Susan J. Demas: John Engler, living embodiment of toxic masculinity

January 22, 2019 11:18 am

Interim President of Michigan State University and former Michigan Gov. John Engler testifies during a hearing before the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security Subcommittee of Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee July 24, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. | Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nobody expected John Engler to go gently into that good night. And he didn’t.

In an 11-page screed dripping with bitterness and a twinge of self-pity, Michigan State University’s interim president essentially told the board last week: “You can’t fire me; I quit.”

Someone pinned a survivor ribbon on the statue of former MSU President John Hannah, Jan. 17, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

The GOP former three-term governor — who has remained a larger-than-life figure in Michigan politics, even after he hightailed it to Washington, D.C., almost two decades ago — had a tumultuous reign.

Engler was hired, just under a year ago, to bring a steady hand to his alma mater, which had been rocked by the sexual abuse scandal of former MSU Dr. Larry Nassar. That had already brought down his predecessor, Lou Anna Simon, who has since been charged with four counts of lying to a peace officer in connection with the case.

Perhaps the most charitable thing you can say about Engler’s tenure is that at least he’s not facing jail time as a result.

Of course, former Michigan Attorney General Special Independent Counsel William Forsyth accused MSU of stonewalling his Nassar investigation. And new Attorney General Dana Nessel let it be known on the day of Engler’s departure that she’d like a word with him.

So even though Engler has long planned to move down to his wife’s native Texas, the Mitten State may not be done with him yet.

MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum | Michael Gerstein

In his resignation letter, Engler did what he’s always done best: He blamed Democrats on the board and tried to cast his departure as a partisan witch-hunt. That succeeded in inoculating him from GOP criticism, with the notable exception of MSU Trustee Dan Kelly. Many Republicans who had long privately excoriated Engler’s job performance fell prey to his naked party loyalty gambit.

The fact that Engler’s letter was addressed to MSU Board Chair Dianne Byrum — a longtime former Democratic legislative leader who had tangled with him during his gubernatorial days — just added fuel to the fire.

Engler’s letter was padded with a laundry list of accomplishments that read very much like the work of a man expecting a parade to be thrown in his honor. And he made sure to thank MSU donors for being “generous with your resources.”

Let’s be honest. That’s exactly what Engler was hired to do.

The MSU board — which, thus far, has escaped largely unscathed in this debacle — didn’t hire the Republican for his bedside manner.

Spartan Stadium, Michigan State University, Jan. 17, 2018 | Michael Gerstein

They wanted a pitbull who would savagely protect the university’s state funding from restless lawmakers up for re-election and reassure the well-heeled donor base. And they needed someone to settle the Nassar lawsuits quickly.

Engler did all of this, as many board members acknowledge.

But it came at a tremendous cost.

Time after time, Engler made it abundantly clear that he didn’t understand — or care — what the hundreds of survivors of Nassar’s sexual abuse had been through or what they needed to heal.

Engler’s treatment of survivors, in fact, was downright sickening. 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.

More than 100 survivors called for Engler’s ouster last summer. Their voices weren’t valued. It wasn’t enough. He went on to shutter a victims’ fund and shut the door on any further investigations.

If you’d like a living, breathing example of the concept of toxic masculinity, look no further than John Engler.

It’s not hard to draw parallels with President Donald Trump, who also believes he can lash out with impunity at his perceived enemies — who are often women or members of disadvantaged groups.

Not to be outdone, however, Engler decided to inform the Detroit News editorial board this month that some survivors are “enjoying” the “awards and recognition.”

It was only then that a majority of MSU board members decided it was time for Engler to go.

Longtime political pundits — who have written that Engler is the shrewdest political figure in modern Michigan history so many times that they probably have a custom keyboard shortcut — couldn’t believe that he would stumble so spectacularly.

Sign posted on the MSU campus, Jan. 17, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

But the truth is that Engler hasn’t kept up with the times. And neither have they.

Talk to any longtime teacher and they’ll say that the bullying bravado on display at MSU is nothing new. They lived with it for 12 years when Engler was governor.

But those obsessed with horserace coverage of politics only cared that Engler won big fights. They never spent a lot of time talking to people on the losing side — and I’m not talking about politicians. I mean the people who are impacted and, yes, hurt by these glorious political victories, from cutting workers’ retirement to closing mental hospitals.

There has long been a real human cost for Engler’s agenda. His time at MSU crystallized that, in part, because we are finally listening to some voices that have been silenced for so long.

Kaylee Lorincz at the MSU board meeting, Jan. 17, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

On the day the MSU board accepted Engler’s resignation, Lorincz was there. She cried tears of joy as she explained how the interim president had “put us through so much” even after Nassar’s sentencing.

“That healing process never started for me because the constant harmful words and actions from [Engler] — it just constantly set me back,” she said. “And I feel like now I can finally take that step forward and start to heal, and I am so ready for that.”

When history books consider Engler’s political legacy, Kaylee Lorincz’s words should not be forgotten.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on 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, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. 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 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.