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John Engler, the former Republican governor with a reputation as a tough-minded problem-solver, is stepping down under pressure from the helm of Michigan State University less than a year after being tapped to lead his alma mater out of crisis.

In a letter to board of trustees chair Dianne Byrum, Engler said Wednesday he’ll resign next week, ending a tenure filled with controversy over his handling of the fallout from the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

He sent Byrum an 11-page letter hours ahead of a board meeting Thursday morning to consider a "personnel action."  The meeting was scheduled amid growing backlash over a comment Engler made Friday to The Detroit News that some Nassar victims were "enjoying" being in the spotlight.

Engler said he was stepping down because of the new Democratic majority that took control of the board this month. "You have advised me that five Democratic members of the MSU Board, including yourself, have requested my resignation as MSU President," he wrote.

"... in compliance with your request that I resign and in order to ensure an orderly transition to my interim successor, I hereby resign the office of President of Michigan State University effective 9:00am, Wednesday, January 23, 2019," he concluded. "It has been an honor to serve my beloved university."

 Engler submitted his resignation on the one-year anniversary of the day more than 200 women and girls began speaking publicly about the profound impact of Nassar's sexual abuse in two courtrooms over nine days. In the middle of their testimonies, former President Lou Anna Simon resigned, and former Athletic Director Mark Hollis stepped down.

Nassar, who worked for MSU as a sports doctor for more than two decades, subsequently began serving multiple prison terms for criminal sexual conduct and possession of child pornography. Trustees appointed Engler to lead the university through the aftermath.

But Engler made many decisions and statements that angered Nassar's victims and their supporters.

That's why some were glad Engler's time at MSU is coming to an end.

"Long overdue," said Lisa Lorincz, mother of victim Kaylee Lorincz, "and while I’m sorry it took so much hurt, I am grateful that the new board was able to accomplish what the old board didn’t think was necessary."

Amanda Thomashow, who filed a 2014 Title IX complaint against Nassar, said: "I hope his resignation brings us closer to the comprehensive culture change my alma mater so desperately needs."

Longtime political analyst Bill Ballenger said Engler, who was governor of Michigan from 1991 to 2003, should never have taken the interim president’s job at MSU.

“It’s a devastating end to his career,” said Ballenger, editor of the online BallengerReport.com. “It’s very sad, obviously not how he wants to be remembered by not just the state of Michigan but MSU, his alma matter, of which he has always been very proud and I think that’s one of the reasons he took this job a year ago.”

Engler's reputation in politics was confirmed in this resignation, but in a negative way, said Ballenger.

“He was considered to be the ultimate-brass knuckle, in-your-face, confrontational-tough guy politician. For much of for much of his career, it served him well, but obviously in the job he’s had in the past year, it backfired on him.”

Trustee Kelly Tebay said Engler's departure is "the right move."

"I have been saying from the beginning he shouldn't have been hired in the first place. He was the wrong choice and it has taken too long to right this wrong. I am glad it’s finally getting taken care of and we can move forward."

 

Victims of Nassar and their allies have been calling for Engler's removal almost since he arrived last February, leading in June to a motion for his firing that trustees voted down.

The renewed push for Enger's resignation came as three new members joined the Board of Trustees in the past month, shifting it from an even partisan split to Democratic control.

On Wednesday, 23 MSU deans signed a letter sent to the board, urging the trustees to move on from him.

"The pattern of comments by Interim President Engler, including his most recent statement suggesting that some of the survivors of sexual abuse are 'enjoying' the spotlight, further harms the very people it is our responsibility to support," the letter said. "We do not support his continued leadership and request that the board to take appropriate action."

Earlier in the day, MSU Trustee Brianna Scott said she was "very confident" that there were five votes to terminate Engler, while Byrum said a potential successor will be at the 8 a.m. meeting.

"After he made this statement, it was pretty clear to the majority of the board that something needed to happen," Scott told The Detroit News. "We all want this to happen, at least the majority of the board. I look forward to casting that vote."

Two other trustees who responded to requests for comment from The News also said they would vote to remove Engler, including Byrum, who called Thursday's meeting.

She said comments by Engler that have upset Nassar's victims "cannot continue to happen."

"What we have is a repetition of instances where there has been despicable comments and this has created a setback for the community and cost the trust and credibility for the university and the survivors as they continue to heal," Byrum said.

Another trustee, Brian Mosallam, told The News that Engler's "time is up."

"I have watched Engler not only interact with our courageous survivors but our faculty, employees and students as well," Mosallam said. "He's not only a bully, he is a mean-spirited human being. His time is up."

Byrum said that Engler's contract, which began Feb. 5, said he could be terminated at any time and the university wouldn't owe him anything.

"Upon the Interim President's termination for Cause," Engler's contract says, "the University shall have no further obligation to the Interim President, other than accrued salary and similar accrued amounts for the period prior to termination in accordance with University policies and programs or as otherwise required by applicable law."

