John Engler, the interim president of Michigan State University, has drawn fire in recent days for saying in an interview that some of the women abused by Lawrence G. Nassar, a former faculty member and the ex-doctor for the United States national gymnastics team, appeared to be enjoying the spotlight.
The comments by Mr. Engler, 70, a former governor of Michigan who has been accused of antagonism toward Dr. Nassar’s hundreds of accusers, came during an interview with The Detroit News, which last Friday published an article based on the interview.
His remarks received renewed focus this week and sparked outrage after they were widely shared online. A spokeswoman for the university did not respond to emails seeking comment on Tuesday.
“There are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven’t been in the spotlight,” Mr. Engler said, according to The Detroit News. “In some ways they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who’ve been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition. And it’s ending. It’s almost done.”
Mr. Engler served three terms as governor of Michigan, from 1991 to 2003. He was appointed university president on an interim basis last year amid the Nassar abuse scandal, which led to the resignation and indictment of his predecessor.
His comments were criticized by members of the board, including its recently elected chairwoman, Dianne Byrum, who described them in a statement to The Chronicle of Higher Education as “ill advised and not helpful to the healing process, survivors, or the university.”
[Dozens of officials have been ousted or charged in the wake of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal. Read our rundown.]
Brian Mosallam, another board member who organized an unsuccessful vote to fire Mr. Engler last June, said the remarks were “in poor taste and extremely insensitive.”
“Clearly he is not the man fit to lead Michigan State University,” Mr. Mosallam said in an interview on Tuesday evening. “I am working closely with my colleagues to consider the next steps. It is a fluid situation.”
Mr. Engler was also criticized by advocates for victims of Dr. Nassar, who last January was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing seven girls. He has been accused of abusing hundreds of girls while he was the longtime national medical director for U.S.A. Gymnastics, often under the guise of performing a medical exam.
His accusers include well-known Olympics gymnasts, including the gold medalists Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Simone Biles. He was also sentenced to 60 years in prison in December 2017 in a separate federal child pornography case.
Rachael Denhollander, the first to publicly accuse Dr. Nassar of abuse, said in an interview on Tuesday that Mr. Engler’s remarks were “evidence for the lack of understanding and the lack of knowledge that he has about sexual abuse and the consequences of it and how difficult it is to speak up.”
“The way he treats sexual assault survivors is exactly what we are talking about when we talk about a culture of abuse,” she said. “He blames, he shames and he attacks.”
Last year, Mr. Engler accused Ms. Denhollander in an email obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education of being paid by her lawyer, John Manly, to coerce women into making abuse claims against Dr. Nassar.
He later apologized for those remarks, which Mr. Manly said in an interview on Tuesday were “utterly false.” Ms. Denhollander said they were evidence of the “intentionally antagonistic posture” Mr. Engler had taken toward Dr. Nassar’s victims.
“I have been doing sexual assault cases for 25 years and I have never seen an administrator of any institution act like this guy does,” said Mr. Manly, who represents 180 of Dr. Nassar’s accusers. “He makes Catholic bishops look enlightened in terms of their approach to sexual assault.”
The scandal arising from Dr. Nassar’s crimes shook the worlds of gymnastics, Olympics sports and higher education and led to the resignation of Lou Anna K. Simon, Mr. Engler’s predecessor as Michigan State president, last January.
Ms. Simon was charged in November with two felonies and accused of lying to the police about her knowledge of the abuse committed by Dr. Nassar. A former Michigan State gymnastics coach was also charged in August with lying to the police.
The university agreed to a $500 million settlement with abuse survivors last May, which was believed to be the largest ever reached in a sexual abuse case involving an American university.
Michigan State upset abuse survivors in December when it announced the closing of a fund that paid for counseling for Dr. Nassar’s victims.
Mr. Engler’s interview with The Detroit News focused on a recent decision by the university to reopen the fund, which he said would most likely be available for those who were not part of the $500 million settlement. That statement was also criticized by the chairwoman of the university’s board.
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