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Birmingham — Interim Michigan State University president and former Michigan governor John Engler said the school is optimistic it can reach legal settlements with victims of Larry Nassar.

“What we’re trying to do now is how do you resolve 312 lawsuits?” he said. “I think the mediation that we’re in; we’re very hopeful. The conversation in mediation will be ‘what will be the damages?’”

Engler made the remarks Thursday morning at the inaugural Detroit Free Press Breakfast Club meeting, held at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. About 250 people attended the sold-out event.

“We hope we can get a settlement,” Engler said. “We’d certainly prefer that to litigation. We’re anxious to see if we can work something out. We think that’s in the best of interest of people harmed by Nassar. We think it’s in the best interest of the Michigan State University community.”

He said he’s told school officials the settlements will be expensive. He also said he doesn’t know how much the settlement will cost the university or how it will impact its programs.

Sessions took place last month in New York with a goal of reaching a settlement that some believe will close the long chapter of Nassar, the former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who admitted to possessing images of child pornography and sexually abusing females under the guise of a medical treatment for more than two decades. He is in a high-security federal prison in Tucson.

The next sessions are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Last month, Engler drew criticism for allegedly trying to settle a civil lawsuit against MSU for $250,000 filed by Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz, 18, without her attorney present. There was a subsequent rally at which protesters called for his resignation and those of the Board of Trustees.

On Thursday, Engler talked about an array of topics, ranging from the Nassar scandal to MSU sports to changes the university is undergoing. He pointed to a 12-page document that lists changes to the school’s policies and procedures regarding patient care. He made copies of the document available to anyone at the event who wanted one. It’s also available online.

MSU has reorganized its health colleges, clinical practices and student wellness programs as well as implemented improved protocols for patient safety and privacy, he said. In addition, the school will conduct an audit of patient care in June.

This week, MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam released a series of proposals that included an independent, internal review of the university’s leadership and a call to “terminate all those who acted contrary to our values.” His plan also would add a faculty member and a student to the trustees, with limited voting rights.

In response Friday, the activist group ReclaimMSU said parts of Mosallam’s plan are “moving in the right direction” but said others go “against the very principles of real shared governance that our community demands and needs.” The group has called for two faculty and two students to be put on the board with full voting rights.

Engler said because of the changes the university is making, another Nassar-type scandal could never happen again.

“When we’re done, Michigan State is going to have if not the safest, one of the safest, campus in the country,” Engler said.

Free Press columnist Carol Cain served as the Thursday discussion’s moderator and conducted a fireside chat with Engler. The discussion was followed by a brief question and answer session.

Cain asked Engler if he worries a culture that prioritizes winning football and basketball games over academics and character issues has developed at MSU.

“I’m not,” Engler said. “I think in (MSU Football coach Mark) Dantonio and (Basketball coach Tom) Izzo, you’ve got two coaches with great personal integrity who run very clean programs. That’s not to say that everyone in those programs has always comported with what is expected of them, but I can say if they don’t, they pay the price. I put the integrity of these two men up against anyone in the country.”

He also reiterated his criticism of ESPN for an “Outside the Lines” article that featured a split image of Izzo and Dantonio with Nassar.

“They never met Larry Nassar,” Engler said. “They didn’t have anything to do with him. But that’s the kind of environment they’re in.”

Tricia Keith, who listened to Engler speak, said she thought the interim president did a fine job answering questions. Keith is vice chair of Central Michigan University’s Board of Trustees.

“I think they’re really important issues, and I appreciate the fact that he took them head on,” said Keith, who is also executive vice president, chief of staff and corporate secretary at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

A 1970 MSU graduate, Engler was selected the university’s interim president in January in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal. Nassar, a former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor, sexually assaulted more than 250 young women over two decades.

At one point during the discussion, Cain asked Engler if he was interested in staying on as the university’s president.

“No,” he answered immediately, drawing a round of laughter from the crowd. “I want to get the heck out.”

“There was this great movie the kids used to watch, ‘Nanny McPhee.’ Nanny McPhee used to say, ‘When you don’t want me, but you need me, I’ll stay. When you no longer need me but want me, I have to go.’ I’m ready to go right now, but we’ve got a little more work to do.”

The former governor also predicted Izzo will remain at the school despite rumors he was being considered for a coaching job in the NBA.

“Tom has a team that’s going to compete for a national championship again next year,” Engler said. “He’s going to be at Michigan State next year. He’s a Spartan for life.”

CRamirez@detroitnews.com

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