Michigan State U. Abuse Survivors Wanted to Keep Politics Out of It. That’s Over Now
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Photo: photo: Dale G. Young, Detroit News, AP Images

Michigan State U. Abuse Survivors Wanted to Keep Politics Out of It. That’s Over Now


USA — June 20, 2018

If the last week at Michigan State University has illuminated anything, it is just how political the fallout from the abuse scandal there has become.

In short order, what is arguably the greatest crisis of John M. Engler’s interim presidency of the institution became fodder for lawmakers of all political stripes. Democrats and Republicans alike were pressed to weigh in on whether Engler, a former Republican governor, should resign for having privately disparaged a sexual-abuse survivor. Many of them said yes, ratcheting up the pressure for a trustee meeting on Friday, when the board could vote to fire him.

One call for Engler to step aside came last week from Lt. Gov. Brian N. Calley, a Republican who is running for governor. On Monday, Calley released a campaign advertisement that featured abuse survivors endorsing his candidacy.

The advertisement is yet another example of how abuses by Larry Nassar, a former university sports doctor, continue to shape the political landscape in Michigan. The Engler administration, despite being among public higher education’s most politically experienced teams, has struggled with the fundamental political challenges of this presidency, which is sufficiently imperiled at this point to invite credible speculation about whether Engler will hold on to his job.

The team’s approach is baffling to critics, who thought Engler could at least get the politics right. While he has managed to reach a legal settlement with abuse victims, who have agreed to a $500-million deal, Engler has, along the way, tangled with survivors and created the impression that he is in conflict with the women the university most needs to conciliate.

From the start, some criticized Engler’s appointment as a sure-fire way to further politicize a sexual-abuse scandal that ought to inspire bipartisan outrage and a collective commitment to reform. The interim president’s actions, along with previously unreleased emails obtained by The Chronicle, suggest that Engler and his closest advisers have always viewed the crisis through a political lens. But the politics of the Nassar scandal are now squarely focused on Engler himself.

As The Chronicle reported last week, Engler told a colleague in an email that Rachael J. Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, was likely to get a "kickback" from her lawyer for stirring up other victims. Brian Mosallam, who last week became the first of two Michigan State trustees to call on Engler to resign, says Engler’s approach is disqualifying. Apart from being disturbing, it’s just bad politics, Mosallam said.

"Long term he can’t win this one," Mosallam said. "What happened to them is horrific. If you’re fighting with them and you’re adversarial with them, it can’t end happily. Why would you fight with survivors? It makes no sense. And yet he’s managed to tick off every one of them. It goes against human decency, and public opinion is on their side."

On Tuesday more than 120 survivors of Nassar’s abuse released a letter calling on Engler to resign.

‘Looks Like He Is Mad’

In April, less than three months into Engler’s presidency, Michigan State administrators were wrestling with a thorny question. State lawmakers were in a frenzy to pass new legislation aimed at curbing abuse like Nassar’s, and the state’s attorney general promised a robust investigation.

But how much scrutiny, Engler’s team wondered, should the university expect from the federal level? With anxiety and interest, they closely monitored a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing at which Jordyn M. Wieber, an Olympic gold medalist, told senators how Michigan State, U.S.A. Gymnastics, and the U.S. Olympic Committee had failed to protect her and Jamie A. Dantzscher, a fellow Olympic gymnast, who also appeared at the hearing.

"To this day, I still don’t know how he could have been allowed to do this for so long," Wieber said. "If these institutions had done their job, neither of us would be sitting here today."

Jacob Courville, who directs the Washington arm of Michigan State’s government-relations office, was charged that day with funneling information about the hearing to Kathleen M. Wilbur, an old political ally of Engler, whom he had recently tapped to become Michigan State’s top lobbyist.

Wilbur wanted to know how bad it was going. In an email from her iPhone, she asked Courville, "What is the temperature like in the committee? Angry? Inquisitive? And identifiers I cannot think of."

Courville responded, "I would describe the mood thus far as somber and serious."

"At least one person in the audience, in frame of the witness testimony, can be seen tearing up," he continued. "Statements from the chairman and ranking member express concern and empathy for athletes/victims, and a desire to proceed with the investigation into [sic] culpability of governing bodies (MSU included), but with emphasis on USOC and USA Gymnastics."

The emails, which were obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request, provide glimpses into the anxious efforts of university officials to measure the political fallout and legal ramifications of what is arguably higher education’s largest sexual-abuse scandal ever. To deal with it, Engler has hired a host of lobbyists, crisis communicators, and lawyers from his old political life, creating an academic administration that looks a lot like a governor’s cabinet.

The emails demonstrate that Engler’s team, in the beginning, was grappling with just how significant a political problem the Nassar crisis would become. In an email that appears quaint in hindsight, Wilbur seemed unsure whether the Senate subcommittee would have questions about Nassar. (The hearing was titled, "Olympic Abuse: The Role of National Governing Bodies in Protecting Our Athletes.)

"Certainly they could just talk about the Olympic culture," Wilbur wrote on April 16, two days before the hearing. "But I assume this will roll over and potentially include the former physician."

Her instincts proved correct. As the hearing unfolded, Courville sent Wilbur his quick impressions of Sen. Gary C. Peters’s questioning of the survivors. Describing Peters, a Democrat from Michigan, Courville wrote, "Very serious demeanor, similarly empathetic and expresses appreciation for their strength to appear. Looks like he is mad."

Courville went on to highlight an exchange that cut to the heart of what would become the most potent political challenge facing the Engler administration: the impression that he is at war with the survivors.

Peters: "How has MSU handled this?"

Wieber: "MSU has handled this poorly. The survivors are being treated terribly. The survivors are being turned away. MSU doesn’t think they are accountable."

Peters: "How would you assess Interim Pres Engler?"

Wieber: "He is almost trying to fight the survivors, not working with us."

Peters: "Has Engler reached out to you? Others?"

Wieber ("emphatic"): "NO."

Dantzscher: "Agree with Jordan [sic]."

Courville later noted this response:

Wieber: "Why is the reputation of the university more important than the lives of the victims?"

The Color Teal

Engler’s critics have described the interim president as overly focused on the political dynamics of the abuse scandal — preoccupied, they argue, with restoring the university’s image at the expense of a candid dialogue about its failings.

A fresh example of that pattern came on Wednesday, when the Detroit Free Press reported that Engler was so consumed by optics that he had objected to the prevalence of the color teal, which survivors have adopted as a symbol of solidarity, at university events. The imagery, administration insiders told the newspaper, conflicts with Engler’s preferred narrative that Michigan State is moving on.

At a recent meeting, Engler told event planners to "get that teal shit out of here," the Free Press reported, citing anonymous sources.

Survivors have argued that the Nassar scandal should not be politicized. Their focus on abuse prevention and victims’ rights is nonpartisan, they say. But some of Nassar’s victims have engaged directly in the legislative process, and — in a recent development — endorsed a candidate for political office. Denhollander, who has been a vocal public advocate, said in an email to The Chronicle that she recognizes some risk to survivors in entering the political fray.

"We desired to work with all of them," she said of lawmakers. "Certain leaders chose not to work with us. While some may choose to lay the blame on us for being partisan, we didn’t make that choice. We didn’t refuse to work with anyone. We didn’t seek out one side more than the other.

"I’m not going to stop advocating and supporting leaders who do the right thing (R or D)," she continued, "because of what someone might perceive."

If Engler hopes to navigate through this crisis without losing his job, it is likely to take all of the political skill he can muster. But if his short tenure is any indicator, those political skills are not as readily transferrable to university leadership as some may have presumed.

Author: The Chronicle of Higher Education