Twenty years ago, John Engler was by far, the biggest figure in Lansing, and perhaps the most powerful governor Michigan has ever had. He understood the legislature better than anyone, largely because he had been in it for twenty years before becoming governor.
He was both respected and feared, and lawmakers in both parties thought twice before taking him on. Times have changed, however, and yesterday Engler, now interim president of Michigan State University, found himself testifying before a skeptical senate subcommittee.
He was arguing retroactively against a ten-bill package the senate had passed the day before, a package designed to make it possible for minors who were sexually abused as long as twenty years ago to file civil lawsuits for damages. The bills would also allow prosecutors to bring criminal charges against perpetrators for as long as thirty years after the abuse occurred.
These bills, are, of course, designed to bring justice to the many women sexually abused by former MSU sports physician Larry Nassar. They would, however, have potentially far-reaching consequences for other institutions, including public schools and the Roman Catholic Church, which for years covered up behavior by sexually abusive priests.
What worries these institutions most about these bills is that they would not only lengthen the statute of limitations; they would make it far harder for governments and universities to claim immunity from liability in such cases.
That could potentially cost Michigan State hundreds of millions in the Nassar cases alone. Engler’s testimony wasn’t really aimed at the senators, who have already passed these bills, so much as the state House of Representatives, which has yet to consider them.
But the old master may have blundered when he claimed that by even considering these bills the lawmakers were damaging Michigan State’s efforts to negotiate with the Nassar victims.
“I have a hard time understanding how that can be true,” State Senator Curtis Hertel said. John Manly, an attorney for the victims said Engler wasn’t telling the truth, and that MSU had been blocking attempts at mediation.
Rachel Denhollander, who has become the de facto leader of the victims, said flatly that “Engler lied. This is about stopping sexual abuse for us. MSU doesn’t share these values.”
If he didn’t know it already, the former governor learned that to appear less than fully sympathetic to Nassar’s victims is to invite political suicide. That’s why these bills got near-unanimous support. But here are two unpopular statements worth considering:
Just before the upper chamber passed these bills, State Senator Mike Shirkey warned that “we’re about ready to vote on some things that are precedent-setting and very dangerous,” and added “we don’t have any clue what the unintended consequences are.”
And John Engler said that some of the bills had nothing to do with the survivors: “they’re all about changing the leverage at the table of negotiations.”
And both statements are true, no matter how you feel about this issue or these bills. Michigan State plainly brought a lot of this on itself. But its failed leadership won’t suffer the costs and consequences of this; we, and future students will.
Speaker of the House Tom Leonard has put off consideration of these bills for at least three weeks. In an atmosphere so emotionally charged, that seems like a sensible thing to do.
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.