LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A hard-nosed former Republican governor of Michigan who's temporarily taking over leadership of Michigan State University said Wednesday that now is not the time for politics, as the school weathers criticism over disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar's ability to molest young female athletes for decades.
"This is not the time to be political," John Engler said shortly after the school's governing board unanimously voted for him to become interim president during a public meeting. He replaces Lou Anna Simon, who resigned as president last week following Nassar's sentencing hearing where he was confronted by more than 150 girls and women about the abuse.
"I think we start from the standpoint: How do we change things?" he said. "That starts today."
Members of the eight-person board of trustees, split between Republicans and Democrats, expect Engler, an alumnus, to be an effective leader who will make necessary changes.
"I have confidence that John Engler will reflect our desire to keep a focus on survivors and the victims," said Brian Breslin, the board's chairman.
Despite the board's bipartisan decision on the same day as Nassar's third and final sentencing hearing began, some Democrats questioned the appointment of the polarizing conservative known for his hardball negotiating tactics. Criticism also came from members of the faculty governing board and a student liaison to the trustees who said the school was taking "the wrong direction." Critics expressed concern that Engler is not known for being a unifying force.
Engler, 69, led the state for a dozen years from 1991 through 2002. As governor, Engler helped to overhaul school funding and was a strong advocate for charter schools. After leaving office because of term limits, he directed business groups in Washington.
The board also named Jim Blanchard, a former Democratic governor and Michigan State graduate, to advise the school as it faces lawsuits filed by more than 100 girls and women, and investigations by the state attorney general, the NCAA and Congress. The board will soon start the search for a permanent president.
Engler's selection had been expected and was welcomed by allies who said he is tenacious, not afraid to ruffle feathers and can steer his beloved Spartans through the tumult. He will also have to shake up a culture that critics say led to the university turning a blind eye to Nassar's victims for years.
"The victims can hopefully rest a little better knowing they've got John Engler to straighten the ship. He earns respect. He commands respect," Dan Pero, Engler's first chief of staff in the governor's office, said Tuesday, ahead of the trustees' vote.
Pero said Engler won't be afraid to make tough decisions — having done so when as a governor facing a budget deficit he pushed through cuts to welfare, state mental hospitals and the arts.
"Lord knows there will be many decisions that will need to be made at the school that will upset people," Pero said. "With change comes pushback. But ultimately with change comes better times."
Among those who criticized the appointment was Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to go public against Nassar after she read an Indianapolis Star investigation of how USA Gymnastics handled sexual abuse allegations against coaches. On Facebook, she called Engler a "deep political insider" at a time Michigan State needs outside accountability. She later softened her words, saying she hopes that "despite his close ties, he will act with leadership and integrity."
Faculty and student leaders raised similar concerns at the trustees' meeting Wednesday, including one who sat for a few minutes in the middle of the board's conference table.
"The damage that can be caused by appointing a politician ... on an already polarized campus is kind of shocking," said Ashley Fuente, a student liaison to the trustees who called Engler the "wrong direction."
The five at-large faculty members of the university's steering committee, which is involved in academic governance, said they recommended that the interim president be a woman with experience devising and implementing anti-sexual harassment and sexual abuse programs.
Political observers say Engler's job at Michigan State, which could last up to a year depending on how quickly the board brings in someone else, may be his toughest task yet. State Sen. Margaret O'Brien, who is working on legislation as a result of the Nassar scandal, said she expects him to "clean (the) house of those who must go."
Karoub reported from Detroit.
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