LANSING, Mi. – Michigan State University turned to a hard-nosed former governor and alumnus on Wednesday to right the ship following scathing criticism over former doctor Larry Nassar’s ability to molest young female athletes for decades under the guise of medical treatment.
The board of trustees unanimously voted during a public meeting to name former Republican Gov. John Engler the school’s interim president. He replaces Lou Anna Simon, who resigned last week following Nassar’s sentencing hearing where he was confronted by more than 150 girls and women about the abuse.
“I have confidence that John Engler will reflect our desire to keep a focus on survivors and the victims,” said Brian Breslin, the board’s chairman.
Others criticized the appointment, including members of the faculty governing board and a student liaison to the trustees who said appointing a controversial political figures was “the wrong direction.”
Engler, 69, led the state for a dozen years from 1991 through 2002. After leaving office because of term limits, he directed business groups in Washington.
The board also named former Democratic governor and Michigan State graduate Jim Blanchard to advise the school as it faces lawsuits filed by more than 100 girls and women, and investigations by the state attorney general, the NCAA and Congress. The board will soon start the search for a permanent president.
Engler’s selection had been expected and was welcomed by allies who said Engler is tenacious, not afraid to ruffle feathers and can steer his beloved Spartans through the tumult. He also will have to shake up a culture that critics say led to the university turning a blind eye to Nassar’s victims for years.
“The victims can hopefully rest a little better knowing they’ve got John Engler to straighten the ship. He earns respect. He commands respect,” Dan Pero, Engler’s first chief of staff in the governor’s office, said a day before the formal vote.
Pero said Engler will listen but not be afraid to make tough decisions — having done so when he first won the governorship and, facing a large budget deficit, pushed through cuts to welfare, state mental hospitals and the arts.
“Lord knows there will be many decisions that will need to be made at the school that will upset people,” Pero said. “With change comes pushback. But ultimately with change comes better times.”
The choice is coming under criticism in some quarters — including from Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to go public against Nassar after she read an Indianapolis Star investigation of how USA Gymnastics handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches.
On Facebook, she called Engler a “deep political insider” at a time Michigan State needs outside accountability. She later softened her words, saying she hopes that “despite his close ties, he will act with leadership and integrity.”
Though the board of four Democrats and four Republicans unanimously backed Engler on Wednesday — the same day Nassar’s third and final sentencing hearing began — other Democrats questioned the appointment of the polarizing conservative known for his hardball negotiating tactics.
Faculty and student leaders raised similar concerns at the board meeting on Wednesday, including one who sat for a few minutes in the middle of the board’s conference table.
“John Engler is not known as somebody who is a real uniter,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for him to do that. But in the interest of not only the university but all of the survivors of Dr. Nassar’s abuse, he’s going to really have to step up and do things a lot differently than he’s done in the past.”
The five at-large faculty members of the university’s steering committee, which is involved in academic governance, said they urged trustees in a private meeting Monday to not “rush” and appoint a former governor with no academic leadership experience.
They said they recommended that the interim president be a woman with experience devising and implementing anti-sexual harassment and sexual abuse programs.
A representative of the faculty members said they intend to hold a no-confidence vote on the university’s governing body at its next meeting. If it passes, the group would call on all trustees, who are elected in statewide votes, to resign. Two have already said they won’t seek re-election.
Ashley Fuente, a student liaison to the trustees, said Engler is the “wrong direction.”
“The damage that can be caused by appointing a politician … on an already polarized campus is kind of shocking,” she said during the meeting.
As governor, Engler also helped to overhaul school funding and was a strong advocate for charter schools. He gained a reputation as an excellent political strategist in his 32 years in the Legislature and governor’s office.
In college, he joined with another Michigan State student to write a paper for a Michigan politics class on how he could win a state House seat then held by an incumbent. Engler took that paper, recruited another agricultural economics major to run his campaign and won at age 21.
Twenty years later, he narrowly defeated Blanchard in an upset.
Political observers say Engler’s job at Michigan State, which could last up to a year depending on how quickly the board brings in someone else, may be his toughest task yet. State Sen. Margaret O’Brien, who is working on legislation as a result of the Nassar scandal, said she expects him to “clean house of those who must go.”