Editorial: Engler had right skills, wrong temperament

The Detroit News
Michigan State University Interim President John Engler answers questions from The Detroit News Editorial Board and reporters in the Tony Snow conference room at The Detroit News in downtown Detroit on Friday, January 11, 2019.

After a year at the helm of Michigan State University, John Engler is out. The interim president was pushed into resigning Wednesday by the Board of Trustees, following comments Engler made about abuse victims of Dr. Larry Nassar. In the end, the qualities that made Engler the unanimous choice of the board also proved to be his downfall.

The former three-term governor is well-known as a no-nonsense deal maker and determined leader. Those attributes proved essential as Engler led the university out of the scandal and stabilized an institution that had been shaken to its core.

Yet Engler lacked enough of the quality the job most required: empathy. He lacked the compassion necessary for handling the women and girls impacted by Nassar’s decades-long abuse as a sports doctor at MSU. The most recent example is in an interview he gave with The Detroit News Editorial Board last Friday, during which he referred to some of the victims as having found “enjoyment” in the spotlight

That comment renewed the calls from victims and trustees for his immediate departure.

Engler at times struck an almost adversarial tone with the victims. Part of that stemmed from the fact that they were suing the university, and he was limited in how much public support he could show while settlement negotiations were underway.

But he continued to have trouble displaying the sympathy his role as interim president required. 

Still, Engler leaves MSU in much better shape than he found it in February 2018. His detractors won’t give him that credit, but his work has helped place the university in a much stronger position to prevent abuse like Nassar’s from occurring, and he’s shielded current students from sharing the financial burden of a $500 million settlement.

Enrollment is at record levels, and a recent $1.5 billion capital campaign exceeded its goal. 

In an 11-page resignation letter, Engler detailed his accomplishments and his commitment to improving his alma mater.

“When I arrived I found a university in crisis,” Engler wrote. “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.”

A year ago, Engler, a Republican, was chosen unanimously by the eight trustees, who were at the time split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Now, five of those same trustees have backed away from their support. After the November election, as well as a resignation by a trustee, the board’s makeup has changed to a Democratic majority of 6-2.

When the Nassar abuse and MSU’s cover-up was revealed, we and others called for the resignation of the trustees. They refused. We still think those who failed to provide oversight, thus enabling Nasser’s serial abuse, should go.

As for Engler, he erred in his callousness toward victims. But he also deserves some credit for helping the university move on from its dark moment.