MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum offers her first extended interview on some of the board’s controversial decisions in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at the school.
On a normal day, Michigan State University trustee Dianne Byrum said she might get an email or two or her MSU email account.
These days, it’s more like a hundred.
“I don’t really count,” Byrum said of the emails, which range from brusque “You-should-resign” missives to constructive ideas for how to move MSU forward from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
In her first extended interview since the scandal produced high-profile resignations at MSU, Byrum, a Democrat, said she stands by John Engler’s hiring as interim president. This despite revelations by Bridge that Engler, as governor, in 1998 discounted sexual assault claims by some Michigan women prison inmates as “baseless” and “without merit.”
More than a decade after Engler rejected the validity of the claims, the State of Michigan paid out $100 million as part of a class-action that had grown to include 500 abused prisoners.
“I disagreed with his decisions. He was wrong on that,” said Byrum, a former Democratic state representative and senator who came into office at the same time as the Republican governor in 1991, and went on to become the first female Democratic House caucus leader. She and Engler were on opposing sides of many issues throughout the 1990s.
Still, Byrum added: “I do believe at this point in time that John Engler will serve the university well as interim president. I think he can help make some of the changes necessary.”
If not, Byrum said, she will speak up.
“I am serious about culture change on campus. If I disagree with John Engler, I will be vocal about it.”
Bridge Magazine reached out to the seven other MSU trustees asking for comment on Engler’s appointment, but did not hear back from six. Trustee Brian Mosallam declined comment to Bridge.
But Mosallam publicly expressed some misgivings about Engler even though he voted for him.
Mosallam told a crowd of hundreds of MSU students and faculty Thursday he did not agree with the board's decision to select Engler as interim president. But he said he voted for him "for the sake of unification, I agreed to vote with the majority."
According to accounts, one attendee yelled, "You're a coward."
A graduate student addressed Mosallam and said that Engler had "refused to allow investigators of sexual assault at women's prisons."
"You had a choice on the matter. 'Yes,' 'no,' or 'abstain.' And you chose to vote 'yes.' I'll never look at you the same again."
In a unanimous vote earlier this week, the embattled board turned to Engler as a steadying figure to steer the university amid rising criticism that MSU had failed to protect girls and young women from sexual abuse by MSU sports doctor Nassar, even after some girls complained about Nassar’s treatments.
Nassar was sentenced Jan. 24 to 40-to-175 years in prison, after more than 150 women and girls said in court he sexually abused them over two decades. The same day, MSU President Lou Anna Simon announced her resignation and, two days later, athletic director Mark Hollis stepped down.
(Nassar is back in another Michigan court this week, where an additional 65 women were scheduled to speak against him at his sentencing hearing.)
“He said there would be more transparency, better accountability,” Byrum said of Engler. “That’s what we are looking for to put Michigan State University on course.”
Byrum said she also disagreed with the former governor’s support for a measure to block prisoners from seeking civil rights protections under state law.
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. Byrum voted against it. The law was later struck down as unconstitutional.
Byrum said that while she supports Engler’s appointment, she regrets waiting so long to recommend Simon step down as MSU president.
Byrum was the second trustee to do so, four days after Mitch Lyons said Simon should go. Simon would announce her resignation hours after Byrum called for it.
Before she went public, Byrum said she was convinced she could work from the inside to persuade other trustees and the president herself there was no other choice but for Simon to leave.
“I was trying to work internally to bring the board and the president along to the realization that she should resign. I learned from that mistake.
“I was trying to work internally when I should have been much louder publicly.”