LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University’s interim president apologized Thursday for an email remark about one of the gymnasts sexually abused by ex-sports doctor Larry Nassar, the latest sign of turbulence for the former governor tasked with steering the school out of the burgeoning scandal.
John Engler’s apology came more than a week after the public disclosure of his email exchange from April suggesting Rachael Denhollander probably received a “kickback” from her plaintiff’s attorney.
“I didn’t give it the consideration it warranted,” Engler said in a statement Thursday. “That was a big mistake. I was wrong. I apologize.”
Some 150 of Nassar’s victims have joined a public crusade to force Engler out of the interim job. Last week, two university trustees also signalled they could call a vote during a board meeting Friday on whether to fire him.
That now appears unlikely. Engler’s apology “is appropriate and appreciated by a majority of the board,” said trustee board chairman Brian Breslin. One of the two trustees who turned on Engler, Dianne Byrum, said she is glad he apologized and hopes he learned from it.
Brian Mosallam, the first trustee to demand that Engler step down, said in a tweet Thursday that the apology “is too little too late.”
Denhollander said she appreciates Engler’s gesture but remains convinced he cannot lead the university forward.
“I am disappointed that it took eight days and came on the heels of intense political pressure,” she said on Thursday. “The most disturbing thing is that these comments are not isolated. They are a pattern that reveals a mindset toward assault survivors. And words don’t change that mindset.”
Denhollander said Engler, who did not address her by name in the statement, did not reach out personally to apologize.
When asked in a Thursday interview with The Associated Press why his apology took a week, Engler said he was travelling out of state and “wasn’t as focused on it.” He said when he returned and realized the reaction, he wanted to make his position clear in an apology.
Engler touted some of the policies the university has implemented to avert future crises like the Nassar one.
“Could another Larry Nassar ever emerge in Michigan State?” Engler said. “I think the answer quite clearly is no because of the policies that have all been changed.”
Engler was tapped in February to temporarily lead the university after the crisis surrounding Nassar, who abused hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment while employed at Michigan State. Nassar is now serving a decades-long prison sentence for molesting patients and possessing child pornography.
However, Engler’s presidency has become tangled in further public relations scandals of his own doing. The backlash reached a fever pitch last week, when media reports revealed the emails he sent in April criticizing lawyers for Nassar’s sexual assault victims and suggesting that Denhollander, the first woman to go public with her accusations, was probably getting a “kickback” from her attorney.
“The survivors now are being manipulated by trial lawyers who in the end will each get millions of dollars more than any of individual survivors with the exception of Denhollander who is likely to get kickback from Manley,” Engler said, misspelling attorney John Manly’s name.
He was found to have exchanged the emails following allegations at a stormy public meeting that Engler was trying to pay off another Nassar survivor, Kaylee Lorincz, without her lawyer’s input. Engler later said he remembered the events differently and that “I am sorry if anything said during the meeting was misunderstood.”
In his Thursday statement, Engler said when he started as president in February he never meant to have an adversarial relationship with some of Nassar’s victims. He said his speculation about Denhollander “hurt her deeply,” and other survivors “suffered greatly.”
For the past couple days, the board has been huddled up in a retreat ahead of the Friday meeting, in which it is expected to lay out its next budget and address its plan to pay a $500 million settlement with hundreds of Nassar victims. But the public meeting will surely be eclipsed by those who are fed up with Engler and want him gone.
A grass-roots student group has garnered at least 1,000 signatures in its petition calling for Engler’s ouster and is not backing down.
“One apology for the months of anger and disrespect he has shown our community means nothing,” said Reclaim MSU spokeswoman Katie Paulot, who will be a sophomore this fall. “Engler has to go, now.”
Morgan McCaul, another Nassar victim, said in a written statement she also isn’t accepting his apology.
“It is unfortunate that it took over a thousand signatures calling for his resignation and a two-day workshop with his employers for Mr. Engler to produce this apology,” McCaul said. “I remain firm in my belief that he is unfit to lead the University in this sensitive time.”
Both McCaul and Lorincz plan to speak at the public meeting on Friday.