- John Engler has reportedly resigned by request as Michigan State's interim president, a move that was sorely needed by the university after his behavior in the fallout of the Larry Nassar scandal.
Brian Mosallam knew when he saw the quotes that it was over for John Engler. The arrogance, the pigheadedness, the us-vs.-them worldview: gone. Engler, Michigan State’s interim president, told the Detroit News editorial board that some of Larry Nassar’s sexual-assault survivors “who’ve been in the spotlight … are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and the recognition.”
Mosallam, a former MSU offensive lineman and current trustee, had Engler in his sights for a long time. Engler had been warned not to say anything like this again. When he did, two other trustees called Mosallam to express their disgust.
Now Engler will reportedly resign—one day before the trustees were going to fire him. On Thursday, the trustees will name an interim to replace its interim. Then they will continue their search for a full-time president who understands the university’s soul.
Engler had a habit of belittling those who were assaulted by Nassar, the former doctor at Michigan State and for USA Gymnastics. He seemed to worry more about fraudulent claims than about consoling those who were suffering, and he wondered aloud if women were out for fame and money instead of justice. In truth, Michigan State got exactly the John Engler it should have expected. He was the state’s governor in the 1990s. Everything in his world seems to be a line on a balance sheet. He spent so much time in politics that his instinct is to divide and conquer, instead of unite. He knows no other way.
And now maybe Michigan State can be the institution that most people in East Lansing really want. The place prides itself on being a school of all people, not just the elite. But starting with former president Lou Anna Simon and continuing with Engler, MSU’s administration treated the Nassar case like a legal nuisance and financial threat, instead of as a family tragedy.
“That’s where I broke away,” said Mosallam, who has been a vocal critic of the administration for many months. “We were looking at everything from a legal perspective. I thought as an institution we had to look at things from a moral and ethical perspective as well. I understand having advisors and lawyers makes sense. But at some point, it’s about the people. It’s about projecting something that balance sheets don’t show.”
The Larry Nassar story is largely about the former doctor’s deranged mind, the pain that his assaults caused and the courage many of his survivors showed. But it is also about Michigan State’s disgraceful response to his crimes.
Nassar arrived on campus in 1997. While he was assaulting women there (the first accusations actually precede his arrival), Lou Anna Simon was rising to Michigan State’s presidency. Simon became interim president in 2003 and the full-time president in 2005.
Nobody is saying that Simon knew about Nassar’s crimes at that time. But the administration was already lapsing into what so many universities become: more corporate, with too much latitude for the de facto CEO, because business was good. The basketball and football teams were wildly successful, which was the prime concern of the most powerful and visible trustee, Joel Ferguson. Simon seemed like she had a lifetime appointment. The conditions were set for a detached, tone-deaf response to a scandal.
The accusations against Nassar first found their way to Simon in 2014. She has since been charged with lying about what she knew then. At the very least, she showed a callous disregard for the survivors after the story became public. She did not show up to hear survivors confront Nassar in court until she was shamed into doing so. Ferguson’s famous comment on a radio show that “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing” reflected the administration’s attitude. The scandal was an annoyance.
After Simon resigned, Michigan State turned to Engler, who somehow took an absolutely awful situation and made it even worse, repeatedly. He was always more worried about liability and damage control than healing. In an e-mail to an advisor, he wondered if survivor Rachael Denhollander was getting a kickback from her attorney.
Survivor Kaylee Lorincz described one private meeting with Engler:
“Mr. Engler then looked directly at me and asked, right now, if I wrote you a check for $250,000, would you take it? When I explained that it's not about the money for me and that I just want to help, he said, ‘Well, give me a number.’”
Lorincz said Engler dismissed accusations against MSU dean William Strampel—Nassar’s boss—by saying “It was only just a slap on the butt.” (Strampel is awaiting trial on charges that he assaulted and harassed MSU students.)
Engler acted like a governor who just needed to please more than half of the legislature, instead of a leader with a moral obligation to make Michigan State a safe and decent place. Mosallam says the university’s response all along should have been “Apologize. Admit your faults. Put a plan of action in place. Bring the stakeholders to the table. It really isn’t rocket science. Tone, culture, leadership, empathy compassion … those things start from the top.”
This week, after another utterly ridiculous but predictable statement, Engler finally used up his last bit of political capital. Now Michigan State, finally, has a chance to be the school that it should have been all along.