Michigan State University Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Breslin speaks during a Trustees meeting following the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case.
LANSING – In two separate meetings Monday night, several Michigan State University board members discussed the state of the university with two prominent alumni — former governors John Engler and Jim Blanchard.
By the end of the night, the board was locked in — John Engler would be the interim president of the university, with Blanchard coming on board as a senior adviser to work with government relations and legal affairs.
The board will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday to make the moves official, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the discussions. Engler and Blanchard did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Engler will take over from Lou Anna Simon, who resigned under a tidal wave of calls for her resignation because of her handling of the Larry Nassar case. Those who issued calls want Engler to come in and clean house. His closest friends said he’s not afraid to do that.
“When he retired as governor, the folks at MSU asked him what did he want, and he said ‘All I want is a good parking spot for the football games,’ ” said longtime friend and Lansing attorney Richard McLellan. “He certainly knows how to manage and he understands the politics of it. I saw him take over as governor and do some pretty bold things. That’s always been one of his mottos. The night before he went in as governor, he told me, ‘I’m going to be willing to make decisions.’ George Romney told him, ‘Be bold.’ And this short-term assignment is going to require that.”
On campus Tuesday, students said they hope that’s true.
“I wasn’t old enough when he was governor to really know a ton about him, but I hope he’s going to come in and here and really get to the bottom of this mess,” said junior Mary Williams, 20, of Flint. “He’s got to change the whole culture — he’s got to be a lot more open to listening to us and to the survivors.”
Lisa Maskill, 21, a senior from Grand Rapids, said he’s skeptical.
“It seems like he’s got all kinds of ties to here and to all the people that caused the mess,” Maskill said. “Is he really going to do anything big? We needed someone to come in here that hasn’t been here and isn’t the same as everyone before.”
Jim Crane, 52, of Grand Rapids said it was smart to not just bring in one person.
“The one thing I like is that they brought both of them,” he said, while waiting for his daughter, a freshman this year at MSU. “The more people they can get in here and get the people already here, out, the better. There needs to be all kinds of changes.”
Engler is expected to hold the position only until a nationwide search is conducted for a permanent replacement. The timeline for that search has yet to be set.
Both Engler and Blanchard are MSU graduates with deep ties to Michigan’s political scene.
The pair — Republican Engler and Democrat Blanchard — will appease both the Republicans and Democrats on the MSU board of trustees, which has a 4-4 partisan split.
Engler has always been seen as a driven politician, who was able to get his way through a combination of grit, negotiation and attention to history and detail.
“I sat in on countless meetings with him on dozens of issues and I always thought the secret to his success was that he always seemed to know more about the issue than anyone else in the room,” said Ken Sikkema, a former Republican state representative and senator who served in office while Engler was governor. “He’s just incredibly thorough about the issues he was facing. I know people said the secret to his success was that he was a hard taskmaster and he was demanding. But I think it was his refusal to be out-informed and out-thought. That’s going to put him in good standing going into what he’s going into.”
Engler, 69, has been a longtime political presence in Michigan. He was the youngest person elected to the state House of Representatives in 1970 at the age of 22, where he served until 1979, leaving after winning a seat in the state Senate and serving as the ironfisted Senate majority leader.
He scored a razor-thin victory over then-incumbent governor Blanchard in 1990 and stayed in the state’s top job through the end of 2002. After leaving the job, he moved to Washington, where he served as president and CEO of the National Manufacturers Association and then the head of the Business Roundtable, a national organization of business leaders. He retired last year and has a home in Laingsburg with his wife, Michelle. His triplet daughters have all recently graduated from college.
After losing his re-election bid in 1990, Blanchard became the U.S. ambassador to Canada under President Bill Clinton and later became a partner in the Washington D.C.-based law firm of DLA Piper. He ran for governor again in 2002, but lost to then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who would then go on to win two terms as Michigan’s governor.
The choice of Engler and Blanchard was applauded in some sectors.
“John Engler is the right choice to be Michigan State University’s interim president,” said Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt Township. “He is a strong leader with a proven track record of reform, and the school needs someone who is able to come in from the outside, stand up to the status quo and make immediate changes.”
David Doyle was the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party while Engler was governor. While he was surprised that Engler was the choice, given the partisan makeup of the board, “I think he’ll do a great job.”
Mario Morrow, a MSU graduate and a Detroit political consultant who also has worked at the state level, said he welcomes the appointments.
“For what Spartan nation is going through right now, it’s important that we have leaders who are familiar with the university and who graduated from the university so that they can start finding some solutions to this magnitude of issues that are growing and growing in a snowball effect,” he said. “It’s the smartest move the board has made in the past year and a half as we’ve all been watching this earthquake of crisis management going in the wrong direction.
“It’s important that you have representation from both political sides of the spectrum. But the problem has been that this has become too political and they need to take the politics out of it,” Morrow added. “I don’t think alumni or students care if they’re Republican or Democrats, they just want it fixed and fixed fast.”
But Democrats said Engler is the wrong man for the job, citing his close ties to Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office is investigating the sex scandal that grew out of Nassar’s work at the university.
“John Engler’s appointment as MSU president raises new and troubling questions regarding Bill Schuette’s ability to conduct a credible investigation into the university’s handling of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal,” said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “John Engler has already endorsed Bill Schuette for governor … saved Bill Schuette’s career when he appointed him Secretary of Agriculture after he lost to Carl Levin in 1990. This adds to an already growing list of Bill Schuette’s conflicts of interest when it comes to his ability to conduct a truly independent investigation.”
And Progress Michigan questioned whether Engler’s record of expanding charter schools in the state and his involvement in fighting a civil rights lawsuit filed by female inmates in the state’s prison system were black marks that should disqualify his appointment.
“Engler failed to protect those inmates, how can we expect him to protect members of the MSU community and restore trust in this institution,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan.
After Simon resigned, there were a number of names raised to the board as possible interim presidents, including Engler, Blanchard and Granholm.
In a tweet shortly after Simon resigned, Granholm said it wouldn’t be her.
“Not me, but I’m confident they will find a strong, clear leader. For the sake of current and future Spartans, let’s hope so.”
Also raised as a possible interim choice was former Grand Valley State University President Mark Murray, who also served as president of Meijer, Inc. and Kathy Wilbur, a vice president at Central Michigan University. Murray told board members he wasn’t interested, sources said.
Blanchard and Murray were all mentioned as a possible MSU president when Peter McPherson left in 2004 and Simon was promoted from provost to president.
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