A Second President Falls at Michigan State

The board of trustees accepted John Engler’s resignation on Thursday, and the healing process begins again for a university in crisis.

Susan Walsh / AP

John Engler was supposed to be a safe choice. He was a former Michigan governor and an alum of Michigan State University, and last January he was brought in to replace Lou Anna K. Simon, who had resigned following the Larry Nassar scandal. He was a Republican, and his board-appointed senior adviser was a Democrat; the board thought that would quell fears of overt partisanship. On Wednesday, Engler, not yet 365 days on the job, tendered his resignation.

The board was initially happy with its choice in Engler; the students and survivors of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, who pleaded guilty to criminal misconduct for molesting seven girls and was accused of assaulting more than 150 people, were not. Engler himself had been accused of failing to respond to allegations of sexual assault at a women’s prison while he was governor. “To choose someone like John Engler, it tells us that they’re learning nothing from what’s going on,” Natalie Rogers, a student and co-founder of #ReclaimMSU, told The Atlantic at the time.

A full year had not lapsed before the board was at Engler’s throat. In April, Kaylee Lorincz, who was sexually assaulted by Nassar, said that Engler offered her $250,000 to drop her lawsuit against the university. One of his senior advisers called the accusation “fake news.” In June, emails revealed that Engler accused Rachael Denhollander, the first gymnast to accuse Nassar, of getting a “kickback” for helping lawyers “manipulate” other gymnasts into coming forward. Eight days after the initial report, Engler apologized. Then, in an interview with The Detroit News this month, he suggested that some Nassar survivors might be “enjoying” the “spotlight.” Finally it was one comment too many. Survivors, students, and advocates fumed. The board, which had been fielding calls for his removal since he was appointed, called an emergency session. Individual board members voiced their frustration.

He offered his resignation before the board had a chance to fire him. In an 11-page letter sent Wednesday night, Engler laid out his case for how his tenure had made Michigan State a better place. “I sought to move with urgency and determination to initiate cultural change at MSU,” he wrote. This was a job, he added, that he did not want, but which he accepted to help a university that he loved as it faced a crisis. There were now 24-hour counseling services; athletic trainers now had to report to doctors rather than coaches; the incoming freshman class was the most diverse in university history. “The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago,” he said.

But even for the changes, Michigan State’s handling of the fallout from the Nassar tragedy has been a slow-rolling public-relations catastrophe. Since January of last year, revelation after revelation surfaced about the university’s handling of the Nassar case. The university claimed that an “independent investigator” had been hired to look into the case and assigned a university lawyer instead. An employee with ties to Nassar was also accused of sexual crimes. Simon was charged with lying to investigators. The number of applicants to the university dropped.

The board met on Thursday morning and voted to remove Engler immediately rather than allow him to serve until January 23, which he had requested in his resignation letter. The university must move on again. The crisis continues, and it’s become another interim president’s responsibility. Satish Udpa, an executive vice president at the university, has been tapped to take it on. The university is still looking for its next permanent president. But for now, as the trustee Brian Mosallam, one of the most outspoken critics of Engler, said during the meeting, the healing begins—again.