Engler faces pushback, vows MSU change

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Former Republican Gov. John Engler, known for his arm-twisting leadership style, will guide Michigan State University through a period of soul-searching and scrutiny amid the national scandal sparked by former sports doctor Larry Nassar’s years of sexual abuse on and off campus.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who was Michigan governor from 1991 to 2003, praised survivors’ courage and said he will do everything in his power to change the culture at MSU, calling this an “excruciatingly difficult time for the university.”

With the cameras rolling, Engler vowed Wednesday that “change is coming” after he was appointed MSU’s interim president.

But the unanimous decision by the university’s eight-member Board of Trustees to hire Engler is already creating a furor among Democrats, staff and students as MSU tries to reboot itself following two decades of Nassar’s abuse.

The nation’s eyes are now on MSU, which faces efforts by national and state media, the state Attorney General’s Office, the NCAA and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to find out how Nassar abused scores of girls and women without being stopped, even though at least 14 university representatives were informed of his sexual misconduct.

Engler, who was Michigan governor from 1991 to 2003, praised survivors’ courage and said he will do everything in his power to change the culture at MSU, calling this an “excruciatingly difficult time for the university.”

“We have an extreme organizational challenge that must be addressed,” he said. “I expect to use not just my experience as governor, but also my apolitical experience over the last decade and a half running two national organizations.”

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Yet the school’s attempt to find answers and rebuild are already mired in politics. The Michigan Democratic Party has called Attorney General Bill Schuette incapable of leading an independent investigation; students and university staff say they were not involved in the decision to hire Engler, and trustees are facing calls to resign over comments perceived as tone deaf by survivors and students.

In his first statement after his appointment, Engler told reporters, “This will not be a process that will be played out through the media on a daily basis. But mark my words: Change is coming.”

In protest to the vote, a student climbs atop the table and sits for a few moments to make a statement as the MSU board of trustees meets and votes to name former Gov. John Engler as their interim president on Wednesday, January 31, 2018.

Trustees, including Democrats, praised the incoming president, who has said he will tap former Democratic Gov. James Blanchard as an adviser.

“It doesn’t get any stronger than this,” said trustee George Perles. “Blanchard and Engler together. That’s quite a team. I know that these students, these women are counting on us to make sure that something like this never happens again. We shall work hard to make sure that all those loose ends are tied up.”

MSU faculty and students at the meeting bucked the decision, saying they were not truly involved in the trustees’ pick. A faculty committee representative and another representative for graduate students said in a statement to trustees that they learned about the decision to select Engler from the media, signaling to them that their input was not a serious factor.

The faculty steering committee — the body that represents faculty to the board — announced it will call for a vote of no confidence in the entire Board of Trustees at its next meeting.

But for a vote to take place, a majority of the university’s faculty would need to approve it as an agenda item at the next faculty senate meeting, according to Robert LaDuca, a professor and associate dean in MSU’s Lyman Briggs College. Plus, even if a vote takes place, it would be nonbinding.

Wednesday’s meeting was filled with theatrics, chants of “shame” and disruption from students and staff who say their voices have not been taken into account.

Senior Connor Berdy, 22, climbed onto the table where the trustees sat and delivered a statement protesting Engler’s selection, saying “this was not a democratic process.”

Berdy is not affiliated with the student government but said he felt he needed to involve himself as a member of the university.

“We want change. As an average person, I don’t have power in this university structure and that’s something that needs to change.”

‘They’re not letting us in’

Andaluna Borcila, a professor at the James Madison College at MSU, said trustees and university officials are merely paying lip service about seeking community input.

“They said they would involve survivors, students and faculty in the process. They did not,” Borcila said.

Borcila told Engler during his first press conference as MSU president that any substantive culture change at the university can’t be achieved without allowing staff and students to be heard.

“Are they paying lip service? Obviously, yes. That’s really aggravating,” Borcila said. “How is that change in culture gonna happen when students do not trust this administration at this point and they had an opportunity to listen and they didn’t.”

Liam Brockey, a history professor at MSU, said faculty members have “not been consulted about any of these decisions,” including former president Lou Anna Simon’s resignation, Engler’s appointment and, he suspects, other changes to come.

