John Engler to resign as MSU interim president after survivor 'spotlight' comments

Michigan State University interim president John Engler submitted a letter of resignation Wednesday after making comments published last week suggesting some survivors of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse were "enjoying" the "spotlight."

Dianne Byrum, chairwoman of Michigan State's board of trustees, said Engler sent an 11-page letter to the board that stated he would step down effective Jan. 23.

The school's board of trustees scheduled a previously unplanned meeting for Thursday to discuss a "personnel action" after Engler said he thought some survivors of Nassar's abuse were "enjoying" the "spotlight" in an interview with The Detroit News.

"There are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven't been in the spotlight," Engler said, according to The Detroit News. "In some ways, they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who've been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition. And it's ending. It's almost done."

Engler did not mention his controversial comments in his resignation letter.

Instead, he referenced the changes in the board of trustees over this past month as a reason for the timing of the letter and acknowledged that five of the eight trustees had requested his resignation. He said he "found a university in crisis" when he arrived on the job last February. He also said he accepted the position "in order to assist the university I love," before a nine-plus page list of bullet points outlining the changes he claims Michigan State has made under his watch.

"The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago," Engler said. "The many changes we have made are substantive and offer far-reaching in their impact [sic]. At the same time, our leaders across the university are energized, organized and communicating in far more effective ways than had been the case."

Engler's term as the temporary leader of the university, which was a source of controversy from the outset, will last slightly less than a year during what Michigan State leaders have described as the most trying, tumultuous stretch in university history in the wake of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

The trustees have discussed possible replacements for Engler.

"I've got a feel for who it's going to be," trustee Joel Ferguson told ESPN, adding he didn't want to share that information before Thursday's meeting.

The trustees voted on Jan. 31, 2018, to install Engler as the school's new leader to replace former president Lou Anna Simon, who also was pressured to resign because of how her administration handled the Nassar scandal.

The unanimous decision to choose Engler, a former governor of Michigan, was made despite calls from the student body and faculty to choose someone with academic experience rather than a political insider. The school's faculty board issued a formal vote of "no confidence" in the board of trustees two weeks later.

Engler said throughout his 11-plus months in charge that he believed his job was to help the university reform and move forward so that a new permanent president could step in with fewer problems to resolve.

The university agreed to a historically high $500 million settlement with more than 300 claimants who sued Michigan State and others in civil court for failing to stop Nassar's abuse earlier in the two-decade span that he spent on campus assaulting his patients.

Engler's focus on the dollar figures in that settlement rather than on helping survivors and the community heal in other ways sparked outrage among assault survivors, advocates and others several different times during the past year.

Engler recently closed a $10 million assistance fund that originally was set up to help Nassar's survivors pay for mental health care. He claimed the fund, which had more than $8 million of unused money remaining when it was closed, was only intended to be "a bridge" to provide help before payments from the $500 million settlement began.

Last week, in an interview with the Detroit News editorial board addressing that fund, Engler said he felt some of Nassar's survivors were clinging to attention.

Those comments angered survivors and many others, and they proved to be the final straw for a board that has grown weary of a string of insensitive comments and actions by the university's top leader.

In April, a month before the civil suits were settled, 19-year-old gymnast Kaylee Lorincz accused Engler of telling her to name "a number" that would satisfy survivors who were suing the university during a private meeting. The meeting, which Lorincz and her mother requested to speak about how they could help the university move forward, was not a formal negotiation and Lorincz's attorneys were not present.

At the same meeting, Engler issued an apology for the school's choice to publicly share another woman's medical history in response to a lawsuit she filed about how the school handled a sexual assault complaint not related to Nassar.

Engler also failed to respond to or report emails that he received from five separate women who said they were sexually assaulted or harassed during their time at Michigan State. The emails were all sent the same day last spring in response to an announcement Engler made about the improvements Michigan State was making to its policies and procedures for handling sexual assault cases.

Lorincz also said Engler told her that Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of wrongdoing and a consistent advocate for change at Michigan State and elsewhere, had provided a number figure that would be acceptable for a settlement. Denhollander adamantly refuted that claim.

Engler also accused Denhollander of receiving financial kickbacks from civil attorneys for her outspoken stance against the university in an email exchange he had with other high-ranking university employees. Engler later apologized for those emails.

Lorincz said Wednesday night she was optimistic that Michigan State was moving forward in a good direction, but remains disturbed that it took this long to force Engler's resignation. She said she's fought bouts of depression since her run-ins with Engler that compared to the feelings she got after seeing Nassar in court last year.

"I think they knew if they kept him there any longer there was no going up," Lorincz said. "John Engler made the healing process that much harder. His constant attacks on us ... it was that much harder to try to start the healing process."

Michigan State trustees Brian Mosallam and Byrum first called for Engler's termination in June after details of that email exchange were reported by local news outlets. No other members of the eight-person board supported a motion to get rid of Engler at that time. At least two other trustees -- both of whom joined the board this January -- made clear on Wednesday their intentions to vote to remove Engler from his seat if he had not resigned.

A letter signed by 23 university deans on Wednesday also said they no longer supported Engler's leadership.

Mosallam said Wednesday on Twitter that Engler's "reign of terror was over." New trustee Brianna Scott said on Facebook that dysfunction in any organization starts with its leader and "it speaks volumes. I WILL always vote for what's right! Tomorrow I'm taking a stand!"

Survivors and other community members said they were pleased to see the board take action, but many wondered why they waited so long. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over one of Nassar's two sentencing hearings a year ago, said it was clear that Engler did not understand victims of abuse and has not fulfilled the promises he made when he took the job.

"There's no one in this community who wants Michigan State to fail," Aquilina said. "We want it to be strengthened. This was a real opportunity to be a model university, and he failed."

The board plans to continue its search for a permanent replacement, but it does not expect to name someone in that position immediately. A new interim leader will take over as the university president until then.