Michigan State names new interim leader, saying decision is about Nassar’s victims, not politics
Michigan State University officially accepted the resignation Thursday of its interim president, following troubling remarks about Larry Nassar victims, and tapped executive vice president Satish Udpa to lead the school during the search for a permanent president.
The board of trustees was slated to discuss whether John Engler could continue as interim president after he told The Detroit News that some sexual assault survivors in the Nassar case were “enjoying” the spotlight. The remarks spurred fierce backlash, and it wasn’t the first time Engler had denigrated one of Nassar’s victims.
Under fire, Engler submitted an 11-page resignation letter to the board Wednesday evening defending his accomplishments as interim president and claiming the pressure on him to step down stemmed from five Democratic members of the board. Engler, 70, is a Republican former Michigan governor and legislator.
At least one trustee denied Engler’s accusation Thursday, and several board members said Engler’s ouster was inextricably linked to his insensitive remarks regarding the Nassar victims. The comments are not consistent with Michigan State’s values, board members said.
“None of our work will matter if our leaders say hurtful things and don’t listen to survivors,” board Chairwoman Dianne Byrum said.
Trustee Brian Mosallam said Nassar’s survivors “no longer have to go to bed feeling no one will listen to them” and said Engler’s words demonstrated a lack of empathy, compassion and respect.
“A wrong has been righted today,” trustee Kelly Tebay said, pushing back tears. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
With Melanie Foster absent, the remaining seven trustees voted unanimously to accept Engler’s resignation and appoint Udpa as his replacement.
Engler’s resignation letter came a year and a day after Nassar’s sentencing hearing began. More than 150 victims testified, outlining the sexual abuse Nassar committed and the toll it took on their lives. A judge handed down a sentence of up to 175 years, telling the disgraced sports doctor, “I just signed your death warrant.”
‘A natural healer’
Udpa has been Michigan State’s executive vice president of administrative services. The office’s mission is to “promote high-performance behaviors, increase institutional effectiveness and support academic advancement through cross-campus initiatives and investing in people, processes, and the environment.”
His office oversees the school’s Bolder by Design initiative, which strives to “advance our culture of high performance.” The office reviews strategies, policies and processes for various departments on campus and works to help them increase their productivity, the university’s website says.
Udpa was present for Thursday’s trustee meeting. He did not deliver comments, but the trustees expressed confidence in him and said they looked forward to working with him — as did the student and faculty liaisons in attendance.
“I think he is a natural healer. I think he will bring stability, calm,” trustee Nancy Schlichting said.
The board of trustees is slated to select a permanent president in June. The board is accepting nominations through the end of the month. It is not clear if Udpa is in the running. Engler was not a candidate.
Though the listed job requirements for Michigan State’s next president do not mention the Nassar scandal specifically, it does say, “The president will promote a continued culture of high expectations for MSU athletic programs, with particular focus on a safe, healthy environment for athletes and others who are associated with athletic programs.”
Engler ‘wouldn’t support’ more Nassar investigations
Engler’s most recent troubling remarks came last week in an interview with The Detroit News editorial board. Engler was quoted as saying there were people who were “hanging on” to the Nassar issue.
“There are a lot of people who are touched by this: survivors who haven’t been in the spotlight,” Engler said, according to the paper. “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.”
In a separate story, he went on to say he would not support any additional investigations, the paper reported.
“There are some people who want to continue to investigate and inquire into lots of things,” Engler said. “I wouldn’t support any more. … We’re trying to get rid of lawyers and consultants now. We’re trying to go back to work.”
Engler could not be reached for comment. An email to his office generated an automatic response.
‘Engler has always treated survivors as the enemy’
Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to accuse Nassar publicly, and her husband, Jacob, were quick to slam Engler for his comments.
The 34-year-old lawyer and former gymnast noted the paradox in claiming to have empathy for victims in one breath, then saying victims are enjoying the spotlight in another.
“You mean, like having to change the day I grocery shop so my 3 kids don’t see a photo of their mom demonstrating what was done to her body? Tell me more about how enjoyable this spotlight is,” she tweeted.
Following Engler’s resignation, John Manly, an attorney representing Nassar’s victims, said the interim president’s ouster was “long overdue” as Engler’s actions had “continued to revictimize” his clients. It’s sad, Manly said, that it took the “spotlight” comment to force his resignation.
“Engler has always treated survivors as the enemy. He took actions to obstruct and undermine criminal investigations of the university and its administration by the Michigan attorney general,” he said.
The board previously considered giving Engler the boot in June after he accused Denhollander of taking payoffs for manipulating other survivors — an assertion Denhollander flatly denied. Engler apologized, and the board voted 6-2 to keep him on board.
Engler was named interim president January 30, 2018, a week after President Lou Anna Simon stepped down on the day of Nassar’s sentencing, saying, “As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”