Freep Editorial Addresses Engler Resignation

Jan 18, 2019

In the wake of this week’s resignation of interim MSU President John Engler, there’s an editorial in today’s Detroit Free Press called “In Engler, panicked MSU Trustees got what they paid for.”

WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Brian Dickerson, Editorial Page Editor of the Free Press, about the editorial. He says the MSU-Engler saga is “more complicated than it’s been made out to be.”

SCOTT POHL: I wanted to ask you, first of all, what motivated you to write this column? The tone seems to be that while it's easy to throw criticism at John Engler, he perhaps deserves some credit for changes that have been made in the last year at MSU. Would you say that's close to what motivated you?

BRIAN DICKERSON: I don't think John Engler needs me to defend him, and I really wasn't motivated by any desire to defend him. I just I guess I wanted to point out that this saga is a little more complicated than it's been made out to be.

He probably was handed an impossible job when he took over a year ago, and it had two big elements, an inside element and an outside element. The inside element, I would argue that he did about as well as anybody could have done, mainly because of who he is and the experience he's had in Michigan. He might have been the only guy who could bring legislators who were very eager to express their solidarity with Nassar’s victims and their anger at MSU in the only way legislators can: by passing laws and by withholding money and you know, Engler was the perfect guy to put down that rebellion, which he did.

Obviously a very important, and maybe even the most important part of the job, was to repair what had been a disastrous year almost of public relations at MSU and to present a completely different outward face to the public. He was a spectacularly bad choice for that part of the job because he's never been a diplomat. He's never minced words, He held power in Michigan at a time before social media and everything.

He was here at the Free Press last Friday to talk about his tenure at MSU, and he reminded us that when he was governor, nobody could ever see his emails. He was quite startled to discover that as president of MSU his emails were subject to the Freedom of Information Act and could be splayed out for the public to see.

I just wanted for the sake of an accurate history to point out that he'd been hired by a panicked board of trustees to do a lot of things and that he'd done some of them quite competently and some of them really, really badly, but that anybody who'd been watching John Engler for the last 20 or 30 years as I have could hardly be surprised by how his words, it could be said, threw gasoline on the fire.

POHL: You also point to a couple of fires that he was involved in putting out or at least dampening down. Let's talk about each of them briefly. The state legislature at the time was threatening to reduce funding to the university. Tell me about Engler’s role in tamping that fire down.

DICKERSON: MSU is much more dependent on that then say the University of Michigan is on that and on tuition, and so that was a very serious threat to the university's future. Engler made it go away.

The other huge problem confronting the University at that point was this liability to Nasser's victims. I heard people talking about billions of dollars, billions plural, at the time, but nobody really knew where the bottom of that was. He made that a priority and they got a half billion dollar settlement. Some people think the university got off cheap, but on the other hand, half a billion dollars is a lot of money, and that was tied to the legislature agreeing not to pass any of this punitive legislation that that had threatened to increase the university's exposure in the Nassar scandal. Those two things, capping the liability and settling the litigation and putting down this group of legislators who wanted a pound of flesh and wanted to be seen by their constituents taking a pound of flesh, those were two significant achievements.

POHL: You also point to some of the things that Engler says in his 11-page resignation letter that I think a case can be made he deserves credit for, like the fact that enrollment at MSU is up, the health of the endowment at MSU, a few of those things. While you point those things out, I wanted to ask you about the tone of the opening section of that letter in which he blames his demise as interim president on the arrival of three new Democrats on the board as opposed to taking any responsibility for any of this on himself.

DICKERSON: Yeah, well, I think that's classic Engler. What I saw him doing there is saying this is just more partisan nonsense and all that's happened is that the control of that MSU board has shifted to the other party, and I think it's clearly more complicated than that.

I guess the other reason I wrote the column is I wanted to point out that the board had every reason to know the risks it was running when it hired john Engler to get this job done, and that they share complicity for some of the public relation fallout that has happened in the past year.