Michigan State University is poised to name a new interim president Thursday after the former governor who was brought in to help it recover from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal resigned under pressure, amid backlash over his comments about some of the ex-sports doctor’s victims.
John Engler — who had resisted calls to step down in the past — quit in an 11-page letter to Dianne Byrum, chairwoman of Michigan State’s Board of Trustees, effective Jan. 23. It makes no mention of recent criticism of his recent remarks and instead lists what he considers to be his accomplishments in nearly one year of service, saying the university is a “dramatically better, stronger institution.”
“It has been an honor to serve my beloved university,” wrote Engler, who is in Texas attending a burial service for his late father-in-law.
With his sudden reversal, Engler joins a long list of people — including his predecessor as president — who have been fired, forced out of their jobs or charged with crimes amid fallout from the school’s handling of the once-renowned sports physician stretching back decades.
The final straw for the university’s governing board came last week when Engler told The Detroit News that Nassar’s victims had been in the “spotlight” and are “still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition.”
Nassar is now serving decades-long prison sentences for sexually assaulting patients and possessing child pornography.
The Associated Press left messages Wednesday seeking comment from Engler, who was hired last February following the resignation of president Lou Anna Simon.
Brian Mosallam told the AP that the board had enough votes to force Engler out at the special meeting scheduled Thursday at the school in East Lansing.
Byrum, who became chair last week, stopped short of confirming that she asked Engler to resign but told the AP he had “a decision to make” because the board is poised to name a new interim leader at the meeting. Both Byrum and Mosallam are Democrats, and Engler is a Republican.
Engler’s comments, Byrum said, make “it very difficult for the MSU community to make the changes necessary and rebuild both trust and credibility, and frankly for the survivors to heal.” Mosallam, a long-time Engler critic, said on Twitter that “JOHN ENGLER’S REIGN OF TERROR IS OVER.”
After Engler was hired, 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 accusations about Nassar, was probably getting a “kickback” from her attorney.
Denhollander told the AP on 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,” Denhollander said, and it “needs to take responsibility for what they did.”
Her biggest concern with Engler’s tenure has been what he’s “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 this month following the November election. Engler, a Michigan State alum, served as governor from 1991 through 2002.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, also an MSU graduate, said in a statement: “The MSU Board of Trustees now has an opportunity to build a new foundation that will provide this university with a clean slate and a brighter future. The new president should be someone who will begin the healing process and restore trust between survivors, students, alumni and the administration.”
The board is due to announce a permanent president in June.
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.
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 said such actions hampered the investigation.
“Their biggest concern was the reputation of the university,” Forsyth said at the time.
Eggert reported from Lansing, Mich.