Brockey also expressed frustration that police prevented some faculty members from attending the meeting.

“Unfortunately, they’re not letting us in. The police are guarding the elevator at a public university,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

Engler well-connected

Alexandra Stano, 21, a senior from Birmingham who made it into the meeting, said she and other students are disgruntled by having “to take drastic steps like sitting on a table to make their voice heard.”

After the meeting, a group of students refused to leave the trustees’ board room for several hours, finally agreeing to a police request to disperse about 5 p.m.

Engler is connected to many state and national business and political leaders, including DeVos, who named him chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board in September. The board sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

He retired last year as president of the Business Roundtable and is the former president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Engler’s ties to Schuette also have drawn attention from Democrats, who question whether the attorney general can oversee an impartial investigation of MSU while running for governor.

As governor, Engler appointed Schuette director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture in 1991 after Schuette finished his term in the U.S. House that same year. Engler also endorsed Schuette for governor before being named to lead MSU.

Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, has criticized the attorney general’s top investigator looking into MSU, citing a possible conflict of interest.

Prominent MSU donor Peter Secchia, along with Meijer, Amway and other businesses, helped sponsor a Silent Observers fundraiser dinner in 2016 that featured Bill Forsyth, who Schuette tapped to lead the MSU investigation, as a guest of honor, according to the group’s program director Chris Cameron. The nonprofit raises funds to provide anonymous tips to police to help solve crimes.

Engler sits on the board of Universal Forest Products, Secchia’s former company, and said he would not resign after taking over as MSU’s interim president.

“No, that’s not a conflict,” Engler said.

Ouster talk ‘behind us’

Wearing a green tie and MSU lapel pin, Engler returned to his old stomping grounds at the Michigan Capitol later Wednesday for meetings with Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate leaders and House leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Noting he has lived in Virginia and has traveled around the country since leaving office, Engler said he feels like “every other Spartan in America” who is asking “how in the world did it happen, and how could it have gone undetected for so long?”

Engler called his meetings with Snyder and legislative leaders productive, telling reporters he does not think legislators will penalize MSU by stripping state funding and suggesting that talk of ousting trustees is “behind us now.”

Asked about the vitriolic response to his own appointment, Engler noted the unanimous vote by the bipartisan Board of Trustees, along with supportive comments in meetings with Snyder and others in Lansing.

“I think that I’ve been given a clear mandate to get to work and get busy changing the culture,” Engler said. “I think disbelievers and skeptics and people without confidence, they need to see something happen. How could anybody have confidence in this situation right now, with what we’ve been going through and the time that this has gone on?”

Engler is a “very, very good” pick to steer MSU through turmoil, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said, citing the former governor’s “gravitas.” He downplayed concerns over Engler’s reputation for strong-armed political tactics in Lansing.

“I think his deep care for the university and the institution will make sure that he focuses on how to get them on the right track,” Meekhof said. “I’m very confident about that.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said he was initially skeptical of Engler’s appointment because he had wanted an independent, outside leader to help the university and victims recover from the scandal.

“The governor assured me there’s going to be transparency, there’s going to be accountability, that the process will be open and they’ll have resolution for victims and families,” Ananich said after meeting with Engler. “I told him I would expect that and hold him accountable if it was not. I was very direct with him. He was very direct with us.”

Engler’s appointment came a week after Simon resigned and five days after Athletic Director Mark Hollis stepped down. Public pressure mounted for the resignations after Nassar, a former MSU sports doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for first-degree sexual misconduct charges following court statements by more than 150 victims who said he abused them.

Nassar was previously sentenced to 60 years in prison for possession of child pornography.

The Nassar controversy has thrust Michigan State into the national spotlight. It is being investigated for potential legal and rule violations by the U.S. Department of Education, two congressional committees, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, state lawmakers and a special prosecutor for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

A Detroit News investigation found eight victims told at least 14 MSU representatives about Nassar’s sexual misconduct over two decades.

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Staff Writers Jonathan Oosting and Matt Charboneau contributed.