Michigan State’s board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday morning to accept the resignation of embattled interim president John Engler. The board made Engler’s resignation immediate and apologized publicly that it didn’t come sooner.
Engler submitted a letter of resignation to the board Wednesday night after being informed that he would be voted out of office by the trustees Thursday morning. Engler’s 11-month tenure as the university’s top official was pocked by controversy and a contentious relationship with the Michigan State community and survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. Engler indicated in his letter that he would step down next week, but new board chair Dianne Byrum said Thursday that the board decided his exit would be immediate.
“I’m not sure why he wanted it to be next week,” said Brianna Scott, one of three new trustees who joined the board this month. “We needed to send a message and make sure he could do no more damage in the next week.”
Board members said the tipping point to end Engler’s tenure was what they described as “mind-boggling,” “egregious” and “asinine” comments that he made to the editorial board of The Detroit News last week that some survivors of Nassar — a former university doctor convicted of sexually assaulting his patients — were “enjoying” the “spotlight” that came from their abuse and its fallout.
Engler’s resignation letter did not offer an apology for those comments or mention previous run-ins with survivors that sparked controversy. The former Republican governor of Michigan cited political changes on the publicly elected board as the reason for his departure. Three new trustees joined the board at the start of January, two of them Democrats elected in November.
Several trustees rebutted the idea that Engler’s ouster was a partisan issue, saying instead it was based on his continued behavior and the way he was representing the university.
“We may come here as politicians, but going forward, politics needs to be left at the water’s edge,” said trustee Brian Mosallam, who first called for Engler to be fired in June and continued to be an outspoken critic of the interim president over the past six months. “Leadership matters. The tone set by leadership matters. What we say and what we do matters.”
Mosallam said the eight-person board this week feels as united as it has been since Nassar’s abuse came to light. He said the priority moving forward for the board will be to return the university to its faculty, students and community while helping Nassar’s survivors heal.
Michigan’s attorney general’s office requested to interview Engler as part of its investigation into how Michigan State handled the Nassar case prior to his resignation. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Thursday she is “counting on him to honor the request, despite his resignation.” The leaders of the investigation said last month that Michigan State had been misleading the public and uncooperative with investigators under Engler’s leadership.
Satish Udpa, Michigan State’s executive vice president for administration and a university distinguished professor, will serve as an interim president until the board decides on a permanent leader some time in 2019. Udpa formerly served as the dean of Michigan State’s College of Engineering. Udpa, who has worked at the university since 2001, said he plans to strike a different tone than his predecessor.
“A wrong has been righted today,” said trustee Kelly Tebay, who joined the board this month. “The first thing I have to say is I’m sorry it took so long. … I hope this is a first step in a long road to really changing the culture of an institution that we all love so much. This is an important day.”