Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees will seek to oust interim President John Engler if he does not resign amid criticism of comments he made about victims of imprisoned ex-sports doctor Larry Nassar, trustees said Wednesday.
Brian Mosallam told The Associated Press that “the votes are there” to force Engler out at a special board meeting scheduled Thursday at the school in East Lansing.
Chairwoman Dianne Byrum stopped short of confirming that she asked Engler to resign Wednesday but said she had a “frank conversation” with him, telling the AP “he has a decision to make” because the board is poised to name a new interim leader at Thursday’s meeting. Both Byrum and Mosallam are Democrats, and Engler is a former Republican Michigan governor.
In an editorial board meeting last week with The Detroit News, Engler said women sexually assaulted by the now-imprisoned Nassar have been in the “spotlight” and are “still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition.”
Nassar, who was accused of molesting hundreds of girls and women while employed at Michigan State, is now serving decades-long prison sentences for sexually assaulting patients and possessing child pornography.
The AP left messages Thursday seeking comment from Engler, who was hired last February following the resignation of president Lou Anna Simon over the Nassar scandal. Byrum said Engler was traveling out of state this week, in part to attend the burial of his father-in-law.
Mosallam, a long-time Engler critic, said Wednesday on Twitter that “JOHN ENGLER’S REIGN OF TERROR IS OVER.” His tweet followed a post by Byrum announcing Thursday’s meeting.
“I think it sets a tone that this board is going in a different direction — that leadership comes from the top and that empathy, compassion and culture change starts from the top,” Mosallam said about the move to oust Engler.
After Engler was hired by the board, Michigan State agreed to a $500 million settlement with 332 women and girls who said they were sexually assaulted by Nassar. Of that, $75 million will cover future claims.
In April, Engler told another university official in emails that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with her accusations about Nassar, was probably getting a “kickback” from her attorney.
Denhollander told the AP Wednesday that her hope is that the board “is signaling at least the beginning of a true change in direction and tone. And in order to do that, they have to deal with the person they put in place.”
She said who Engler was and how he operated “was no secret in Michigan.” The former board — five members remain and three are gone — picked Engler “for a reason,” she said, and it “needs to take responsibility for what they did.”
Her biggest concern with Engler’s tenure has been what he has “communicated about abuse,” Denhollander said. “What he has communicated is that survivors who speak up will be attacked and blamed and shamed, that those who push for change are going to be accused of enjoying the spotlight, that they will be lied about.”
The elected board has five Democrats, two Republicans and an appointee who was named last month by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. The board’s makeup became more Democratic in the November election. Engler, a Michigan State alum, served as governor from 1991 through 2002.
The university fired Nassar in 2016, two years after he was the subject of a sexual assault investigation. He also worked with the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.
Hundreds of women and girls, most of them gymnasts, accused Nassar of molesting them when they sought treatment during his time working for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.
A special prosecutor in December accused Michigan State of stonewalling his investigation into the school’s handling of the scandal. Bill Forsyth released a report that said the school fought the release of certain relevant documents and released others that were heavily redacted or irrelevant. It says such actions hampered the investigation.
“Their biggest concern was the reputation of the university,” Forsyth said at a news conference. Forsyth was appointed by then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to investigate the school’s handling of Nassar, leading to charges against three former MSU officials including Simon.
Denhollander said Wednesday that Michigan State, including the board, should waive attorney-client privilege and release documents to law enforcement. She also renewed her call for MSU to conduct a truly independent investigation of its actions.
“Removing President Engler, it would be an excellent first step,” she said. “It is by no means the only thing that needs to happen, but I would be encouraged to see that first step.”
Under the terms of his contract, Engler can be fired with or without cause. He makes $510,000 a year, which he donates to university organizations or entities. He waived health insurance and retirement benefits.
The board intends to announce a permanent school president in June.