MSU taps new leader: 'Today the healing can truly begin'

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Members of the Michigan State University Boardof Trustees accept the resignation of John Engler as President and name Satish Udpa as new interim president.

East Lansing — A new chapter began Thursday at Michigan State University as the Board of Trustees appointed Satish Udpa as interim president and board members apologized for taking so long to start anew after the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

 Applause erupted in the packed board room after trustees unanimously appointed Udpa, MSU's executive vice president of administrative services, and accepted the resignation of former interim President John Engler, who had stirred repeated controversies since taking office last February.

"We cannot continue to operate the way we have been for the past two years," Udpa said after the meeting. "I am delighted the Board of Trustees decided to take some action, and I think it is in the right direction."

Asked the first thing he would say to the women who were sexually abused by Nassar, Udpa said: "I want to create an environment on this campus that makes them whole. That's the single most important priority."

Udpa said the university would work toward changing the culture that allowed so many women to be hurt by Nassar.

“Culture change, for me, means everyone respects everybody else," Udpa said. "We recognize that people have their rights, people have to be treated fairly, humanely, and that is what we are going to strive for.”

Udpa, 68, who has worked for MSU since 2001, was appointed to his role in administration in 2013, after serving seven years as dean of MSU’s College of Engineering. He also is a university distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering. His wife, Lalita Udpa, is a professor in the same subject matter at MSU. 

Thursday's meeting marked another milestone for MSU after reports emerged in September 2016 that Nassar, a university sports doctor, had been sexually abusing young women under the guise of medical treatment for decades. Nassar was subsequently charged and convicted, and the testimonies of more than 200 women and girls at his sentencing hearings a year ago focused worldwide attention on MSU.

The scandal prompted longtime President Lou Anna K. Simon to resign, along with Athletic Director Mark Hollis. MSU brought in Engler, a former Republican governor and MSU alum, to lead the university out of crisis.

While Engler implemented many changes in response to the scandal, his accomplishments were often eclipsed by his actions and comments that upset victims.

That's why the board accepted Engler's resignation, dated for next week, and made it effective right away.

"We need to start immediately," Board Chair Dianne Byrum said after the meeting. "Satish is here, he is ready to start the job. The board is ready to move on. It was time to make the break immediately with John Engler."

The change in leadership was reflected on MSU's website, with Engler dropped from the page for the Office of the President and replaced by Udpa.

Asked how Engler's departure will affect the university's search for a permanent president, Byrum said parting ways with Engler will make the task easier.

"Michigan State University, because of John Engler's comments, is on the national headlines," Byrum said. "We are on headlines of every paper in the state of Michigan ... That is not helpful for a presidential search. I think this will be helpful for a presidential search.

"Candidates will look at this and say this is a board that is coalescing and working together, it has solid leadership, Satish is going to help calm the campus, bring us closer together and prepare for a new president," she said.

During the meeting, many speakers said Udpa would bring stability to the university and compassion to Nassar's victims.

One of the most emotional comments came from newly-elected Trustee Kelly Tebay, who has spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted while an MSU student.

Her voice cracked as she said: "A wrong has been righted today, and the first thing I have to say is I am sorry it took so long."

"To the survivors and their families and this community: we hear you and we're listening," Tebay said. "I really hope this is first step in a long road to really changing the culture of this institution that we love so much. This is an important day."

Byrum told Udpa she and her colleagues are excited to work with him.

"I believe this is the beginning of a better relationship, both among board members and to the MSU community as we continue the healing and pay respect to the survivors," Byrum said.

"MSU has been working hard to make needed improvements regarding prevention of and the response to sexual misconduct and relationship violence as well as having enhanced patient care and safety," she said. "But none of our work will matter if our leaders say hurtful things and do not listen to survivors."

Engler oversaw a $500 million settlement with more than 330 women who sued MSU over Nassar's sexual abuse. In his 11-page resignation letter, he outlined numerous other accomplishments during his yearlong term.

But Engler grabbed headlines locally and sometimes nationally with statements that angered Nassar victims and their supporters. In one instance, he was accused of making a settlement offer to a victim without her attorney present.

In another, private emails emerged showing that he said Rachael Denhollander, the woman to first publicly accuse Nassar, was likely getting a "kickback" from her attorney, John Manly, for “manipulation” of young women who'd been abused by Nassar.

The comment that led to his departure came last week during a Detroit News Editorial Board meeting where Engler said that victims were "enjoying" the spotlight as they were being recognized nationally for their courage in speaking out about Nassar.

Trustee Brian Mosallam, who had called for Engler to step down last year, said it was "a new day at MSU."

"On this new day, our courageous survivors no longer have to go to bed in sadness, feeling like no one is listening to them," Mosallam said. "On this new day, our students, faculty, employees and alumni get their university back. On this new day, the values of this institution — empathy, compassion and respect — are no longer held hostage by one individual ... Today the healing can truly begin."

Mosallam also read a letter that Udpa had written nearly a year ago to the faculty and staff, after hailing him as a person of integrity, compassion and integrity and someone who would help the healing.

"When speaking of our survivors and their families, Satish wrote and I quote, 'We share their anguish and our first obligation it to helping them recover and become whole,' unquote," Mosallam said. "In speaking of MSU, Satish will. Our collective will to be a force of good has to prevail. That's leadership. That's the tone the university needs at this time.

"I firmly believe with your leadership, Satish, we will help our survivors recover and become whole and that this university, as a moral and ethical force of good, shall prevail."

Udpa was considered a year ago for the interim president position that went to Engler, trustees Vice Chair Dan Kelly said after the meeting.

"Thank God he is here," Kelly said. "He is an excellent candidate, he's going to make an excellent interim (president). He is someone we had talked about a year ago in January."

Asked if the board regretted not hiring Udpa a year ago, Kelly said, "It's not about regret."

"You have to take decisions in context," he said. "At the time we made the decision a year ago, we were looking at a different set of circumstances. The litigation was not over, we were faced with a number of investigations and we needed a broader experience(d) candidate. History will tell us whether that was the bad decision or not."

Members of the Michigan State University Boardof Trustees accept the resignation of John Engler as President and name Satish Udpa as new interim president.

Afterward, students, activists and others were thrilled about the board's move.

"Today is a fantastic day," said Natalie Rogers, a student who is a member of the activist group Reclaim MSU. "We've been calling for Engler to be gone for a long time. This should have happened a long time ago. We're happy it finally happened. I am excited about the new leader."

Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar victim who spoke to Engler during a board meeting last year, said Thursday was the first time she felt really good after an MSU board meeting.

"I'm super optimistic about what the board can do to turn this university around with the new interim president," Lorincz said. "My biggest hope is that this university and the survivors can really start to heal."

And hopefully, Lorincz said, it starts today.