Judge Aquilina: Engler should step down at MSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — One week after Michigan State University and victims of Larry Nassar reached a $500 million settlement, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said Interim President John Engler's time is up and he needs to step down.

Aquilina —  the judge who became a hero to Nassar's accusers when she allowed 168 women and girls to testify in her Ingham County courtroom about how he sexually abused them — previously stopped short of saying Engler should step down, saying she didn't want to get into a political mess.

But on Wednesday she said that Engler, the state's former governor, has been a "bully" to a victim in public and is the wrong person to be leading the university as it works to help Nassar survivors heal and change its culture after the scandal.

"He’s been more interested in putting his people in the university than looking at the problems," said Aquilina, referring to political allies that Engler has hired for top positions at MSU. "First and foremost, you look at the problems and then you place the right people, not political people, but the right people.

Pretty Hunter founder Tricia Kay Auten, left, 45, of Commerce Twp., shares a laugh with Ingham Co. 30th Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, right, as Her Honor models Auten's handcrafted ammo jewelry and apparel before the awards ceremony.

"This isn’t politics," Aquilina continued. "Michigan State is not the House or the Senate, where you need Republicans and Democrats. We need good educators for our children This is our future. It’s a mainstay in our state and unfortunately he’s made it a political playground. That is wrong."

Aquilina made the statements before she gave the keynote address at the fifth annual Women in Blue breakfast, honoring the service of the women in Detroit's police and fire departments.  

Engler is a Republican, while Aquilina considered but decided against running for the Michigan Supreme Court as a Democrat.

Michigan State spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said Aquilina is entitled to her opinion.

"Interim President Engler is focused on making improvements to MSU’s campus and policies surrounding patient care, sexual assault prevention and treatment," Guerrant said. "He is focused on changes to make MSU the safest and most inclusive place for students and faculty."

Less than four months ago, Engler picked up the reins at Michigan State following the resignation of former President Lou Anna Simon, who stepped down the same night that Aquilina handed Nassar a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

Engler initially brought in John Truscott, his longtime communications aide, then in March appointed longtime Republican ally Kathleen Wilbur to take on an expanded role that included the university’s top lobbyist job. This week, he announced the appointment of Robert Young as vice president and general counsel, effective June 1. The board of trustees needs to approve the hiring.

Young, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice, brokered the $500 million civil lawsuit settlement despite critics who said he does not understand the dynamics of sexual abuse.

MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum said she understands Aquilina’s frustration.

"While I voted for Interim President Engler, I cannot support lucrative contracts and long-term appointments for his political allies." said Byrum, a Democrat. "I will be voting ‘No’ on the overly generous employment contract for Bob Young as I believe it sends the wrong message to students, faculty, staff and the broader MSU community."

Young’s salary in his permanent post at MSU was not immediately made public. In his post as the lead counsel overseeing the multiple investigations and Title IX complaints at MSU, Young offered the university a 10 percent discount on his $640 hourly fee. 

Trustee Brian Mosallam said the board needs "to engage a compliance expert to come in as an outside monitor."

"Regardless of who is part of our administration, we need an objective party to monitor our progress on implementing sustainable institutional reforms and to make recommendations so we can continuously improve," said Mosallam, a Democrat. 

He also said MSU needs to hire a chief compliance officer to perform a comprehensive review of the university's internal controls and regularly brief the board on compliance, ethics and cultural risks. 

"The idea that these were not the first things done leaves a lot to be desired, but it's all reflected in John's tone and cosmetic actions: all bluster without much substance," Mosallam said.  "Let's follow the model set by GM's CEO Mary Barra by being transparent and transformative. MSU's entrenched defensive administrative culture must end."

But Trustee Joel Ferguson said Engler is performing the job he was appointed to do beyond expectations.

"John is doing an excellent job," said Ferguson, a Democrat. "Not good, excellent."

Aquilina called Engler a "bully," saying he did not properly handle the public comments of 19-year-old Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar victim, at the last Board of Trustees meeting. Then, Lorincz alleged that Engler tried to offer her a settlement in a private meeting without her attorney president, but Engler stopped her from speaking longer than the allotted time for public comments.

"You should not shut up or dissuade any victim, any time, any place," Aquilina said. "And there is a right way to do it. If you think a victim is talking out of turn, then explain properly what the procedure is. Don’t be angry with them -- you have to have some understanding."

Aquilina added that she watched Engler when he was a senator handle meetings and "if it was one of his own, he would let them go on."

"There was a (better) way he could have handled that;" Aquilina said. "It didn’t have to end up in a fight. Haven’t these girls fought enough? And why does he have to come off as the big bully. Governor Engler certainly knows how to handle a situation and he certainly didn’t handle that one very well. He was out of turn ...  He was a bully."