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Engler defends his MSU interim presidency at US Senate hearing

John Engler
Cheyna Roth
MSU interim President John Engler testified before a U.S. subcommittee on Tuesday.

About 80 survivors of former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar gathered in Washington, D.C. Tuesday.

They held a press conference ahead of a Senate committee hearing about what can be done to protect amateur athletes from sexual assault.

More than 300 women say Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them over decades and MSU and other institutions failed to protect them.

Michigan Radio’s Cheyna Roth was in Washington for the hearing where interim MSU president John Engler testified.

Inside a packed committee hearing room, MSU interim president John Engler took his seat.

He testified along with representatives of USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee.

Lawmakers and survivors wanted to know how a person like Nassar could thrive at these institutions and what they were going to do to make sure their athletes weren’t failed again.

In his opening statements, Engler tried to showcase the improvements the school has made during his six-month tenure.

“My commitment is to make sure this never happens again,” he said. “We are seeking to simultaneously deliver what justice and healing we can for the survivors and put strong accountability measure in place to make sure that MSU is safe.”

Engler talked about changes the school has made, such as making it easier for students to report sexual assaults and strengthening mandatory reporting requirements.

It is our position that MSU cannot move forward and become an institution of integrity and safety until John Engler is no longer president. – Statement from former MSU athletes.

But once the Senators were able to ask questions, Engler was forced to reckon the missteps he’s made during time as interim president.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters read from a letter signed by more than 100 survivors and sent to the MSU Board of Trustees. In it the survivors say all of MSU’s changes mean nothing if students still don’t feel safe.

“It is our position that MSU cannot move forward and become an institution of integrity and safety until John Engler is no longer president,” Sen. Gary Peters read from the statement.

The survivors called for Engler’s resignation after he questioned the motives of one of the first women to publicly out Nassar – Rachael Denhollander.

In an email obtained by the media, Engler said he thought Denhollander might be receiving kickbacks from trial lawyers.

He also suggested that survivors were being manipulated by trial lawyers.

The school is involved in a lawsuit hundreds of survivors with a proposed settlement worth half a billion dollars.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan questioned Engler about the emails. He said he thought they were private. Hassan said that doesn’t matter.

“It reflects an attitude at the top of the institution that you’re asking this committee, your current students, your current athletes, your alumni to trust,” she said. “And I think you have some repair work today to put it mildly.”

Engler defended his record.

“I feel this deeply from a personal standpoint and my actions have been consistent with my belief that this should never ever happen again,” he said.

Senators also question Engler for his hiring choices at MSU.

Engler was grilled for pledging to conduct a national search and bring in an outsider for a new Athletic Director.

He appointed Bill Beekman – the school’s interim Athletic Director and longtime MSU employee.

After the hearing, survivors were not impressed with Engler’s performance – they still want him gone. Morgan McCaul says MSU can’t make real progress while Engler is at the helm.

“I think we will be light years ahead once John Engler is out,” she said. “And I hope to continue seeing that faculty and staff driven change.”

Engler acknowledges that day will come soon – the school is in the process of finding a new, permanent president. Engler says he is not a candidate and hopes the search committee finds someone soon.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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