Larry Nassar survivors are right: Michigan State president John Engler must go
By Nancy Armour
June 20, 2018
|John Engler, interim president of Michigan State University.|
Photo by Matthew Dae Smith
A university that aided and abetted Larry Nassar and his horrific crimes for the better part of two decades doesn’t get to be indignant or question the women whose lives were shattered. It doesn’t get to play the aggrieved party, be it in public statements or private emails.
And it sure as hell doesn’t get to defend and protect a leader who has dragged the school even further into the abyss when his sole job was to find a way out of it.
More than 130 survivors sent Michigan State’s governing board a letter Tuesday calling for the ouster – voluntary or otherwise – of interim President John Engler. They shouldn’t have had to ask.
Criticism of Engler has grown since last week, when The Chronicle of Higher Education published an email in which the former governor of Michigan suggested that Rachael Denhollander was getting “kickbacks” from trial attorneys. Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse, telling her story to The Indianapolis Star in the fall of 2016.
In truth, Michigan State’s board should have dismissed Engler back in April, when Kaylee Lorincz, one of the women abused by Nassar, said she felt Engler was “bullying her” because she didn’t accept his offer of a settlement. An offer that was made without Lorincz’s attorney, mind you.
These aren’t the actions of someone focused on rooting out the culture that allowed Nassar to flourish. They’re the actions of someone trying to cover the university’s behind.
“This is not leadership,” the survivors wrote in the letter to the board, which will discuss Engler's status at its meeting later this week. “President Engler’s statements and behavior are subtle threats against anyone who dares to speak up against their abuser and the environment that enabled their predatory conduct, lest they be ridiculed, lied about and shamelessly mocked by a person of immense power.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for why Nassar went undetected for as long as he did. Michigan State coaches and administrators were alerted to Nassar’s abusive treatments as far back as 1997. Former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi fostered an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, several gymnasts have said, perfect conditions for a predator like Nassar.
But the biggest failing was by a culture in which women were either not believed or had their concerns diminished. The message, time and again, was that they didn’t matter, that their complaints and alarms were not worth hearing.
Michigan State has agreed to pay $500 million to the women abused by Nassar. But that settlement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless the university also excises its insidious culture, and there’s no way that will happen so long as Engler is in charge.
In the email disclosed by The Chronicle, Engler all but called Denhollander an ambulance chaser, insinuating she was milking Nassar’s abuse for personal gain. It doesn’t matter how contentious settlement negotiations were or how much bad publicity the university was enduring, comments like that indicate Engler doesn’t understand the depth of the problem at Michigan State.
Nor does he care to. To him, this is a crisis to be managed rather than a culture that’s in need of change.
“We are here to tell you that all the organizational changes and policy and procedure enhancements in the world mean nothing if there is not leadership that creates an environment where survivors feel safe to speak up,” the survivors said in their letter.
“On (that) point, there is no debate: President Engler has failed miserably. … Nothing at MSU – none of the mindsets that allowed Larry Nassar to abuse children for decades – have changed.”
Michigan State cannot change the way it failed Nassar’s victims in the past. But it can – and must – change its actions and attitudes going forward. To do so requires a total commitment from the very top, however, and it’s clear Engler isn't capable of that.
For the good of the survivors, for the good of the university, Engler has to go.