of what happened.”

Critics say it revealed a lack of sympathy on Engler’s part to the plight of the sexual assault victims. Asked if he had the empathy his role requires, Engler says:

“I think so. I understand they’ve been through a lot. I talk about being the parent of daughters not much different in age, and how I would’ve felt if it had been my daughter. I can’t experience what they experienced, but I can share with them the pain and hurt that it has caused them. And I understand that.

“Where I make an error is that in the haste to get things fixed, people think you’re moving too fast so you must not care. It’s just the opposite. We’re moving fast because we care so much. I’m also over here trying to fix the processes and that’s something that sometimes doesn’t seem very empathetic. But it’s the process that determines the response to anyone who’s been through this.”

Engler keeps in his pocket a handwritten note passed to him by a woman on an airplane describing the horrendous sexual abuse her mother, aunts and uncles endured as children. She urges him to, “Do right by these girls.”

“That’s what this job is all about,” he says.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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