MSU Interim President John Engler was dismissive of sexual assault claims as governor

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler was tabbed Wednesday as interim president of Michigan State University

Upon being named interim president of Michigan State University following a massive sexual assault scandal, John Engler offered this assurance Wednesday: “I will move forward as if my own daughters were on this campus and will treat every student as I would my own daughters.”

But as Michigan governor in the 1990s, Engler had a far different response  when a group of women, prison inmates, said they were raped or harassed by male guards. Lawyers for some of the women, federal prosecutors and, eventually, the United Nations battled the Engler Administration for the right to interview state officials as well as prisoners to determine the scope of the problem.  

Opinion | Denhollander: MSU, please stop lying about Nassar victims​
Update: MSU trustee defends John Engler hire, yet disagrees with inmate decision
Related: Doubts on Engler at MSU, but higher-ed support shouldn’t be one of them​

Engler stopped them cold.   

In a June 12, 1998 letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Engler wrote that he would not make state prison officials available, saying the U.N.’s interest stemmed from “what I consider to be a baseless lawsuit against the State of Michigan” by the U.S. Justice Department.

“The lawsuit alleges that the state has violated the civil and constitutional rights of women prison inmates...despite extensive efforts on the state’s part to document that the allegations...are without merit,” he wrote.

Engler went on to call the U.N. an “unwitting tool in the Justice Department’s agenda to discredit the State of Michigan in spite of the objective evidence that the State of Michigan has not violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates.”

As it turns out, Engler was far too quick to judge the women’s claims.

After years of stonewalling, the state paid $100 million in 2009 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of what turned out to be 500 female inmates who were raped, abused or harassed by male prison guards. The settlement followed two jury verdicts in which smaller groups of women inmates had won verdicts that, with interest, approached $60 million.

Engler’s letter, obtained by Bridge Magazine Wednesday, shows that the former governor is not the right person to lead MSU after the Larry Nassar scandal, according to the lawyer who led the women inmate cases.

“Really guys? This is who you bring in?” said Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle, who filed suit in 1996 alleging sexual abuse of female prisoners by prison staff.

“You get the guy responsible for the largest ever sexual abuse settlement in the history of the state?”

Engler was hired as MSU’s interim president to assure steady leadership following disclosure that more than 250 girls and women had been sexually abused by Nassar, a university sports doctor, with several saying in interviews or court testimony that their complaints had been ignored for years by MSU coaches or officials.

MSU’s embattled Board of Trustees unanimously tapped Engler for the job Wednesday. That followed the Jan. 24 resignation of President Lou Anna Simon and ongoing fallout from the conviction of Nassar for sexual abuse of female gymnasts and other athletes.

John Truscott, a longtime spokesman for Engler, said Wednesday that Engler would not be available for comment about his letter involving the prison sex abuse cases.  

“He is very busy. He has 300 requests for interviews,” Truscott said.

Truscott, who was Engler’s spokesman as governor, defended the 1998 letter, saying Engler was protecting the state from what he believed was inappropriate meddling by the international human rights agency.

“He wasn’t going to roll over for the U.N.,” Truscott said. “The U.N. did not have a legitimate right to go in and start interviewing prisoners.”

As for the merits of women’s claims, Truscott said Engler actually had little to do with that litigation.

“That was the (Michigan Department of Corrections). He was not involved in those decisions,” Truscott said.

The 1998 letter wasn’t Engler’s only effort to discourage assault claims by the female inmates.

In late 1999, Engler and the Legislature successfully pushed through an amendment to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act that would preclude prison inmates from seeking state civil rights protections, a move the ACLU noted made Michigan the only state in the nation that stripped inmates of such rights.

Indeed, as reported by Prison Legal News, the law signed by Engler explicitly stated it was “intended to correct any misinterpretation of legislative intent” about whether prison inmates, such as the women who were then suing the state, could sue under Elliott-Larsen.

That amendment, which supporters said would prevent frivolous lawsuits,  was struck down as unconstitutional in 2007. U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara was skeptical of the state's rationale for the law, writing: “it appears that the state legislature has not attempted to deter frivolous lawsuits, but rather preclude meritorious ones.”  

