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Howes: Engler's resignation further proof of a poorly managed university

Michigan State University sign
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

It didn’t take long.

Just a few weeks after Democrats gained a 6-2 majority on Michigan State’s board of trustees, interim President John Engler is out. Exactly what you’d expect for the former Republican governor … especially after he handed his overseers yet one more rhetorical club to wield against him.

Namely, his own words.

Last week, Engler told The Detroit News editorial board that survivors of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar were “enjoying” being in the spotlight. Really?

Yes, really.

It was stunning, if not surprising for an ol’ pol exceeding the limits of his acumen. Here was the most feared politician of his generation a titan of political deal-making back in the day … effectively trivializing the trauma suffered by more than 200 women at the hands of the now-imprisoned Nassar. Emphasis here on “back in the day.”

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News
Detroit News

Engler’s resignation tendered because the board told him the other option was a public firing is the latest embarrassment in a lengthening list at Michigan State. It shows just how poorly managed and poorly governed the university has been throughout this appalling saga.

Apparently, the governor couldn’t help himself, as one of his longtime aides told me in a phone call. Instead of stepping down in a brief three-sentence letter to the trustees, Engler offered an 11-page manifesto detailing the bureaucratic and procedural reforms that he said would ensure another Nassar would never again terrorize the community.

Whatever the justifications offered, Engler’s unceremonious ouster underscores just how politicized governance of Michigan’s “Big Three” universities can be. And none more so than when controversy, outrage and embarrassment meld into the toxic stew weighing on the State community.

Engler’s appointment didn’t help, whatever your opinion of his performance as a three-term governor.

Ask yourself: does partisan politics really deserve a place in the governance of Michigan State, Michigan and Wayne State? No, but that’s what we get – repeatedly. When State’s trustees needed to find a replacement for Lou Anna Simon, they turned to two former governors – Engler and Democrat Jim Blanchard.

And to prove the political point, the Republican Legislature made it clear that funds for Michigan State would get the slow walk if Engler wasn’t the guy. But as the past year unspooled, two things became increasingly clear: one, Engler would not shy from using his office to hire his Republican buddies to lucrative senior positions. And, two, he probably shouldn’t have been the guy.

The lesson: political choices risk political scandal and backlash except under the most ideal circumstances. This isn’t one of those circumstances. The Engler interregnum at State sometimes looked more like a GOP crony-fest than the well-intentioned workout of a major university.

None of it – the board’s dysfunction, the butt-covering, Engler’s empathy deficit – inspired confidence.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. 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.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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