Engler looks away as Nassar victims slam fund's end

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State University trustees and officials faced renewed protests and criticism from victims of sex abuser Larry Nassar and their supporters during a meeting Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

The Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting on Friday began like so many others over the past year: Several Larry Nassar victims and their allies lined up to make public statements about their frustration with how the university has handled the scandal over his sexual abuse.

Most of the speakers said MSU failed the victims by ending the Healing Assistance Fund to pay for counseling services for survivors and their families. 

But Interim President John Engler cast his eyes down to a stack of papers, not making eye contact with many of the speakers — angering them further.

"Engler! Your actions have shown again and again that you are only interested in the bottom line," said Leslie Miller, mother of Emma Ann Miller, a Nassar victim. "I would appreciate it if you would look at me while I am speaking."

After Miller told the board that MSU had the opportunity to atone for the Nassar tragedy, and suggested re-establishing the fund that provided money for counseling assistance, she asked Engler again to pay attention, this time to her daughter, who was scheduled to speak after her.

"Engler, I would really appreciate it if you would (be) so adult-like and listen to my daughter here who is 16 and missing high school over this," Miller said.

Engler's body language during the last board meeting of 2018 was a metaphor for how many Nassar victims feel about how the university continues to handle the scandal — even though more than a year has passed since Nassar admitted guilt and was subsequently sentenced to three prison terms that will keep him locked up for life.

"Tone deaf" is how Larissa Boyce described the university's response when Engler refused to look at many speakers during the public portion of the meeting, including Nassar victim Kaylee Lorincz and her mother, Lisa Lorincz. No one but Trustee Brian Mosallam acknowledged their pleas to reinstate the Healing Assistance Fund.

"I tell my children to look people in the eye when somebody's talking to you," said Boyce, who has said she told former Michigan State head gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about Nassar's sexual abuse in 1997.

"The fact that he couldn't even look at a 16-year-old, the fact that he couldn't look at Kaylee, the fact that he couldn't look at Lisa, people had to ask him to look at them ... it's the most disrespectful disregard for them as human beings.

"The fact that they couldn't acknowledge anything about the Healing Assistance Fund, it showed they are tone deaf in how they are just trying to ignore it so it goes away," Boyce continued.

Engler announced 10 days ago that the university had transferred $500 million into a settlement fund to compensate the victims of Nassar. who abused hundreds of young women over nearly three decades under the guise of medical treatment. 

As part of the transfer of funds, Engler said the $10 million Healing Assistance Fund was being folded into the settlement fund. His rationale: It would reduce the amount MSU has to borrow to pay for Nassar's crimes by $8.5 million.

After the victims and supporters spoke, Engler said the settlement fund was 425 times the size of the remaining funds in the Healing Assistance Fund, but said no more.

Signs appeared throughout the administration building where the trustees met to express the anger and disappointment felt by victims and their allies. Some wore T-shirts that said "Stop the Hurt Start the Fund." Others held signs during the meeting with quotes about lying.

One sign that hung on the entrance to the building co-opted a line from the famous song from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas": "You're a mean one, Mr. Engler."

Julie Thomas-Beckett, an MSU alum, said when she heard that the Healing Assistance Fund was shut down, she felt embarrassed, disgusted and deeply disappointed in the leadership of her alma mater.

"And one who cannot look at me," Thomas-Beckett said to Engler. "Thank you for looking at me."

Michigan State University Interim President John Engler, background, looks down as speakers address the Board of Trustees during the public comment period at the board's meeting Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. In the foreground is Ben Burke, a graduate student and representative for the Council of Graduate Students.

The audience then applauded.

"It has been hard enough to hear there are many who turned a blind eye and allowed the actions of Larry Nassar to continue for far too long," Thomas-Beckett said. "It has been even harder to hear there is a culture of abuse ... But this decision puts the value of money over the value of people ... so it compounds the abuse. ... It demotes our entire university ..."

Closing the Healing Assistance Fund might save some money now, she added, but it will cost more in the long run.

The fund was set up a year ago as the Nassar scandal was ramping up and the MSU trustees and former President Lou Anna Simon were under pressure to help the victims who were coming forward with complaints and filing lawsuits alleging that MSU failed to protect them from Nassar's sexual abuse.

But the university suspended the fund in July, citing a fraud investigation that MSU later revealed was not connected to the victims or their families.

"A year ago, I stood in this boardroom with a gag over my mouth that read, 'Silenced,' a symbol of the way this university had silenced survivors at every turn," said Morgan McCaul, a Nassar victim. "The months that followed served as a ruthless introduction to the grim reality of institutional betrayal: a fraudulent extension of sympathy, followed by a knife in the back."

She said the women who depended on the fund were struggling with depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and needed help. But MSU took it away from them.

"I advocate for real change ... but you've answered with only political Band-Aids," McCaul said. "Either reinstate the Healing Fund or accept the reality of what you are: traitorous figureheads, emblems of a toxic culture."

Board Chair Brian Breslin supported Engler when he announced the rollover of the remaining funds into the settlement, saying the Healing Assistance Fund was only meant to be "a bridge from the point of creation to when the survivors would receive payments from a settlement with the university."

But Mosallam, along with Trustee Dianna Byrum and Trustees-elect Kelly Tebay and Brianna Scott, last week slammed Engler's decision and posted a statement that said they intended to address the issue. 

During Friday's nearly three-hour-long meeting, Mosallam argued for maintaining the Healing Assistance Fund.

"I opposed closing the healing fund," he said, pointing to the move that went against the advice of MSU's Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup. "I thought it was counter-intuitive ... In January, we have different trustees are coming in who might have different viewpoints."

When asked after the meeting if he will have enough votes to reinstate the fund, Mosallam said he is "hopeful."

Friday was the last meeting for trustees Breslin and Mitch Lyons, who did not seek re-election. Trustee George Perles, who recently announced his resignation because of his battle with Parkinson's disease, did not attend Friday's session.

Breslin was the last to speak and thanked the Nassar victims for their courage in coming forward to help put the disgraced sports doctor away and to help MSU see its weaknesses.

"Because of that, we were able to go to work on that," he said. "I just would ask for patience and civility as this board moves this university forward ... to addressing the issues of sexual violence and abuse. This university will meet that challenge and it won't happen again at Michigan State."

Breslin praised Engler for taking over after Simon stepped down in January. 

"I want to thank you for taking a job you didn't seek, a job you didn't need, but you did it because you loved Michigan State University," he said.

"There have been some rough spots, I'm sure some times when you wish you had done things differently. For those of us who have worked with you, you have not allowed the university to sink or to plateau in a severe way," Breslin said. "You have continued to move us forward on all fronts including ... efforts to make it a safe place and never let it happen again." 

Upon hearing Breslin's statements to Engler, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, made a comment on Twitter.

"MSU Trustee Breslin on the amazing job Engler has done," Denhollander tweeted. "This perspective, that can't even see the problem and won't listen, is why MSU remains a cesspool of abusive culture."