Engler meets lawmakers, who slam trustees over Nassar

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Several members of Michigan’s congressional delegation slammed the Michigan State University trustees’ handling of the Larry Nassar scandal during a Wednesday meeting on Capitol Hill with MSU interim President John Engler.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, bluntly told Engler that MSU won’t have any credibility on cleaning up the Nassar sex abuse scandal until the current Board of Trustees is removed from office. Other members nodded in agreement at this, according to those in the room.

Nassar, a former university doctor, was sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment after admitting to sexually abusing girls under the guise of medical treatment and possessing child pornography.

Republican Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, whose district includes MSU, said he told Engler he would prefer that he identify the bad actors who failed at their oversight role and “not play politics with this.”

“I understand you have a responsibility and the buck stops at the top, but I want to make sure we keep the good guys and identify the bad ones,” Bishop said after the meeting. “I think there’s a lot of folks who want to do good things on the Board of Trustees.”

The MSU faculty and other organizations have called on the trustees to step down voluntarily.

Others also have urged Gov. Rick Snyder to remove the trustees. A complaint pending in the Michigan Court of Claims alleges that Michigan election law permits the governor to remove a member of a state university board “for neglect of duty or for corrupt conduct in office or any other malfeasance.”

The Snyder administration initially questioned whether the governor has such authority, but the governor’s office said Jan. 26 that his options were “under review.”

Also Wednesday, Engler, who reports to the MSU trustees, gave the 11 lawmakers an update on the changes the university has put into motion at MSU, as well as an overview of investigations and litigation the school faces as a result of Nassar’s sex crimes, according to two people in the meeting. He also met later in the day with MSU alumni on Capitol Hill.

The lawmakers told Engler that they expected the congressional investigations underway would be expansive, involving hearings where the witnesses testify under oath.

Some members expressed concern that MSU’s response has been too institutional and hasn’t shown much empathy for Nassar victims. They encouraged Engler to more openly address the university’s culture around sexual assaults in the wake of the scandal, raising concerns about long-term damage to the university’s reputation.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, urged Engler to find a way to listen to Nassar victims and incorporate their feedback into the changes and plans underway at the university.

She also pressed him to meet with all of Nassar’s victims, regardless of the ongoing litigation in which the university is involved.

Engler recently created a task force called the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup to formalize recommendations by sexual assault survivors, students, faculty and staff from MSU.

Engler spokesman John Truscott said he won’t get into the specifics of what happened in a private meeting, but overall Engler felt it was a “very positive” exchange and debate, including about how the university is keeping victims at the forefront of the changes underway at MSU.

“Look, members of the delegation have constituents and, in some cases, family members who go to MSU, so he really just wanted to keep them informed of changes, the improvements and what’s going on on campus because they get asked questions, so we want to make sure they’re up to date on what’s going on,” Truscott said.

Engler also solicited the lawmakers’ feedback and intends to provide regular updates to the lawmakers, as well as with MSU alumni in the Washington area, Truscott added.

“They help spread the message of what’s going on, so we want to keep them very close in terms of the positive changes, and we want their feedback. There’s a lot of Spartans on the Hill, and they’re just great ambassadors,” he said.

A Detroit News investigation found that at least 14 MSU officials knew of complaints regarding Nassar’s sexual abuse of patients over a nearly 20-year period but failed to take action.

Bill McBride, director of Snyder’s D.C. office, was at Wednesday’s meeting, as well as former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, whose law firm is handling the congressional inquiries on behalf of MSU.

Engler said in an email to the campus community last week that the university has provided more than 80,000 documents to the lead investigator handling the Michigan Attorney General Office’s probe. More than 15,335 documents have been produced for an investigating U.S. House panel.

In addition to congressional inquiries that MSU faces, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Monday said her department will launch a new Title IX investigation to look at “systemic issues in the university’s handling of sex-based incidents involving Dr. Larry Nassar.”