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How to fix Michigan State

Jack Lessenberry

Whenever you think things couldn’t possibly get worse for Michigan State, they do. Just after the team doctor turned sexual predator went off to prison, disaster struck again.

William Strampel, his former boss and the former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, was arrested and charged with various things, including criminal sexual misconduct of his own. That case has yet to work its way through the courts, but is going to be anything but helpful to MSU’s attempts to heal itself and stay solvent.

And now come reports that during a meeting with one of Nassar’s victims, 18-year-old Kaylee Lorincz, Interim President John Engler offered her a quarter million dollars to settle her case. Engler issued what they used to call a “non-denial denial,” saying his memory of the meeting was different, and that he was “sorry if anything said was misunderstood.”

Once again, this doesn’t help. Lansing State Journal sports columnist Graham Couch wrote a remarkable column about this, saying that he initially had supported the appointment of the former governor as MSU’s president. “Engler is, first and foremost, a bully,” he wrote. “But if he’s your bully, that can work. He got things done as governor.”

But he added, “the problem is, you can’t bully sexual assault victims,” he said, adding, “the problem is, Engler doesn’t do anything with finesse … these last couple months have required it. If you can’t see that right now, you shouldn’t be part of MSU’s leadership.”

Couch added that while he thinks the current trustees mean well, they have no credibility, and need to resign, noting that after the latest flap, Joel Ferguson and Brian Breslin praised Engler for his “guidance and governance,” in virtually the same words they had used to praise Lou Anna Simon’s non-leadership, right up to the end.

Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, knows a thing or two about leadership. He just finished four years as head of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, and was a finalist for the presidency of Henry Ford Community College until he took his name out of contention. He told me he wanted to concentrate on deepening Michigan’s ties with China.

Over the weekend, one of his flights was delayed, and he wrote me his thoughts on Michigan State from the Shanghai airport. “The current MSU board has NO credibility, and Governor Engler is quickly burning through whatever good will he began with,” he wrote.

He thinks this will damage efforts to get a new permanent president. “Why would a credible candidate take the job from a board that has no credibility with key constituents?” Watkins agrees they need to resign or be removed.

But he would involve all sorts of stakeholders in coming up with eight replacements. After the school makes a serious effort to seek community input, Watkins would like the governor to select three names from a list made up by the victims, two from the legislative leadership, one each from recommendations by the student body and the faculty.

Finally, the governor could choose one on his own. This may not be a perfect formula. But Watkins added: “As FDR said, 'Do something! If that does not work, do something else, but for God’s sake, do something!'”

That mantra seems like a good place to start.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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