Engler, whose contract stated he would earn an annual salary of $510,399, announced when he was hired that he would give his pay back to university-related charities.

Scott said Engler needs to go so the MSU community can heal.

"People need to understand we are making the changes we have been requested so long," she said. "We need to set the university on a path toward healing ... He is divisive, makes horrible choice of words ... It just can’t happen again. We thank him for his service but goodbye to him."

Asked who would succeed Engler, Mosallam declined to name names but outlined personal qualities needed for an MSU leader.

"We need somebody who has compassion, who has empathy, who understands what crossroads this institution is at and is able to pave the way for our next president who comes in," said Mosallam, who called for Engler's firing last year.

Scott, who came under fire for voting for Byrum as chair of the trustees last week, said  Byrum has shown leadership and has done her "due diligence" in talking with the board since Engler made the comment, and began a search for Engler's successor. She declined to name any individual who might pick up the reins.

MSU trustees have struggled with Engler's actions and comments, some of which have drawn national media coverage.

Last year, some criticized Engler for his statements to lawmakers on the Nassar scandal and he faced accusations of secretly trying to settle a lawsuit with victim Kaylee Lorincz without her lawyer present.

Engler also ignited a backlash when he publicly provided too much private information about a victim, failed to make eye contact with activists while they spoke during public meetings and rolled a fund to cover counseling costs into the $500 million settlement for Nassar victims who sued MSU.

This is not the first time Engler has faced calls for replacement.

In June, lawmakers and others called for him to step down after private emails emerged in which he suggested that Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to publicly accuse Nassar, might get a "kickback" from her attorney for "manipulating" other victims.

At the next board meeting, Engler apologized.

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

He also directly addressed Denhollander, saying he was "truly sorry" and survived a move by some board members to fire him. Mosallam, a Democrat, called for the board to terminate Engler's contract, but only Byrum, another Democrat, supported Mosallam's motion.

At the time, the board was split between four Democrats and four Republicans. 

But two board members didn't run for re-election and another stepped down, and the new board is now controlled by Democrats.

During Friday's interview with The News, he said Nassar victims "who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition." 

Many were outraged.

"Riiiiiigght, women get raped for attention — just another way victims are discounted," tweeted Nancy Hogshead-Makar, CEO of an organization advocating for women and girls in sports, Champion Women, and a civil rights lawyer. "Engler is the WRONG leader for these times."

Byrum condemned his statement last week, saying it was "ill-advised and not helpful to the healing process, survivors, or the university."

Members of the new board madebrief statements about the comment, including new board member Nancy Schlichting, who told The News and the Chronicle of Higher Education that she was "appalled." 

Michigan U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee and Elissa Slotkin, both Democrats, chimed in with support for Engler's departure.

But Engler did have some support. As recently as Tuesday, Trustee Joel Ferguson said he disagreed that Engler needed to go. During a telephone interview, he said Engler was only at Michigan State for a few more months, with a permanent president to be chosen this summer.

"We’re better off looking for a new president right now and having less controversy and less drama as possible," Ferguson said. "We just have to put our best face forward."

In his resignation letter, Englerpointed to the climate at MSU when he took over.

“I sought to move with urgency and determination to initiate cultural change at MSU on issues of safety, accountability and respect through organizational changes and focused engagement on priority issues,” Engler wrote.

He also highlighted numerous changes under his tenure that included a satellite location for student mental health services at the MSU Union; new nonprofit organization of the colleges of Human Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Nursing for a multi-specialty group practice; and many steps to address relationship violence and sexual misconduct, including an advisory work group.

“The Larry Nassar trial and the national #MeToo movement empowered more women to report being sexually assaulted, with reports to MSU rising 500 percent in the years between 2014-15 and 2017-18,” Engler wrote. “That increase, together with new resources allocated to prevention and response, allowed MSU to more thoroughly address the effects of this historically underreported crime by helping more survivors seek justice and access healing resources."

Another highlight, Engler wrote, was the historic legal settlement reached with hundreds of Nassar victims.

“Significantly, and with unusual speed to avoid traumatic and protracted legal battles with survivors, the university announced a $500 million settlement with 332 Nassar survivors on May 16, 2008,” Engler wrote. “Shortly afterward, my administration was able to present the Board of Trustees a two-year budget, including undergraduate tuition freezes to continue to attract top students and a block tuition structure to enhance affordability."

During his interview with The News on Friday, Engler was asked how long he would be at MSU.

“I’m ready to go next week," he said. "But I don’t think they have a president quite ready yet. But as soon as the president is hired and arrives.”

Asked during the interview with The News if he would he could go back and do anything differently, Engler joked, "Not take the job. Not be a volunteer."

"Sure, there are always things you would do differently," he said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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