Engler defies growing calls to resign at MSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
In this Feb. 16, 2018 file photo, Michigan State University interim President John Engler listens as he runs his first Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting on campus in East Lansing, Mich.

Michigan State Interim President John Engler rejected the growing calls for his resignation Friday, saying in a statement he will "continue to look ahead" amid the controversy over his emailed comments criticizing one of Larry Nassar's most prominent sexual assault victims.

The ranks of those saying Engler should step down increased Friday to include state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and MSU Trustee Brian Mosallam, while a second trustee, Dianne Byrum, said in a statement that Engler is "no longer the right person to lead Michigan State University during this difficult period.”

"As the Majority leader has always said, the university Board needs to take responsibility for the good and the bad at MSU," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Meekhof, R-West Olive. "The majority leader is disappointed by Engler's remarks and personally believes that he should step down."

State House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican, declined to comment on Engler's future through a spokesman.

Others calling Friday for new leadership at MSU included Michigan U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, Dan Kildee, Brenda Lawrence and Sander Levin -- all Democrats -- as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidates Abdul El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer. U.S. Rep Justin Amash, R-Cascade Falls, also urged Engler to resign, saying through spokeswoman Corie Whalen that Engler "is not the right fit for the job and should step down."

Engler did not respond directly to the calls for him to quit but made it clear he intends to stay at MSU in a statement issued Friday by the university.

"I continue to look ahead. Whatever the tensions were before, we have successfully negotiated a settlement agreement — something that is fair and equitable to both sides, and that both sides agreed to," Engler said.

"We are now committed to continuing our efforts to strengthen sexual misconduct prevention on and off campus and to respond promptly to and appropriately if prevention fails," he said. "I am looking forward to the Board of Trustee meeting next week, where we will continue our progress and efforts to move forward. I believe actions matter, and that is how the success of our work will be determined."

Engler's statement came after Mosallam on Friday became the first member of the school's governing body to call for the interim president to resign.

“Unfortunately, and with great regret, John Engler’s tenure as interim president has continued the bleeding rather than stem it,” Mosallam said in a statement. “His misguided actions and comments have failed to re-establish trust and confidence in Michigan State University.”

Mosallam made the comments in the wake of Engler’s private emails that emerged this week, suggesting that Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to come forward and speak about the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar, would get “kickbacks” for her role in bringing forward hundreds of other Nassar victims.

Denhollander has said Engler's comments are not true.

Mosallam has been among the vocal trustees in the wake of the Nassar scandal. In a phone interview Friday, he said he lobbied Byrum to join him in calling for Engler’s resignation.

He said he's working to persuade other members to support his call for Engler's departure but declined to say whether he will offer a motion at next Friday's board meeting. Prior to the meeting, the board will meet in a two-day retreat on Wednesday and Thursday. 

“A university president needs to show compassion and contrition,” Mosallam said. “He needs to understand we have no borders, we are a place of inclusivity. He answers to the people, and he answers to the Board of Trustees. We are not his appointees." 

 Byrum, in a statement Friday, came close to calling on Engler to resign. 

“The despicable and disparaging comments made about survivors by Interim President John Engler are completely unacceptable," the statement reads. "Yesterday I called upon the interim president to apologize for these hurtful remarks, he failed to do so, and therefore I have concluded he is no longer the right person to lead Michigan State University during this difficult period.”

Trustee Dan Kelly said Friday he did not agree that Engler should depart.

"I don't support asking the president to resign," Kelly said. The university needs some stability."

He declined to comment on Engler's emails or elaborate on his position.

Board Vice Chairman Joel Ferguson declined to talk about the growing number of voices calling for Engler’s resignation.
“You call him and see what he thinks,” he said. “That’s not an issue … That’s his decision.”
Ferguson said he'd rather discuss the positive changes the university is making in the wake of the Nassar scandal.

“I want to talk about how we are moving the university forward,” he said. “When we get through, everyone is going to really like the progress we’re making.”

Other board members could not be reached immediately Friday.

Natalie Rogers, an MSU student and spokesperson for the activist group ReclaimMSU, praised Mosallam’s call for Engler to resign but added he needs to go further and lobby other trustees to join him.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Rogers told The News. “We’d like to see some action, too. From the beginning, Engler has not been the right person for the job.

“Since the beginning, he has only made the situation worse,” Rogers said.

The ReclaimMSU group, an alliance of students, faculty and alumni, started a petition Friday on change.org, calling on the board to fire the interim president.

MSU recently reached a historic $500 million settlement with more than 300 women who accused the university of not protecting them from Nassar, the former MSU doctor who sexually abused young women for decades and is now imprisoned.

More: Michigan gives sexual assault victims more time to press charges, sue

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, stands by his initial stance that Engler shouldn't have been appointed in the first place, spokesman Zade Alsawah said.

“Sen. Peters has long called for outside, independent leadership at MSU to make major changes to the culture at the university – and he stands by his past statements that John Engler is not the right person to effectively make those changes," Alsawah said.

Other Democrats in Michigan's congressional delegation made similar comments.

“I am saying he’s lost the trust of the state of Michigan, and you can’t move forward in this situation,” Dingell said in a phone interview. “You can’t be effective at addressing these issues when you’ve lost the confidence of the community that you’re serving -- most importantly the victims, but also Michigan State and the state of Michigan." 


Kildee, D-Flint Township, said in a statement that "it is impossible for Michigan State to move forward from this tragedy with Governor Engler continuing to serve as interim President.

"His comments are inexcusable and show a complete lack of empathy for the survivors of Nassar’s horrific actions.”

Whitmer said if Engler won't quit, the trustees should remove him.

 “Engler lacks the judgment, empathy and basic human decency that is needed to lead the university during this difficult period... If Engler won’t resign, the MSU Board of Trustees should do the right thing and fire him immediately," she said.

El-Sayed issued a statement criticizing what he called "a culture of cronyism and denialism at MSU."

"Former Governor Engler was never the right choice, and now stands in the way of needed change at MSU," he said. "It's time for him to step down and for MSU to move on."

In a statement on Twitter, Denhollander said she was grateful for Mosallam’s call.

“Standing alone is never easy, but vital to leading and protecting  people and institutions,” Denhollander said. “There is no honor in everyone agreeing to  support the wrong things.”

Several of the other women who say they were sexually abused by Nassar applauded Mosallam for his move.

"Doing the right thing isn’t easy," wrote Morgan McCaul, a University of Michigan student. "I pray more than one MSU Trustee takes this opportunity for leadership and show of good character."

Amanda Thomashow agreed, applauding Mosallam "for showing the kind of leadership that MSU deserves and fighting to restore trust in the university." 

"I only hope the rest of the board follows suit," Thomashow tweeted. "It is never too late to do the right thing.


Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Jonathan Oosting contributed.