Interview: John Engler talks new trustees, MSU image with The State News
The State News Editorial Board sat down with Interim President John Engler on Nov. 27. This is a transcript of the interview. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The State News: What would you say your biggest achievement has been as interim president?
John Engler: Biggest achievement? I think restoring a sense of normalcy to the campus and having Michigan State be ready for a new president.
What are your thoughts on working with the new Board of Trustees members who have said that they would’ve fired you if they had been able to?
They’ll be fine. I’ll work with all members of the board.
Have you had any contact with Dana Nessel and do you expect anything to change once she takes oversight of the attorney general’s investigation?
No and no. I should say that I presume things will change in terms of how she functions as attorney general, but in terms of Michigan State, there’s really nothing left pending because the charges brought against former President Simon conclude the Attorney General’s investigation.
What’s being done to ensure that the most diverse freshman class in MSU history feels accepted and safe on campus?
Well, this year was pretty diverse – one in four were persons of color coming into the freshman class, so the same efforts will continue to be a priority.
What are some of those efforts that are going to continue?
Outreach, going in the community. We have students that came to Michigan State and can succeed here. There also are programs that Michigan State’s been very successful with that have helped students whose high school preparation may not be as good as it needs to be. To be successful in college, helping them in the summer before they come to campus, to be prepared to do college work, has also been a revision of the curriculum here.
Mathematics, for example. You have someone coming in who’s going to need a math competency in order to study the major they wish. The redesigned math curriculum is also something we think is going to be very, very helpful. We were very pleased with the data reported — we not only we had the highest graduation rate in our history, but we also had a significant bump-up in terms of completion for students of color, so we think those are good numbers.
MSU’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom was labeled a hate group by the SPLC in the past. I believe they’re still currently a registered student group. I was wondering if you were aware of that?
No, I’m not. There’s several hundred registered student groups. I would like to be aware of that.
Do you believe that hate groups should be allowed on campus?
I don’t believe hate groups should be allowed to be anywhere. I don’t think we should have hate groups.
What has been Lou Anna K. Simon’s involvement in your transition into the presidency?
Well, she left. That was her contribution.
You’re saying she didn’t have any involvement in getting you settled or showing you the ropes?
Nope. She was gone. In fact, my transition was actually from Bill Beekman.
What are your thoughts on the charges facing Simon?
Well, you’ll have to ask her lawyer. Her lawyers said that they think they’re pretty flimsy, and they think they’re gonna be prevailing in court.
Simon resigned on Jan. 24. A search plan for her replacement was announced June 27. As you have been acting interim president since Jan. 31, can you explain why it took six months to establish a search plan?
I think that’s pretty obvious. The university community wanted to be very much involved, and this is the most extensive search committee that’s ever been put together in terms of its breadth, in terms of constituent groups that are part of the university, and I think the Board of Trustees should be commended. It actually was done pretty quickly, to form that up and to get the kind of committee, they’ve got a very strong committee and I think they did a good job.
What are some of your thoughts on some of these proposals to change the Board of Trustees’ bylaws that have been coming from around campus?
I think it’s all interesting conversation. At this point, this search is now set. The search committee is established and the search firm is actively soliciting candidates — and I think that’s being done two ways. I mean, obviously people can self-nominate or be nominated and the search firm is reaching out to presidents and saying, ‘Your credentials and your experiences might be excellent qualifications for the Michigan State job. You ought to put yourself up for consideration.’
Are there any changes you want to see happen to the university before your time as interim president is up?
I want to finish up the technology consolidation, which we’re pretty well along with now. But that should give us a much more robust technology infrastructure for the university and at the same time dramatically enhance our security, so I want to wrap that up.
One big project that hopefully we will be in a position to move on in December, in the board meeting, is the long-overdue student information system. It’s a mess and it’s been studied to death around here — three different studies over a five to seven year period. All of which saying that you’ve got a time bomb ticking away there.
I don’t register for classes, but you do. The whole university runs off that old mainframe system that’s basically failing, we need to get started on that right away. Should’ve been done yesterday. Two years ago. So that would be one and that can’t get finished while I’m here, but we can identify the project management and leadership to get it done. But we still have to pick an implementer.
Recreational marijuana will be legal in Michigan at the start of the year and MSU’s already said that — since federal law still prohibits it — it will be illegal on campus. Is that something that is planned to be heavily enforced?
I think the general counsel’s office is actually looking at our policy and this is something the board will be discussing. The state hasn’t really started — I mean its intentions aren’t known, either. At this point, just being studied — I know we were already looking at, does our anti-smoking policy cover non-tobacco products? I mean, we don’t have a policy on brownies, either. These are good questions.