In barring prisoners from suing, the law “essentially permits the state to discriminate against female prisoners without fear of accountability under Michigan’s civil rights law,” the judge added. “Given the state’s abhorrent and well-documented history of sexual and other abuse of female prisoners, the court finds this amendment particularly troubling.”

Engler's MSU appointment drew favorable responses from several state officials, including state House Speaker Tom Leonard.

“He is a strong leader with a proven track record of reform, and the school needs someone who is able to come in from the outside, stand up to the status quo and make immediate changes,” he said. “I look forward to working with the interim president on new reforms that will better protect women, the students at MSU and the local community.”

But Engler has also drawn sharp criticism in some circles, including from MSU students and faculty members who vowed to push for a vote of no confidence in the board.

The first woman to make public accusations of sexual abuse by Nassar had said Tuesday, when word first spread of Engler’s post, she was “beyond disappointed” by Engler’s appointment.

MSU board president Brian Breslin, however, declared that Engler is the right person for the job.

“I have confidence that John Engler will reflect our desire to keep a focus on survivors and the victims," Breslin told the media Wednesday.

Breslin could not immediately be reached by Bridge about the 1998 letter. Bridge was also unable to immediately reach MSU spokesman Jason Cody for comment.

“This is not the time to be political," John Engler said told reporters after the board’s vote. "I think we start from the standpoint: How do we change things? That starts today."

In 1996, Human Rights Watch issued a report on sexual harassment and abuse by guards and other officials in state prisons in California, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Michigan. In Michigan, it found “a serious problem of sexual misconduct in Michigan women's prisons, including rape, sexual assault and abuse, criminal sexual contact, inappropriate visual surveillance, and verbal degradation.”

Prior to that, in 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating complaints of abuse of Michigan female prisoners. It filed its own lawsuit against the state in 1997.

In 1995, it sent a letter to Engler stating: “Evidence in the public domain reflects that a number of guards have been investigated by Michigan State Police for allegedly sexually assaulting or raping women inmates at these facilities.

“Indeed, a number of officers have been charged with at least fourth degree criminal sexual assault…Discovery in a private civil action alleging sexual abuse by guards of women at these prisons indicates that between 1991 and 1993, at least 20 incidents of sexual assault or serious harassment have been reported.”

The U.N. began its own investigation of abuse of females in state and federal U.S. prisons in 1998 at the invitation of the DOJ and other federal agencies.

In 1999, it issued a report that noted Engler’s decision to deny permission to visit Michigan prisons by a U.N. official known as the Special Rapporteur: “The Special Rapporteur found this refusal particularly disturbing since she had received very serious allegations of sexual misconduct occurring at Florence Crane Women’s Facility and Camp Branch Facility for Women in Coldwater, as well as at Scott Correctional Facility for Women in Plymouth.”

Evidence at one of the trials in 2008 showed that male prison guards had raped, groped or otherwise assaulted female inmates, often under the pretext of searching them for contraband. Male guards were eventually ordered out of women’s prisons in Michigan in 1999, when Engler was still governor, as part of an agreement with the Justice Department.

Truscott noted that it was Engler’s corrections department that pushed to remove the male guards from female prisons, a plan approved in August of 2000 by the Michigan Department of Civil Service. As a shield against possible future lawsuits, MDOC designated about 250 prison guard positions in female prisons as “female only.”

Prison employees sued MDOC , alleging the plan violated their civil rights, but it was later upheld by a federal court ruling.

 

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Comments

Rich
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 5:28pm

And John Engler is qualified to be president of Michigan State because ...?????

Ann Weller
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 5:32pm

Same old, same old. Stonewall, attempt to justify, put the blame on someone else--exactly what happened at MSU. Why don't they give Truscott a job, too--his answers fit right in with everything my alma mater has done so far in this terrible situation. Engler.Was.Governor. The Department of Corrections was under his purview.

Laurel Raisanen
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 5:54pm

Great job. Keep the pressure up. MSU is digging themselves quite a deep hole.

Kathy Sommers
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 6:15pm

A slap in the face of those women who came forward to testify. Another political appointment when politics is not needed. Disgusting.

