Engler resigns from MSU, blames Democrats

By: - January 17, 2019 2:55 am
John Engler

John Engler in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a defiant and verbose 11-page resignation letter, interim Michigan State University President John Engler appeared to blame a familiar target for his woes: Democrats.

As the Advance reported earlier on Wednesday, the board issued a notice to meet at 8 a.m. Thursday and apparently had the votes to fire Engler. The GOP former governor stepped into the role last year in the midst of the Dr. Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

But instead of providing a steady hand, Engler has faced firestorm after firestorm of his handling of the issue, particularly in regards to the MSU doctor’s hundreds of female victims.

The last straw were comments he made last week to the Detroit News editorial board that Nassar survivors were “enjoying the spotlight” while the university is “trying to go back to work.”

Engler said he is out of town for his father-in-law’s internment in San Antonio, Texas. In his letter, he said that he’ll resign in roughly a week — at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23.

“The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago,” he wrote on page 10 after a laundry list of accomplishments. “… I am proud to have played a role preparing my school to welcome a new President who will have the opportunity to take us to new heights. I will be forever grateful to those who have supported me this last year.”

He did not mention his latest comments about sexual abuse survivors.

Several survivors, including new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have called for Engler’s ouster since last year. Engler’s resignation on Wednesday was met with widespread relief from Democratic officials, including U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak).

Dianne Byrum

Engler’s letter is addressed to MSU Board President Dianne Byrum, an old Democratic nemesis from his gubernatorial days. Byrum is a former state House member and senator who rose to be the first female House minority leader.

In his opening salvo, Engler wrote, “You have informed me that five Democratic members of the MSU Board, including yourself, have requested my resignation as MSU President. The election of two new Democratic members and the appointment of a Democrat to replace Trustee George Perles has created a new majority on the board.”

The MSU board had been perfectly divided between the parties, 4-4. On Nov. 6, two Democrats, Kelly Tebay, a sexual assault survivor, and Breanna Scott, won seats on the board, giving their party a 6-2 majority. In December, GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder appointed former Henry Ford Health CEO Nancy Schlichting to replace Perles, a Democrat.

Byrum was elected as the board’s new chair earlier this month. In an interview with the Advance Wednesday afternoon, she characterized her conversation with Engler this morning differently.

Byrum said that he did not resign and so she was “not in a position to say that John Engler has resigned.” She reiterated that the board would be meeting Thursday and added, “If he does resign, we will need to appoint another interim president.”

Calls to Engler’s MSU office were not returned on Wednesday.

In the morning, Byrum tweeted about the board meeting.

Trustee Brian Mosallam, a Democrat, had an all-caps tweet in response.

Engler’s resignation letter reads more like someone taking a victory lap. He listed accomplishments, complete with bullet points, for most of the 11 pages, including:

  • Ensuring compliance and managing risk
  • Internal communications and external relations
  • Operating and financial stewardship
  • Improving health care
  • Advancing student success

Engler also gave a shout-out to donors and alumni “who bleed Green and White” and have been “generous with your resources.”

MSU has been under fire for its slow response the Nassar scandal, both before and during Engler’s tenure. Nassar sexually assaulted more than 280 young girls, according to the Michigan attorney general’s office.

Engler replaced Lou Anna Simon, who resigned during the Nassar scandal last year. She was later charged with four counts of lying to a peace officer regarding statements she allegedly made to police officers regarding the attorney general investigation.

A report issued last month from Michigan Attorney General Special Independent Counsel William Forsyth accusing MSU of stonewalling an investigation into Nassar’s abuse. Engler has said there will be no more Nassar investigations at the university.

Engler has been at the center of several controversies during his short time at the helm. The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained an email in which he accused Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar survivor to go public of getting kickbacks from attorneys involved in lawsuits against MSU. Another survivor, Kaylee Lorincz, said Engler offered her $250,000 during a meeting, the Free Press reported.

Pressure has been building for Engler to step down since his latest comments on sexual abuse survivors last week. Celebrities, including Martina Navratilova and Flint native and actor Terry Crews weighed in.

Lansing City Council Vice President Peter Spadafore made reference to Engler’s comments as rumor swirled this afternoon about his fate.


By the evening, statement from Democratic public officials came pouring in, starting even before Engler’s resignation went public.

Kildee said he agreed that Engler should bow out, adding, “The survivors and university deserve a leader who can unify the community and the state while continuing to learn from these tragic events.”

Hertel said Engler never should have gotten the job in the first place:

Mallory McMorrow

“In choosing John Engler as interim president, MSU prioritized restoring its own political image over addressing the university’s need for cultural change. It was clear from day one former Governor Engler lacked the understanding and compassion to lead MSU through what should have been a period of healing and accountability. This forced resignation is long overdue and is a direct result of the voices of Michiganders last November who said believe survivors, all survivors.

McMorrow said she hopes that new leadership at MSU will make “meaningful changes” for sexual assault survivors:

“I’m thankful that the MSU Board of Trustees has put on appropriate pressure to finally hold the university accountable to that responsibility. I hope that MSU will move forward with new leadership that will prioritize and protect students, and who will make meaningful changes to university policies to ensure that anyone who is a victim of sexual abuse is heard, believed, and able to find justice.”

Advance reporter Ken Coleman contributed to this report.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.