With John Engler out at Michigan State, Nassar survivors can finally start healing
One year ago this week — January 15, 2018 — marked the beginning of the sentencing hearings for Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics, U.S. Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University team doctor who sexually assaulted over 500 people, primarily women and girls, under the guise of medical treatment. Over the subsequent two weeks, in two separate court rooms in Michigan, 204 survivors faced the man who abused them, detailed their trauma for the world, and sent scathing messages of condemnation to his former employers. Their powerful words were broadcast around the world, and for once, the world listened. At the end of the hearings, Nassar was sent to prison for the rest of his life, and the institutions that enabled him for two decades were left reeling.
It was a triumphant moment of victory for the Army of Sister Survivors, who bonded under unimaginable circumstances. But it was hardly the end of their fight. Though the spotlight faded after the hearings, the survivors’ fight for justice only intensified. It had to. Because while the hearings left the public-at-large with a much deeper understanding of how toxic cultures can enable sexual violence, and the dire need for accountability and change, the institutions that employed Nassar — particularly Michigan State — remained as clueless and cruel as ever.
That’s why it was such a big deal when, on the one-year anniversary of the sentencing hearings, MSU Interim President John Engler submitted his letter of resignation to the MSU Board of Trustees, which was finally prepared terminate his employment if he declined to step down on his own.
For the past year, Engler has publicly antagonized many survivors, and the board has let him. But now, in the words of trustee Brian Mossalam, thanks to the continuous advocacy from survivors, Engler’s “reign of terror” is over.
Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar survivor who has publicly battled with Engler for the past year, was at the Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday morning to see the trustees accept his resignation in person.
“It was this big sigh of relief that I’ve been waiting to have for a very long time,” Lorincz told RJ Wolcott of the Lansing State Journal. “I had tears come to my eyes. I feel like he really delayed that healing process that I’ve been waiting to start after sentencing with Larry.”
Today is the first Board Meeting at @michiganstateu where I can say I am truly happy and optimistic for the road ahead. Our healing can finally start and I’m so excited for it
— Kaylee Lorincz (@KayleeLorincz) January 17, 2019
Engler’s tenure at MSU was an unmitigated disaster from the very start. He was appointed to the position on January 31, 2018, a week after Lou Ana K. Simon resigned as president due to backlash over her mishandling of Nassar. Engler — a former Republican governor of Michigan who did not have a strong track record of supporting women or sexual assault survivors, or any experience in academic administration — was a curious choice to lead an institution in the midst of chaos from the worst sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
In March, he fought against legislation that would increase the statute of limitations for sexual assault survivors. In April, he called a survivor a liar. In June, he baselessly accused Rachael Denhollander — the first survivor to come forward publicly with accusations against Nassar — of getting “kickbacks” from her attorney. In September, he indefinitely suspended a Healing Assistance Fund that was supposed to help Nassar survivors get therapy. Then, this month, he told the Detroit News Editorial Board that Nassar survivors were “enjoying” the “spotlight” and “awards and recognition.” Those latest comments — combined with the strength of three new female trustees — led to Engler’s downfall.
But the shameful legacy of Engler’s tenure will — or, at least, should — be defined by his interactions with Lorincz, a diminutive 19-year-old student who was one of Nassar’s last victims.
During an April trustees meeting, Lorincz sent shockwaves through the MSU community when she disclosed that, in a private meeting with Engler, he offered her $250,000 if she would drop her civil lawsuit against the university. While she was recounting the story, Engler interrupted, warning her to “be careful.”
According to Lorincz, she and her mother visited Engler’s office in March to sign up to speak at the next Board of Trustees meeting. Once they were there, Lorincz thought it would be a good idea to meet with Engler for just a few minutes — Engler had already been saying hurtful things about survivors in the media, and she thought that maybe, if she talked with him, he would better understand where they were coming from.
But Lorincz said that during their 45-minute meeting, Engler kept bringing up money. “I had to continuously say that I’m not here for the money,” she told ThinkProgress last summer at a U.S. Senate hearing stemming from the Nassar investigation. “Then he said, ‘Well, if it’s not about money, right now, if I wrote a check for $250,000, would you take it?’”