Anonymous
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:21am

Spot on. A political appointment is the last thing that is needed here. How out of touch can MSU be?

Barbara Cherem
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 6:16pm

I don't understand MSU and its short-sightedness with Simon's un-empathic reluctant resignation letter after a long delay, and now Engler as the interim guy. Geez! What parent would entrust MSU with their daughter, or their donation. I took two degrees there and I sure wouldn't recommend them with these awful decisions. And that's not even including the lack of oversight of Nassar.
This makes EMU's past scandal look like nothing and they paid dearly for their mis-steps. Their student enrollments fell, administrative personnel were fired, and alumni donations dried-up; they were really hit by their lack of due diligence in communicating the female student's death back a-ways now. MSU looks truly "dumb" in these decisions, very short-sighted. They need someone with sensitivity, full integrity and seriousness in relation to women's treatment and issues of assault. John Engler doesn't fit that bill.

Tim Johnson
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 7:33pm

Gteay reporting Bridge!

Jane P
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 7:30pm

Really? After thoughtful consideration, when every member of the Board of Trustees indicated their responsibilities in not listening or being aware of a culture at MSU that was beyond hostile to women, when all said with TV cameras on how it was going to be a different direction on how the leadership of MSU as elected officials would respond to the huge challenges facing the University NOW, you did WHAT? Not what, but whom did you appoint to lead this once highly respected University as interim. Shame and disappointment.

R.L.
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 7:56pm

Interesting that the Gov who said he would make the State of Mi. the technology State gave a 500 million dollar contract to a Texas company that right after he left office went to work for. He said the 6% sales tax would put equity in funding for schools. I must of missed something. You make things right down there at MSU. John You are the Man. Peace R.L.

R.L.
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:04pm

When John Engler was Gov. he got us the 6% sales tax saying it would provide equitable funding for all the schools. Ya right. He said he would make Mi. the technology state, he then gave Texas a $500,000 no bid contract. He left office and who did he go to work for. That very company. He is the right man to straighten out the mess at MSU. R.L.

David W
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:07pm

I would describe the appointment of John Engler as "jumping from the pot into the fire!" Oh, what short memories we have! Engler retired from the governor role in Michigan with much baggage. I, personally, celebrated that he moved out of Michigan after his retirement happy with the thought that he would no longer be fouling the waters of Michigan. To have him come back as the Interim President of MSU is like a gut punch!

I can now say with confidence, I join with those calling for the resignation of all the members of the MSU Board of Trustees.

Greg Thrasher
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:16pm

Once again only the men in room opinions matter.
Once again the contempt for women is the code of conduct and the prevailing norm in the State of Michigan Government.

Once again The MSU Board of Trustees has failed the students, families and taxpayers of Michigan

Engler is unfit to be the interim President of MSU from his lack of educational credentials to his shallow judgment of the lives of Women when he was governor

BLM

Joan Sampieri
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:32pm

This is beyond jaw-dropping. There's no excuse for appointing this man after the tragedy of what happened to all the young women, and the failure of the board and the president of the school to take the issue seriously. I'm sorry, MSU, this is a disgrace that you need to remedy now.

Michael Price
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:52am

Excellent response, thanks.

Ted Carls
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:39pm

Poor choice!

Ted Carls
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:39pm

Poor choice!

Ted carls
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 8:41pm

Poor choice!

Bernadette
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 9:04pm

This story goes from bad to worse. Engler is the top "good ole boy" they could pick. I have not seen a compassionate side of Mr. Engler, while governor. Others may remember his callous approach to the psychiatric hospitals in MI, and the way the prison situation was handled is outrageous. Once again, like Trump he is teflon man. "I wasn't in charge, the other guy was." Obviously Engler has not heard of the buck stops here.

This just speaks to the larger issue here in MI. MI is the worst state in the nation regarding transparency by state government. The 'control' by one party has devastated this state for the citizens, but is a great place to be a politician.

When you look at the Board of Trustees for MSU, you may want to look at the resumes of the entire board. One actually was appointed initially by Engler. All but one has been on the board for decades. No fresh thinking, no understanding of how devastating this whole thing is to the women, and the reputation of MSU.

