MSU interim president Engler gets mixed reviews
East Lansing — Michigan State University student Natalie Rogers can’t understand the focus of interim President John Engler as he works to lead the university past the Larry Nassar scandal.
In the first six weeks of his tenure, the former Republican governor has made numerous moves, including the replacement of top MSU officials. But those hires don’t include what Rogers and others think the campus needs most: More permanent staff in the university’s counseling center, sexual assault program and office handling Title IX complaints.
“All John Engler has done is hire top-level administrators,” said Rogers, a sophomore from Canton and a leader in the campus activist group Reclaim MSU. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. We don’t need more administration. We need more people on the ground, interacting with students and the community.”
Engler is getting mixed reviews as he leads the state’s largest university during a monumental time following the devastating revelations about Nassar — a former MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually assaulted more than 250 young women over two decades.
The university’s response to complaints about Nassar led to resignations by top leaders and raised questions and allegations of a cover-up.
Gary Hoppenstand, secretary of academic governance at MSU, said he doesn’t know Engler well, but approves of some of his initial moves.
“He seems to be on top of the situation,” said Hoppenstand, a professor in film studies and 20th century and contemporary literature. “To this point, he seems to have brought a calmness, in terms of turmoil.”
He has surrounded himself with numerous allies, replacing staff, elevating a few positions and meeting with state lawmakers, who slammed the trustees’ handling of the Nassar scandal.
He also realigned the university’s health care and medical programs, brought in a firm to speed up Title IX investigations and formed the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup to formalize recommendations for making campus safer.
This past week, Engler riled critics after he met with lawmakers and attempted to slow a fast-moving package of bills aimed at preventing sexual assault. He wanted a delay to get an estimate of the potential litigation cost of the legislation.
Engler also told a Michigan legislative subcommittee that lawmakers interfered with settlement talks with Nassar’s victims who have sued MSU, prompting attorneys of the victims to accuse Engler of lying.
Prior to Engler’s appearance before lawmakers last week, some gave Engler a positive review.
Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, a vice president in MSU’s student government, said she was pleased to see Engler assemble a workgroup to address sexual misconduct issues.
“That was heartening, but I hope there is room for student participation,” Appiagyei-Dankah said.
She added that she was glad to see Engler looking into the role that William Strampel, former dean of the osteopathic medicine school, played in the Nassar scandal.
“That was really encouraging,” she said.
But some say Engler needs to do more to change the culture at MSU that allowed Nassar to prey on women for so long.
“He hasn’t done anything to fix the underlying problems, the culture,” said Michael Kuhn, a 22-year-old student from Chicago. “You need community involvement. ... He can hire as many top-level administrators as he wants but it doesn’t do much if they are in their offices and don’t have connection to the students. Those are the parts of the culture that will prevent sexual assault in the future.”
Engler’s hiring by the MSU Board of Trustees was accompanied by controversy, in part because as governor nearly 20 years ago, Engler refused to let a United Nations investigator examine the state’s female prisons as part of a sexual assault report.
He arrived at MSU after the departure of Lou Anna Simon, who stepped down as president in January after pressure mounted over her handling of the Nassar crisis as it publicly unfolded over 16 months. A Detroit News investigation found Simon was among 14 MSU staff members who received reports about his conduct in the years before his arrest and conviction for sex abuse and child porn possession.
COMPLETE COVERAGE:The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal
While the university and many around the world watched as more than 200 women gave testimony earlier this year of how Nassar’s abuse impacted their lives, many students on campus say they are not paying attention to the university leadership politics that followed.
Some wonder if Engler needs more time to prove himself.
“It’s too early to tell,” said Rebecca Quintanilla, a junior from Wilco, Texas. “We’re only a month in.”
Others add that they appreciate Engler’s frequent emails to the campus community.
“I’m glad he is trying to keep us up to date,” said Ryan Burk, a sophomore from Livonia.
But Sophie Morin, a sophomore from Portage, said Engler’s emails need to include more information.
“They do send detailed emails, but sometimes I think they gloss over the important facts we need to know,” Morin said. “Like, what is happening in the process, how the school is dealing with it? ... In the emails, they start talking about things, but then move on to things that aren’t as important. The information needs to be more readily available to us.”
Lorenzo Santavicca, MSU student body president, also commended Engler for his communications but added that school officials have fallen short in forming a search committee to find a permanent president.
“We have not seen that,” said Santavicca. “We will continue to press on the need for the search committee to be formed before the end of the year. As a university, we need to move forward with a new leader.”