EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University ousted its interim president on Thursday, a week ahead of his scheduled departure, as the school stepped up efforts to finally move beyond the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.
Its new temporary leader, Satish Udpa, is a high-ranking but low-profile university administrator and former engineering dean who was promoted Thursday to take the helm until a permanent president is announced in June.
Unlike John Engler, the hard-nosed former governor known for a confrontational style with political opponents, the well-respected Udpa, 68, is expected to bring a softer tone in a caretaker role.
“We can’t continue to operate the way we have been for the past two years,” Udpa said a day after the board of trustees forced Engler to step down over his comments that some victims of the imprisoned former campus sports doctor had been “enjoying” the publicity.
Udpa said he supports a campus culture where “everyone respects everybody else,” saying he wants to create an environment that makes victims “whole. That’s the single-most important priority for me.”
The leadership switch was the latest turn at a school that has drawn scrutiny for mishandling past complaints against Nassar that allowed his abuse to continue and also for mismanaging the fallout, including by hiring Engler nearly a year ago. Three former employees, including former President Lou Anna Simon, are facing criminal charges.
Matt Friedman, a communications strategist whose public relations firm has worked with Michigan universities, said Engler was “hired in crisis and he was essentially fired in the same crisis. That’s a real failure from a P.R. perspective. … He just couldn’t speak with a level of respect for the victims.” He classified his time as “two steps forward and three steps back.”
Engler’s latest remarks were not the first time he had angered and hurt “sister survivors,” the female gymnasts and other young athletes whom Nassar molested under the guise of medical treatment before his arrest in 2016. They welcomed his resignation, saying he had set back not only their own mending but also the university’s recovery.
“It’s a big sigh of relief that I’ve been waiting to have for a very long time. I had tears come to my eyes,” said Kaylee Lorincz, who attended an emergency public meeting where the board voted to accelerate Engler’s departure – immediately instead of next week – and appoint Udpa , who will not seek the permanent job. The move drew loud applause from the crowd.
“I feel like he really delayed that healing process that I’ve been waiting to start after sentencing with Larry,” Lorincz said.
During his tenure, Engler – an alumnus – was a lightning rod whose hiring was controversial from the start.
In temporarily handing leadership to a career academic, Friedman said, the board is rightly looking to make sure the situation “doesn’t get any worse.” But it must “nail” the choice of a permanent president, he said, with someone who will bring “real soul to the university and on this crisis in particular.”
The trustees, including new members who helped to force him out, expressed hope going forward.
“I believe this is the beginning of a better relationship both among board members and to the MSU community as we continue the healing and pay respects to the survivors,” said chairwoman Dianne Byrum, who pointed to improved efforts to prevent on-campus sexual misconduct and relationship violence and better care for and protect patients in the wake of Nassar’s assaults.
Hundreds of girls and women have said Nassar molested them when he was a physician, including while he worked at Michigan State and Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to sexually assaulting nine victims and possessing child pornography, and his sentences equate to life in prison.
The first of two gut-wrenching, multi-day sentencing hearings where victims confronted Nassar and criticized the university and others prompted the resignation of Simon, the longtime president, almost a year ago. The trustees quickly hired Engler, a Republican who was governor from 1991 through 2002 and later led national business groups in Washington, D.C. Behind the scenes, the board – then split evenly between Republicans and Democrats – was at odds over Engler, however, with many Democrats preferring another alumnus, Democratic former Gov. James Blanchard.
Faculty, student leaders and some Nassar victims criticized the board for considering and then picking among politically connected insiders at a time the school needed outside accountability.
Engler, who donated his $510,000 annual salary to university organizations and declined health care and retirement benefits, helped to broker a $500 million settlement with hundreds of girls and women who said they were molested by Nassar under the guise of treatment. But his tenure included several missteps.
At a board meeting in April, Lorincz alleged that he offered her $250,000 to settle litigation without her lawyer present. Engler said he remembered the meeting differently. Two days later, he sent an email to a top aide saying Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with accusations against Nassar, was probably getting a “kickback” from her attorney for her role in “the trial lawyer manipulation” of other victims. He later apologized.
Engler also drew criticism for scrapping a version of the university’s alumni magazine and closing a fund that covered counseling for victims so $8.5 million could be redirected toward the settlement payment, reducing the school’s borrowing. The board last week moved to revive the counseling fund.
So what changed with his latest controversy? The board’s makeup, which Engler noted in an 11-page resignation letter in which he listed his accomplishments and did not address his controversial remarks to The Detroit News last week.
The board has three new members, including two Democrats elected in November and another Democrat appointed in December by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. Republican trustee Dan Kelly, who favored keeping Engler in his role previously, denied that partisanship was a factor in his ouster, however.
MSU associate professor Andaluna Borcila, who teaches comparative cultures and politics and called the board’s decision to hire Engler a “big mistake,” said she only has heard good things about Udpa and hopes he can fill the gap until a longer-term leader is found from outside the university.
“My focus is on the ongoing search for the president who is going to occupy this office in June and July,” she said.
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