Anonymous
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 4:06pm

MSU, Michigan and WSU trustees are ELECTED. Am I the only person who actually read their resumes and campaign materials when they ran for reelection?

Lora
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 10:20pm

Shame Shame Shame

Michele
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 10:21pm

Thanks Bridge. You're reporting is always spot on.
I am one disappointed Spartan.

Tim burke
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 10:31pm

Boycott MSU. Any parent sending their daughter to this institution is culpable, and enabling a system of abuse, John Engler with his past track record, covering up sexual abuse in Michigans women's prisons, speaks volumes of his character, as to the concerns of women being sexually assaulted, he brings with him a precedent that he has set he may say he will Watch over MSU as if his own daughters were in school there, this is laughable, well it is tragic comedy, parents do not send your children to MSU, boycott MSU with a set of demands, that the entire board, and anyone who knew about the abuse be prosecuted, secondly tell them to find somebody else besides John Engler, who has a track record of covering sexual assault.

Mary Fox
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 10:41pm

The appointment of Engler to oversee anything to do with women is MORE DISGUSTING than anything the university has done thus far. Sickening to put a well-known anti-education misogynist who is buddies with Devos and her anti-title 9 and everything else that protected women. He didn't protect women when he was in office and his reputation as a disgusting misogynist out of office is makes his appointment totally perplexing.

Charles White
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 12:19pm

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Bob MacKinnon
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 3:39pm

Right on,Mary !

Richard M. Barron
Wed, 01/31/2018 - 11:15pm

This is what good reporting used to look like!
The entire MSU sex abuse debacle strongly suggests the inappropriateness of electing public university trustees.

Christine
Sat, 02/03/2018 - 10:43am

But, do you believe that appointed Trustees will do any better? The problem is not in the electing but who runs and why we don't do our due diligence when we vote. I do not want political favorites getting into those positions, either.

Zeke
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 12:31am

It's unanimous!!! Engler and those who chose him as a defender of Michigan State Women's NON -RIGHTS need to resign before the whole Michigan State University has a larger Black Eye then before the current scandal.

If you care about the University John fall on your own sward now before everyone else uses it on the university.

Barbara
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 6:49am

I am ashamed to be a Spartan.

Joe
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 8:45am

Did the MSU Board of Trustees do due diligence on Engler before this appointment? Are they confident there are no issues involving female legislative staff and pages from when he was the powerful Senate Majority Leader? Did the BOT just do what they were told to do by Governor Snyder or Peter Sechia or someone else? Engler has some needed skills, but stubborn facts like this article undermine the credibility of MSU and just does more damage. It is all so sad.

Ellen
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 9:04am

Good job of the reminder article of Engler’s deeds. MSU chooses wrong interim President. MSU trustees are continuing the non transparency that got the school in trouble. I’m ashamed that the trustees are unable to be proactive problem solvers. MSU students and MSU faculty are correct: No Confidence.

Disappointed
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 9:06am

Each talking head claims it's time to listen to the survivors and the students, and when the survivors, students, and faculty say NO ENGLER his appointment is defended as the right choice. THIS ISN'T CHANGE.

Sue
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 9:27am

When I watched MSU put Richard Cole, a Blanchard appointee and BCBSM executive with barely a Ph.D. in education as Chair of the Advertising department, I soon realized that politics runs MSU.

Engler is the second best Governor this state has ever had--with Rick Snyder being #1.

We need a strong name during this time at MSU and John Engler is the best around. Blanchard would be good too. This is just the usual political hatched job expected from the liberal Bridge Magazine. Easy to critize in that ivory tower, isn't it?

Carolyn Madden
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 10:44am

As a mother of a son who went to Michigan State, and as someone who has taught at MSU, I am deeply disappointed that all they could find to lead one of the best universities in the state is John Engler. A woman is needed, a strong woman, how about Jennifer Granholm!
Please be an honest broker.

Matt
Sat, 02/03/2018 - 6:29pm

Yes! appoint the failed Gov Granholm who loves MI so much that she moved out of the Gov's mansion straight to California!

