Nassar victims: Engler has 'failed miserably' and must leave MSU

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The growing calls for John Engler to step down as interim president of Michigan State University were amplified Tuesday when more than 120 victims of Larry Nassar released an open letter saying the former governor has "failed miserably" in his leadership of the state's largest school. 

The letter also said the trustees who haven't called for Engler to step down must "stand for what is right."

Engler's actions have "sent a chilling message across MSU's campus, causing damage that cannot be repaired until he is gone," according to the statement. 

The letter follows calls for Engler's departure from two MSU trustees, the state Senate majority leader and several members of Michigan's congressional delegation. T

The backlash against the interim president developed after private emails emerged last week  in which Engler suggested that Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, might get a "kickback" from her attorney for "manipulating" other victims. 

It also comes as trustees are set to assemble Wednesday for a two-day retreat in East Lansing before their regular board meeting Friday.

"We have made our motivations clear at every turn: we never want there to be another survivor of sexual abuse on MSU's campus who fears to speak up against their abuser and whose cries go unheard by its administration," according to the statement. "We are here to tell you that all the organizational changes and policy and procedure enhancements in the world mean nothing if there is not leadership that creates an environment where survivors feel safe to speak up. On the point, there is no debate: President Engler has failed miserably."

MSU officials did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment on the letter Tuesday.

Trustees Dan Kelly and Joel Ferguson were reached by phone but declined comment.

Earlier in the day, Trustee Brian Mosallam released a statement that said he "applauded the sister survivors' statement this morning calling on the MSU board of trustees to fire president John Engler.

"As I stated last week, it is clear to me that MSU will not be able to heal until John Engler is gone from our campus," Mosallam said. "Bluster may work in Lansing, but this is East Lansing, and in this town, we treat each other with respect and dignity. Especially survivors of sexual abuse.

"I hope my colleagues, each of whom have a daughter of their own, take accountability for Engler's failure to lead us out of this crisis and join me and (Trustee) Dianne Byrum in telling John that his time is up," Mosallam continued.

Byrum also issued a statement, saying that she also "applaud the courageous survivors for their continued push to make Michigan State University a better institution where this tragic situation will never happen again." 

"When John Engler's despicable comments came to public light, I called on him to apologize and he failed to do so," Byrum said. "A leader who cannot take responsibility when they are wrong is the wrong person to lead MSU forward."

Grace French is among the Nassar victims who signed the letter.

"I signed because the actions of Engler are causing more harm to a community that primarily needs healing," French said Tuesday. "The refusal of some of the board members to speak out against Engler has shown us that they are OK with a victim-blaming culture, and an interim president who encourages it."

MSU's Board of Trustees appointed Engler in February after former MSU President Lou Anna Simon resigned in the wake of Nassar, a former MSU physician who sexual abused young women under the guise of a medical treatment for decades.

The victims' statement also comes after Mosallam and Byrum, along with a scores of lawmakers from both political parties, said last week thatEngler should step aside following his four-month tenure.

"We recognize that the greatest measure of an abusive culture is how survivors are viewed, and whether perpetrators and enablers will be held accountable and the environment in which they thrive remediated," the statement said, which was signed by dozens of victims. "On all these metrics, President Engler has only reinforced the culture of abuse at MSU. Our deepest concern is the impact his statements and behavior will have on survivors who are still living in silence, and in creating an unsafe environment on campus, by communicating a demeaning and derogatory attitude towards survivors of abuse who still seek the confidence to speak up. This is not leadership." 

Last week, Engler said he was focused on the work ahead at MSU and would not step  down.

"I continue to look ahead," Engler said then. "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. 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." 

Denhollander said Engler's remarks clearly send a message that anyone who speaks out will "either be viewed as manipulating for personal gain, or being foolishly manipulated."

"That creates an incredible chilling effect across campus, no survivor is safe to come forward while this is the attitude towards them, from the highest leadership office in the university," Denhollander said. "We can't change what happened to us, or what it cost, or the attacks against use for speaking up, but we will do everything in our power to ensure others don't have to walk this incredibly painful path, and incur more trauma and damage while they try to heal and find justice."