You mentioned some of the challenges the next president’s going to face. What are some of the other challenges?
I think there’s a macro challenge related to the perception of higher education where higher education isn’t worth the investment. I think it clearly is worth the investment. The economics are pretty compelling.
You have to work on when you’ve got students coming in who might be at risk of not completing, those strategies have to continue to get better. We’ve got to, because that is a life altering outcome if you go to college, get a lot of debt and end up without the degree then you’re really butting horns with a dilemma. So I think our ability to attract and graduate that first generation kind of student, first in the family to go to college student, is there.
What do you think of the health of the university’s public image?
I think you look at your customers, the students planning to come here, I think it’s pretty good.
There are groups, two or three people almost, who find that they can get coverage by (media) if they say something negative. I think that the general perception is very good.
I think one of the things the media struggles with today is how do you cover better news? Scandals are much more sexy. You get front page with those. So I think our alumni response in terms of the “Power Extraordinary” campaign is very powerful. Our student response in terms of enrollment is very powerful.
You said there are small, three person student groups that have managed to get our attention, would you be able to name any of those?
I’d name one, ReclaimMSU, which has a couple of faculty members, a couple of students. I don’t know of any, I’ve heard criticism from them of different people, Trustees, people at the university, not just me, but lots of things, but no ideas, there’s no — you asked a question about governance and they’ve got thoughts about that and it’s fine.
Positively, what are we trying to do? I hate to even mention this but you go out and say 'Well what do you have to say about this?' That will be an example of somebody that’s not been very positive. When you have a website urging people not to donate to the university, I consider that to be unhelpful.
When Simon was wrapping up her time here she said in a letter to the Board of Trustees ‘It’s only natural that the anger about this year is pointed towards me.’ A lot of these groups you talked about — the ultimatum is ‘The board needs to resign, you need to resign,’ what is a different course of action? What is the alternative to that, of us moving forward?
Moving forward. Just moving forward. The board’s not resigning. I am resigning as soon as the new president is here. Check that box. It’s doing all the things we just talked about. I think when you get knocked down in life you have to get back up.
I’m not somebody who believes when something bad happens we spend the next five years talking about that. This university will never forget the pain that Nassar caused to the victims, the survivors of Nassar and what he did to the university. But it isn’t going to define us because as I said of the 31 students that were here and the 300 plus victims and survivors who were not on campus but still were harmed by a fellow who had an appointment.
Now the protocols have changed. Just take that example, a young woman couldn’t go and see a doctor without getting fully informed on consent, without having a chaperone there, without having the doctor following all the procedures, including appropriate billing and record keeping. The doctor couldn’t leave the campus without permission to go someplace else. If they were seeking to go, they would have to get that permission. There would be a record of it and there would be knowledge as to who was in charge of that doctor performing that. None of that was there before that. That’s all there now. So that’s why I say that Nassar couldn’t happen.
Always one person could do one thing wrong one time. I think what’s in place now are protocols and procedures that if there was a misdeed the first time, it would be reported, I hope.
The fixes that we’ve put in place, the changes, they’re real. They’re substantive and they’re real. Those are positive things and a number of things I’ve talked about are very, very positive. You do focus on those going forward. You do not deny what did happen but that’s now been some time ago. The fellow’s been in jail for a long time. He’s not here. We want to make sure there’s never another him or her out there that could do something. That’s what I think we’ve accomplished.
What would stop another Dean Strampel from simply ignoring all those rules and regulations and not enforcing them?
Let’s just say any dean breached protocols and procedures. The people in the department now would feel comfortable keeping it quiet, saying "Well that’s the way Green is or that’s the way White is.’ I don’t think so. I think they’d speak up.
Some people would say that’s what happened last time with Strampel.
Unfortunately they left no record of who they talked to. You had 175 parents in the rooms with their daughters and filed no complaints. There was a lot of would have and could have and should have done things but unfortunately they hadn’t. What we can fix in terms of our procedures and our process and our protocol, I think we fixed.
Somebody can always create a hypothetical but we’ve actually tried to create hypotheticals. ‘What if this happened?’ Well then this is how it would be dealt with. There’s no doubt something we have not thought of but to the extent that we can think of it and say ‘What if a bad actor tried to do this? Tried to do that? What would the response be?’ We think we’ve got those covered.
I think our story’s pretty compelling there. It’s not a bad news story at all. It’s actually a very good news story and frankly there’s a lot of universities that unfortunately their time is yet to come because they haven’t had the focus. We’ve got other universities calling us, saying 'Look we want to sit down and go through this with you so we don’t end up on the front pages of the newspapers.'