Toni Gibson
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 11:31am

I will not vote for any of the MSU Trustees this fall.

John Q. Public
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:09pm

Neither will anyone else. I'll go out on a limb and venture that not a single voter will cast a ballot this November for any current MSU trustee.

Margie
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 12:53pm

I hope this information spreads far and wide. Just the wrong person to clean up assaults on women, following the pattern of the selection of "the anti" in a particular field (as in energy and education) in federal appointments. So disappointed that Michigan has brought this politician back, one who undermined so many things, including public education as a supporter of Betsy deVos and private schools. How can pressure be imposed now that the appointment has been made?

Char Davenport
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:13pm

The Michigan State University Board of Trustees should all resign after this!!

Dr Sargent
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:21pm

This man is the single greatest reason that I no longer practice my profession in this state.
I was a Clinical Psychologist at Lafayette Clinic. Once Engler closed the clinic, I was never able to find a public sector position with high caliber services. I did not like private practice, plenty of providers do that. I left the field to raise my kids in 1999.
Ironically, one of my major programs at Lafayette Clinic was treatment for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. We provided treatment to both inpatients and outpatients, free of charge for those without insurance. Seeing this man at the helm of MSU gives me PESD. I thought we had seen the last of him. He is not an educator. He is hostile to public institutions at all levels. He is grossly insensitive to those of our citizens who are particularly vulnerable. Perfect bone headed choice for this incompetent MSU Board of Trustees. They should all resign in shame and take this brute with them.

Janet Van
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:26pm

Excellent and crucial reporting. He can't hide behind "I wasn't involved in the negotiations" now, can he? And I'm beyond tired of male politicians claiming they'll protect abuse victims because "I have daughters/sisters/wives/mistresses." It's something you do because it's good, moral, ethical and the law. Period.

Angela
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:27pm

Appalled. John Engler, really??? How soon we forget the deeds of old. Truly disgusted as MSU digs its own grave.

Lauren Sargent,...
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 1:40pm

Thanks

TJH
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 2:08pm

This appointment of Engler defies logic and common sense. Many people believe his administration began what has now become a precipitous fall of our once great public education system. Michigan is the Wild West of unregulated charter schools and cyber schools which siphon millions away from our education budget while often providing little value to students and communities but big revenue to for profit providers. Engler was the architect of this abuse of public funding. His record on sexual abuse is even worse, choosing to stonewall and deny abuses rather than clean up the crimes that were committed against women inmates. That cost our state millions of dollars and tremendous damage to our reputation. Hopefully the board will move quickly to find a permanent president with a strong background in higher education and an impeccable reputation for human rights and a scandal free resume. If not, they are truly tone deaf.

Donna Anderson
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 2:40pm

Same John Engler who closed the Mental Hospitals and put patients on the street. A real man of compassion.

RL.
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 2:48pm

With all the talent in this country and you chose John Engler. How unfortunate. Look at a persons past and their choices, then make a choice that really affects change. What has happened with all those who say they had no idea is even a worse travesty . I pray for the healing o all those young athletes. Change your decision before it is too late. R.L.

Karla
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 3:46pm

John engler has been a cheat and a liar for his entire life just like his brother. His parents were well thought of small farmers. Their sons have always been known as low life’s

Don Speer jr
Thu, 02/01/2018 - 8:18pm

How sad this appointment is. Same "old boy" network. The board of trustees, and I use the word "trustees" advisedly, should all resign. They knew what was going on. If they didn't, shame on them. Either way they failed miserably. The appointment of Engler assures more of what caused these tragedies in the first place. Look at his past record as governor on abuse of women. He will be more of the same.

Keith
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 8:22am

Maybe, just maybe Engler has changed in over 20 years like many in our society have changed
regarding this issue.

Bernadette
Fri, 02/02/2018 - 12:46pm

Keith,

A 70 year old man does not change. Did you see his response to the students and teachers? This is not an "enlightened" man, he is someone born, raised and trained to believe he knows what is best, with no respect for women or any marginalized people. Michigan has not been able to break out of the "good ole boy" mentality and will continue to decline in population and quality of life until it gets a strong, balanced leadership.

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