MSU turns to critical task after contentious meeting

Kim Kozlowski, Beth LeBlanc and Blake Alsup
The Detroit News
MSU Interim President John Engler, right, talks with Trustee Joel Ferguson before the June 22, 2018 MSU trustees meeting.

East Lansing — With an exasperated faculty and enraged sex assault survivors scrutinizing each step, Michigan State University's board turned haltingly on Friday to its most significant job, choosing its next president.

At an emotional meeting, only its second public session in more than four months, trustees tepidly endorsed Interim President John Engler and his choice for general counsel. They also approved a $500 million settlement and laid plans to issue bonds to fund payments to women abused by onetime MSU sports doctor Larry Nassar.

While trustees took no formal action toward finding a successor to President Lou Anna K. Simon, they acknowledged the challenging tasks ahead: repairing damage to the university's reputation, cooling tensions with survivors and finding someone willing and able to heal deep divisions at Michigan's largest university.

"We need to move forward if we are going to institute real reform,” said Brian Mosallam, one of two MSU trustees who voted to remove Engler on Friday, while six voted to keep him. ”If we are going to hire a new president, one thing that makes that job unattractive is a fractured board. So we need to move forward, hopefully as one."

Many Nassar victims and supporters had been calling for Engler's resignation for weeks, but demands for his ouster amplified after his private emails emerged showing him making disparaging comments about Rachael Denhollander, the first accuser to speak publicly about Nassar's abuse. In the emails, he suggested she might get a "kickback" from her attorney for "manipulating" other victims who joined a suit against the university.

Criticism increased after The Detroit News and other outlets reported that special prosecutors accused acting general counsel Robert Young -- whose appointment Trustees approved Friday -- obstructing the investigation into how the university handled reports of abuse by Nassar. 

Though Engler apologized Thursday for his private emails, Mosallam moved to terminate Engler's contract. Only Dianne Byrum supported him. Members of the crowd jeered afterward.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter. She’s watching you and you’re caving to this?” Leslie Miller, mother of Nassar victim Emma Anne Miller, interjected while board members were speaking. “Actions speak louder than words, Engler! Do you not have a conscience? Don’t apologize now. It’s too late. Your true colors have shown.”

Trustee Mitch Lyons explained how he struggled with the "stupid" comments made by Engler and what would be the best course for the university and everyone with a stake in it.

"Is it fire John Engler?" Lyons said, to which the crowd shouted, "Yes! Yes!"

"Nobody in their right mind is walking into this hot mess right now," Lyons said. "To attract a president who can continue the changes that are put in place, now we have got to come together."

After the meeting, Mosallam met with victims and their families and said it is time for a different narrative at Michigan State.

"The university needs to move forward," he said. "There is good policy change ... being put in place but none of that matters if the tone doesn't change. If you continue to be adversarial with our survivors, the whole message gets drowned out."

A change in how Engler and other MSU officials communicate with Nassar victims and supporters is crucial, Mosallam said.

"The board sent that message loud and clear ... and I am hopeful, going forward, this doesn't happen again," he said. "I think he heard our message. Will he listen? I don't know ... I am hopeful that he heard it loud and clear."

Hannah Morrow, a victim of Nassar, said after the meeting that she was happy to see that some board members support the victims, but disappointed that some wouldn’t budge.

“I just think it’s time (for the board) to listen to the survivors and the victims instead of listening to their own gut,” Morrow said.

Larissa Boyce, the woman who said she told former gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about Nassar in 1997, added that she was hopeful but simultaneously uncertain about the future since Engler wasn't fired and Young was hired.

"This is the way they have acted for the last two years,” said Boyce. “I am hopeful things can move forward, but it feels like they are in a war against us. If that continues to happen, the university won’t move forward.”

Engler read part of his apology at the meeting.

He met with the press afterward and spoke about a monumental day following approval of reforms and policies to change the organization and culture of the university, along with instituting proper procedures, protocols and oversight. The board also approved the $500 million settlement with more than 330 Nassar accusers, froze tuition for incoming freshmen for two years while increasing it for more advanced students and changed its tenure policy.

"This is a historic board meeting," Engler said. "I don't think there's been a board meeting in recent years where there has been this much substantive action taken."

"We believe it's impossible for a Nassar to ever exist on campus with those changes that were put in place," Engler said.

Asked about how he will change the attitude of the victims who want him fired, he said he didn't know.

"I would like to change it," Engler said. "I said yesterday, I didn't come here to be adversarial."

Regardless of the changes that the board approved on Friday, many victims were exasperated that Engler remains in place.

"This university is a disaster," said Morgan McCaul,  a University of Michigan student. "It's a disaster of complacency and complicity. I have never been more disgusted with the board members who did not call on Engler to resign, or move to fire him."

One of Nassar's victims, Kaylee Lorincz, lobbied the board to refrain from permanently hiring Young, former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Engler ally, as vice president of legal affairs and general counsel.

MSU Interim President John Engler listens to public statemtents.

But that plea failed too, on a 5-3 vote. Trustee Dan Kelly joined Byrum and Mosallam in voting no.

There was no discussion of the motion. Some in the audience booed after the results were announced.

Young will be paid an $425,000 per year under a contract that runs from June 1, 2018 to May 31, 2021.

Asked why Young got a three-year contract when Engler will be gone before then, Engler said MSU needed to persuade Young to leave his law firm, that Young negotiated the settlement and by the time the agreement is complete, Young's remaining time with MSU would be about 2 1/2 years.

"So somebody who has been part of that negotiation should be there to see it to its conclusion," Engler said.

Crises take time to recover from, especially among an enormous amount of chaos and missteps, according to Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

He said the university will eventually go back to doing its primary work, which is to teach, conduct research and contribute to the state of Michigan,

“They need to address the pending issues and hopefully return to some kind of normalcy, so my assumption is that they will try to attract a highly qualified candidate to shepherd the university back to where it needs to be,” Nassirian said.

The university's presidential search process will begin this summer, starting with listening sessions to hear what the community wants in its next leader, said MSU spokesman Emily Guerrant. A search firm will be hired in the fall and a new president is expected to be announced by the end of the upcoming school year.

Survivor Kaylee Lorincz addresses the board.

The trustees on Friday also approved a $500 million settlement of lawsuits filed by more than 330 of Nassar's accusers. The disgraced doctor, who worked at MSU for two decades, is serving a de facto life term after pleading guilty to charges of criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography.

Trustee Brian Mosallam made a motion to replace Interim President John Engler. The vote did not pass.

In an emailed statement, attorney John Manly, who represents many of Nassar's accusers who sued MSU, joined the criticism of the university's interim leader and the board members who support him.

“It is sad and abundantly clear that a majority of the MSU Board of Trustees will not hold John Engler accountable no matter what he says or does," Manly said. "It is up to the governor and the Michigan legislature to remove Engler and the board members that support him before they destroy what is left of this once great university.”

From left, trustees George Perles, Dan Kelly and Mitch Lyons listen to public participation speakers.

Engler opened the meeting by reading part of his apology. "I did want to start with the apology to indicate we have a lot of work to do. I'll be here until that work is done," he said.

More than 300 blue and silver flower pin wheels, representing the Dr. Larry Nassar sexual-assault survivors, are displayed in front of the Hannah Administration Building before the Jun 22, 2018 board meeting.