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Interim President John Engler grilled at Senate subcomittee hearing

March 16, 2018
MSU Interim President John Engler makes his appearance at the Senate's higher education subcommittee meeting on March 15, 2018 at the Boji Tower in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News)
MSU Interim President John Engler makes his appearance at the Senate's higher education subcommittee meeting on March 15, 2018 at the Boji Tower in Lansing. (Nic Antaya | The State News) —

On Thursday, MSU Interim President John Engler fielded tough questions about MSU's efforts to combat sexual assault from members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

The hearing featured a contentious exchange with Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing.

Hertel took issue with a Detroit News article quoting Engler's spokesperson John Truscott as blaming Michigan legislators for breakdowns in negotiations with survivors of ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's abuse.

Although Engler initially said he was optimistic MSU could finish negotiations with survivors, he then backed up Truscott, saying negotiations were "put on pause" as survivors' lawyers fought for passage of a sexual assault bill package.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a plethora of bills that would, among other things, institute a maximum 30-year statute of limitation on sexual assault crimes. Engler said this bill package could push the lawyers for Nassar survivors away from the negotiation table.

"Right now, Michigan State would have claims to certain defenses, the plaintiffs obviously have their claims. So everybody's got something at risk, everybody's got reasons to sit and talk and work it out," Engler said. "What you don't want to have is a situation where one side says, 'Well, I don't think I even have to be here."

Engler said he did support other aspects of the bill package, including a strengthening of penalties against those who are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect yet choose not to report such crimes.

The interim president also appeared to say that the various civil cases against the university posed a roadblock to the community's recovery from Nassar's crimes.

"The difficulty in all of this is obviously ... we've got litigation," Engler said. "That narrative in the litigation is not about healing. Everybody else has got to get back to work, but there's 250 plaintiffs there, and that litigation is a challenge. From day one, our goal has been to get that behind us — to get that settled — but it's hard to do."

Rachael Denhollander, who was the first survivor to publicly speak out against Nassar in a September 2016 Indianapolis Star article, said on Facebook that she was "disgusted" by Engler's suggestion that survivors are being manipulated into bringing lawsuits against the university.

"You continue to attack the survivor's character and motivations, and act as if we're puppets for the attorneys," Denhollander said in the post. "You are wrong."

Engler said he would like to see negotiations regarding settlements of the lawsuits wrapped up before the semester is over. He also indicated that students would "certainly" be on the hook for increased tuition as a result of the legislation, which could open the door for even more legal action against the university.

"I don't know if it would force bankruptcy or not, but I hope not," Engler said.

Subcommittee chairperson Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, opened the hearing with a statement bashing the university's handling of the Nassar scandal and other sexual assault allegations, deriding it as "callous and aloof."

MSU is currently under at least 14 investigations relating to Nassar's crimes, according to Schuitmaker.

"These events have led me and members of the committee as well as the public to ask, 'What is going on at Michigan State University?'" Schuitmaker said.

She did acknowledge that the mismanagement occurred prior to Engler's appointment. Engler has been serving as interim president since late January, in the wake of Lou Anna K. Simon's resignation a week prior.

Schuitmaker also praised Engler's motion to revoke the tenure of William Strampel, the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine who is accused of failing to report sexual abuse complaints regarding Nassar.

"You have a well-earned reputation as an effective and bold leader who gets results and demands accountability," Schuitmaker said. "I believe that is exactly what Michigan State needs at this point."

While Schuitmaker's initial question was what MSU had done to address the problem of sexual assault, Engler instead followed up with a nearly 20-minute presentation on MSU's successes in other areas, from its in-state student population to its economic impact on Michigan and progress on the Facility for Rare Isotopes and Beams.

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He then took a few minutes to address the senator's question, saying the university has fully cooperated with all investigations and worked to restore transparency.

Engler also said the university has worked to increase the amount of available resources under its Title IX program, and that MSU would make be unveiling preliminary results from phase two of its external Title IX review process beginning next week.

There are 84 pending cases involving relationship violence and sexual misconduct at the university, with 28 cases undergoing a formal investigation, according to Engler.

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