In that same meeting, Lorincz said Engler told her he had already met privately with Denhollander, and that she had provided him with a number for a similar individual settlement agreement. Denhollander called it “a bald-faced lie,” saying she’s “never met or communicated” with Engler.
He also downplayed sexual assault and harassment allegations against Nassar’s former boss, Dean William Strampel, by calling them “just a slap on the butt,” Lorincz recalled.
Engler denied these allegations at the trustees meeting. Then, a few months later, when he was questioned about the story at a congressional hearing — while under oath — he denied it again. Twelve times. Lorincz was in the galley during that hearing, and afterwards told ThinkProgress that it was devastating to be repeatedly called a liar.
“I had to sit here and be called a liar, and it makes me go through my head, well, who else thinks I’m a liar? What if everyone else thinks I’m a liar?” Lorincz said. However, his denials didn’t discourage her; they pushed her to keep fighting.
“I will not tolerate being called a liar. That is something I will never tolerate, I don’t care if it’s John Engler, I don’t care who it is,” she said. “That is something that does not sit well with me. So this fight is not over with John Engler, and we’ll see what happens at the end I guess.”
During that hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told Engler directly, “I believe Kaylee Lorincz.”
On Wednesday, Blumenthal released a scathing statement about Engler’s dismissal, which he called “way past due.”
“Throughout his tenure, Mr. Engler has failed to demonstrate the leadership necessary to fight against abuse, foster healing, and rebuild the trust of both survivors and the general public in MSU. Mr. Engler’s appalling conduct in a meeting with Kaylee Lorincz, during which he pressured her to accept a payoff without her attorney present, is only one example of an extensive record marred by indifference and a stunning lack of empathy,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
“The MSU Board of Trustees’ decision to leave Mr. Engler in this position for as long as it has is an affront to the brave sexual assault survivors he has so badly mistreated.”
Engler, naturally, saw things differently. He opened his resignation letter — which rambled on for 11 pages — by blaming the “five Democratic members of the MSU board” for his departure. He went on to describe the “chaos” the university was in when he was appointed, and said he only accepted the position because he loved the university so much.
“A week of emotional survivor courtroom statements in January were broadcast to a national audience already sensitized by the growing #MeToo movement,” he said. “MSU was called on to more thoroughly examine its own responsibility and demonstrate ongoing concern for survivors and making certain such abuse could never occur again.”
He then listed what he considered to be his many accomplishments during his time at the helm of his alma matter, and concluded: “The bottom line is that MSU is a dramatically better, stronger institution than it was one year ago.”
But few, if any, in the MSU community shared those sentiments — particularly not the few Nassar survivors who were still enrolled in the university during that time. For them, it was excruciating to walk onto a campus every day led by a man who openly belittled and bemoaned their existence.
“Waking up every single day just in complete exhaustion knowing that what we’ve done so far still has not made an impact is insane, because we have gone through so much,” Lindsey Lemke, then an MSU senior, told ThinkProgress last year.
“But if we had do victim impact statements again to keep to keep the ball rolling I’m trying to change the culture. I am sure that 90 percent of the people who are trying to make change would want to do it because that’s how dedicated we are and devoted we are to trying to change the culture.”
Engler was right about one thing: Michigan State is stronger today than it was a year ago; but that’s owed largely to his departure from it. Michigan State has a brighter future now because it has trustees that are finally willing to listen to survivors and the Spartan community. Those three new trustees — Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay, both newly elected, and the newly appointed Nancy Schlichting — provided the majority the board needed in order to oust Engler for good. Last summer, only two trustees were in favor of firing the former governor.
On Thursday morning, Satish Udpa, MSU’s executive vice president of administrative services, was named the new interim president of the school. Its search for a permanent president will continue.
Udpa immediately set a different tone than Engler. When asked what message he wanted to send survivors, he did not berate them or question their motives. Instead, he told reporters: “I want to create an environment on this campus that makes them whole. That’s the single most important priority.”
Three hundred and sixty-five days after the victim-impact statements heard around the world, the Sister Survivors accomplished another monumental feat. And it was only possible because, long after the cameras stopped rolling, they continued to show up.
“It’s important for me to show personally that I am in this for the long haul,” Lorincz said last June, when asked why she continued to attend Nassar-related congressional hearings and trustees meetings on a regular basis. “The fight is not going to stop until we see everything done that needs to get done.”