MSU board backs Engler as he apologizes to Nassar victim

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
MSU interim President John Engler

Minutes after Michigan State University interim President John Engler apologized Thursday for statements he made about about victims of Larry Nassar, the majority of the Board of Trustees gave him a vote of confidence.

Engler apologized eight days after explosive statements he made in private emails emerged, setting off a firestorm of criticism and calls for his resignation. In the emails, he 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. 

Engler's statement came on the second day of a two-day private retreat of the Board of Trustees. Some members told The Detroit News they made it clear to Engler that an apology was needed. 

MSU then issued a statement on behalf of the trustees, saying Engler would stay on as interim president until a permanent successor is chosen.

"I was wrong. I apologize," Engler wrote. "When I started this interim position in February, it was never my intent to have an adversarial relationship with some of the survivors."

His statement included a direct apology to Denhollander.

"My speculation about the lead plaintiff receiving kickbacks or referral fees hurt her deeply and for that I am truly sorry," Engler wrote. "She and the other survivors suffered greatly and they are entitled not to have their sincerity questioned, either individually or as a group. I apologize to her and her sister survivors."

Rachael Denhollander expressed mixed feelings about John Engler's apology, saying it should have been made sooner, and saying she still believes Michigan State University needs new leadership.

Engler's apology came the same day The News reported that special prosecutors are accusing MSU of obstructing the investigation into how it handled reports of abuse by Nassar. Engler's statement made no reference to the obstruction allegations.

The trustees' statement, released by the university, said Engler retains the support of a majority on the eight-member board.

“John’s apology for the comments contained in an April email that was released last week is appropriate and appreciated by a majority of the Board,” said Brian Breslin, chair of the MSU Board of Trustees.

The trustees' statement also said: "He will continue to serve as Interim President until a new President is selected.  John is not a candidate for the permanent position and has stated repeatedly that he wishes to depart as soon as the new President is chosen."

But Trustees Dianne Byrum and Brian Mosallam, who called for Engler's resignation last week in the wake of the emails, said they don't agree with the board majority that the interim president should stay.

"Pleased to see Engler tried to apologize to @R_Denhollander and our survivors," Mosallam said Thursday evening on Twitter. "But because of his chilling behavior, Engler’s apology is too little too late. I stand by my call for John to step down so MSU can rebuild confidence with all stakeholders and focus on healing."

Said Byrum: "The actions by the president have created another set of stories that becomes the headline instead of what we are doing to correct the past mistakes. He did apologize but it came well over a week later. But I am glad he did apologize."

Byrum said the apology came up on both days of the retreat, with the bulk of the discussion on Wednesday.

"The trustees believed an apology was not only necessary but the right thing to do," she said. "It is my hope he understood it was the right thing to do as well as the trustees made it very clear it was the right thing to do."

Engler understood an apology was the right thing to do, and he meant what he said, Trustee Joel Ferguson said.

"This is his decision. It isn’t our decision," Ferguson said. "He isn’t going to say something he doesn’t feel ... No one wrote his script. That’s all him."

Scores of lawmakers have called for Engler to resign in the last week, more than 150 victims of Nassar signed a statement and the activist group Reclaim MSU announced that more than 1,000 people have signed a petition urging him to resign.

The apology comes at a critical time for MSU. 

The board meets Friday to vote on a $500 million settlement with Nassar's victims, tuition rates for 2018-19, the appointment of a chief legal officer and, potentially, Engler's future.

In a phone interview, Denhollander said she had mixed feelings about Engler's apology.

"I appreciate he took that step," Denhollander said. "I wish it had not taken eight days. I remain deeply disturbed by his mindset toward sexual assault survivors."

She said she is disappointed that the many requests to meet with board members, including before they filed suit, were never accepted by MSU and that Engler was never willing to meet and get to know them.

 It also was not the first time he has attacked sexual assault victims, Denhollander said.

 "Once a pattern is established, a mindset emerges. I don’t think it's wise for him to continue at MSU, given the pattern that has been established," Denhollander said. "The damage he has done to this campus is unfortunately irreparable."

Another Nassar accuser, Morgan McCaul, expressed similar sentiments.

"It is unfortunate that it took over a thousand signatures calling for his resignation and a two-day workshop with his employers for Mr. Engler to produce this apology," she said. "While I do appreciate that he has decided to apologize, much too late, I remain firm in my belief that he is unfit to lead the university in this sensitive time. His actions speak louder than his words." 

After a gubernatorial candidates forum Thursday, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office is overseeing an independent inquiry of MSU over the Nassar scandal, responded to questions about Engler's comment criticizing Denhollander.

"I think it was wrong, and no one should impugn the character, the motives, the sincerity of the survivors, whether it’s Rachael or anyone else," Schuette said. "These people are, I think, heroes."

Jonathan Oosting contributed.