After a controversial year in office, MSU Interim President John Engler resigned on Wednesday, sending an 11-page resignation letter to the school’s board shortly after 6 p.m.
“In compliance with your request that I resign & in order to ensure an orderly transition to my interim successor, I hereby resign the office of President of Michigan State University effective 9 am, Wednesday, January 23,” the letter stated. “It has been an honor to serve my beloved university.”
The move comes hours after the board set a special meeting for early Thursday morning with the intent to fire him, the sources said.
Engler has been under heavy criticism for the past year, since he took over for Lou Anna Simon, who herself resigned under heavy criticism for her handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assaults scandal.
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After setting the board meeting for 8 a.m. Thursday, board chairwoman Dianne Byrum told Engler the board would like him to resign or it would fire him, the sources said.
Engler and MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant did not return requests for comment.
Board members are expected to name a replacement for Engler during the Thursday meeting, sources told the Free Press.
It’s a meeting that has been brewing almost since the day Engler took over as interim president at his alma mater.
Like Simon, much of Engler’s tenure has been taken up with fallout from the Nassar scandal and heavy criticism from survivors of Nassar’s abuse. Engler survived a motion to fire him this summer, but the criticism hasn’t abated.
Once the meeting was announced, board member Brian Mosallam, the leading critic of Engler, told the Free Press the time had come for Engler to leave.
“John Engler’s reign of terror is over,” said Mosallam, who has been pushing for Engler’s departure for nearly a year. “Michigan State University will be returned to its people.”
The latest round of criticism came after Engler told the Detroit News editorial board that Nassar survivors were “enjoying the spotlight” while the university is “trying to go back to work.”
That launched a fresh set of criticism on social media and elsewhere from those who believe Engler should be gone.
Twenty-three of MSU’s top academic administrators — mostly deans of various colleges and schools — signed a letter sent to the board Wednesday demanding that Engler be replaced.
“The pattern of comments by interim President Engler, including his most recent statement suggesting that some of the survivors of sexual abuse are ‘enjoying’ the spotlight, further harms the very people it is our responsibility to support,” the letter said. “We do not support his continued leadership.”
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The advocacy group ReclaimMSU cheered the news that Engler was likely on his way out. It has been calling for his removal for months.
“He was a known entity,” said Betsy Riley, a graduate student with the group. “He was a conscious choice by the the board to play defense.”
The group would like the board to engage various groups around campus in the search for an interim president.
“They say, ‘trust us,” Riley said. “We can’t trust them. This is the group that brought us Engler.”
A tumultuous year in office
Engler was hired as interim president amid turmoil at the university.
Last January, MSU was reeling from heavy criticism for its lack of action towards Nassar, a former MSU doctor, after hundreds of victims showed up to testify in court about how Nassar had sexually assaulted them.
Hours after Nassar was sentenced on criminal charges, Simon stepped down and the board began looking for an interim replacement.
The board had two possibilities — former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, and former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat. Both were alumni with long ties to the school. But the state Legislature, then controlled by Republicans, made it clear to MSU — hire Engler or get ready to lose millions of dollars in state aid.
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In a closed-door meeting, Democratic board member Joel Ferguson — a Lansing powerbroker with ties to Engler — flipped his vote to Engler, giving him a 5-3 majority. Later that week, in a public vote, all eight board members voted for Engler to start.
In a press conference after being hired, Engler promised that “change is coming” and that he would “move forward as if my own daughter were on this campus.”
Over the course of the next year, Engler drew criticism for a number of what his critics saw as missteps.
- Engler cancelled a $10 million healing fund set up to help pay for counseling for Nassar survivors. In doing so, he cited what he said was fraud of the system and said after the survivors got a $500 million settlement from MSU, they didn’t need the fund to pay for their counseling. Earlier this month, the MSU board rescinded this action and reinstated the fund.
- In an April email uncovered by the Free Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education, Engler accused Rachel Denhollander, the first Nassar victim to go public, of getting kickbacks from attorneys for filing a lawsuit against MSU. When it was released in June, it brought a new round of calls for the board to fire Engler, including one from now Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
- In April, Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz said Engler offered her $250,000 to drop her lawsuit. After Lorincz made the offer public and was highly critical of it, a top Engler aide sent a private email obtained by the Free Press in which she said any such claims were “fake news” and made up by survivors.
- After announcing he was creating a chief compliance officer position to be independent and work as a check on MSU, Engler folded it into an existing office and reportedly didn’t give the resources the CCO asked for to run the operation.
- When the school’s alumni magazine created an issue dedicated to the Nassar scandal, including several pieces critical of MSU’s handling of the issue, Engler cancelled the issue. Instead an issue with a lengthy question-and-answer piece with Engler focusing on what he called the positive changes he had been making at MSU ran.
- Engler drew complaints for his hiring, with many saying he brought in his friends and political allies. Drawing the most vitriol was a three-year contract given to Bob Young, whom Engler had appointed to the state ‘sSupreme Court when he was governor. Critics said Engler should not have given out contracts longer than the time he was expected to be at the school.
- When the head of MSU’s Title IX office — the department that handles sexual assault complaints on campus — left, Engler appointed Rob Kent as the interim head. Kent had been working in the school’s general counsel office and had defended the school in various lawsuits brought against the school by sexual assault survivors who alleged the school didn’t follow proper procedures. Those critical of the move said he wasn’t the right person to reform the office.
- After MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis stepped down, Engler named Bill Beekman, then the secretary to the MSU board, as acting athletic director. He promised a national search. Later, Engler hired Beekman, who had no experience running an athletic department, without doing a national search. He said he made the move because the school’s coaches, including head basketball coach Tom Izzo and head football coach Mark Dantonio, wanted Beekman to have the job.
- After a lawsuit was filed against MSU by a sexual assault survivor, MSU released a statement about the case detailing the visits of the person filing the suit to MSU’s counseling center, a likely violation of federal student privacy laws. Internal emails obtained by the Free Press showed Engler was personally involved in the crafting of that statement.
“We believe the board should fire Engler,” MSU faculty member Anna Pegler Gordon, representing the group ReclaimMSU, said during public comment at a Jan. 9 board meeting. She said the group believes Engler has repeatedly lied and been unsympathetic to Nassar survivors.
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Engler: Set next president a clean slate
In a meeting at the Free Press last week, Engler said he knows he has upset some people and said he would have done some things differently. But he believes he has set the university up for the next president to have a “clean slate” when that person starts.
As for the disagreements and tension? Some of that comes from him not being used to being in a university environment. It’s different, he told the Free Press in mid-January, in little things, like who sees his communications.
“Wouldn’t be emailing,” he said. “As governor, I didn’t have to worry about FOIA (public records laws). Unfortunately, everything at a university is subject to FOIA.”
It also manifested in big things — such as his style and approach.
“I think what the university community struggles with … as governor, I got sued a lot. Litigation is a pretty full-contact sport. This university community is not used to this. I’m probably too used to it.
Engler said the environment at MSU was “hyper-charged.”
“There was a lot of pressure going on. I ended up becoming the lightning rod because I’m the guy making a lot of decisions. But at the same time, somebody had to do it.”
Follow David Jesse on Twitter: @reporterdavidj