Engler must apologize, raise standards of conduct to remain MSU’s leader
Interim President John Engler, who was hired to lead Michigan State University through arguably its most difficult time, is now part of the university’s problem.
If he hopes to stay – if a majority of the board wants to keep him – there are apologies to make and serious mistakes to correct.
First, a university president cannot behave like a governor or a bully. Mock the ivory tower if you will, but there is a sense of decorum and dignity that is fundamental to leading a major university. A community that values intellectual freedom must resolve to treat others with respect even when they disagree.
Second, no university president has any business attacking a survivor of sexual assault. No governor does either for that matter. That’s what #MeToo is about. Don’t shame victims, period.
This brings us to the third point: The leader charged with healing the university cannot take an active role in its legal defense. Engler has a law degree and is a member of the Michigan Bar, but he should have let the lawyers hired by the university do their job.
In his attempt to discuss a financial settlement with survivor Kaylee Lorincz, and again in disparaging Rachael Denhollander in an email that also criticized plaintiffs’ attorneys, Engler behaved like a lawyer and not like a leader.
The 300-plus plaintiffs who are party to MSU’s tentative $500 million settlement agreement were harmed, in part, because of a university culture that let a campus physician sexually molest patients for 20 years without detection. The fact that they sued does not mean they deserve vitriol from MSU’s president.
A governor can attack the political opposition. A governor can rally his partisans with venomous language. A governor can wage war at will – as long as he is confident a majority of voters will support his efforts in the next election.
A university president – an interim president at that – must never do those things. Especially not one who was brought in by a vulnerable Board of Trustees and charged with leading a disillusioned campus community in healing its wounds.
In a supreme moment of irony, we must point out that governors of Michigan are exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. That means governors of Michigan might make hateful and malicious comments in emails to their senior advisors and probably nobody else will see them (unless someone in the governor’s inner circle decides to go behind their back).
When a university president commits such comments to writing, the disgraceful remarks can be provided to media through a public records request, prompting widespread disgust and a growing tally of calls for resignation. (Note to the citizens of Michigan: It is time to extend FOIA to the governor’s office and the legislature, because we really don’t need such vile communication among any of our civic leaders.)
The LSJ Editorial Board called for Lou Anna Simon’s resignation because of her inability to see the culture problem on the campus she had served in multiple roles over 40 years, and because of her inability to demonstrate empathy for Larry Nassar’s victims.
Engler’s biggest challenge as interim president is neither the victims nor the money: It’s creating a campus community that respects and protects the rights of everyone. It’s fixing a culture that has disrespected and mistreated young women, that has allowed too many to be victimized, because those who could prevent it saw no reason to do so.
Engler owes Denhollander, the other Nassar survivors, the campus community and the people of Michigan an abject apology for his mistakes. He needs to acknowledge his errors and the hurt he has caused.
If he cannot muster the needed apologies, he cannot stay.
Finally, he owes his bosses – the MSU trustees – a credible explanation of how he plans to move forward. And they must be relentless in demanding that Engler meet the highest standards of leadership and decency. Because the role of Engler and his advisors is not to steer the trustees; it’s the trustees’ role to direct Engler.
When he took the MSU job, Engler spoke of approaching the challenge as if his own daughters were on campus. He couldn’t possibly think his conduct to date meets that standard.
— Lansing State Journal