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Can John Engler lead MSU?

Many at MSU have questioned the appointment of John Engler as interim president, but it’s clear that the Board of Trustees and governor support his leadership as the University grapples with the aftermath of the Nassar scandal. He has the opportunity to lead a process of reflection and change in a difficult crisis. But is he up to the task?

Since Larry Nassar never stood trial, there’s much that we don’t know. For example, it’s not clear how often and how far he broke with therapies that are acceptable in his field. We haven’t heard debates among his peers about his methods and how he crossed the line with his patients. But it’s crucial for physicians and therapists — and patients — to learn from this story. MSU could foster a public discussion of such questions, but so far the interim administration has not done so.

We also need to understand how others contributed to the crimes Nassar has confessed. There’s no evidence that anyone at MSU consciously covered them up. Numerous individuals failed to respond effectively to complaints from his patients and so made it possible for him to continue. That was not their intention, yet that is what they did. How this could happen raises questions that are not unique to MSU. By confronting them, MSU could lead a valuable process of social reflection that is in tune with the awareness raised by the “me too” movement.

Though we can’t ignore the responsibilities of those who could have made a difference, the main goal should not be to locate culprits. When there’s a pattern of such neglect, we may look for a background of assumptions, perceptions, anxieties, expectations — things that add up to an institutional culture. At MSU was there too little trust in students, too much deference to physicians, too much emphasis on big time sports, timidity about issues of sexual matters, too much readiness to value the institution over the individual?

These are questions, not answers, and they could be the focus of discussions and debates at MSU.

Consider a parallel: As the facts of the Nassar case were emerging, the country was in the midst of an odd presidential campaign. One candidate was accused of sexual abuse by numerous women. Indeed, Donald Trump was recorded as having bragged that he could get away with such acts of sexual aggression. Later he claimed this was only talk, but still it’s worrisome to have a president who thinks it’s funny to brag about getting away with sexual violence. What would we think if we learned that a physician thought it was funny to talk about what he could get away with while practicing supposed therapies?

If the dean of a medical college were to shrug off such talk by a faculty member, it would be a cause for outrage. Yet the leaders of one of our major political parties has been doing just that regarding Trump’s record on sexual aggression.

‘He is an astute institutional tactician, but the challenges he faces demand something more.’

- Richard Peterson

As head of the Business Roundtable, John Engler sought to work with the new administration despite policy differences. There’s no record of his having criticized Trump for his endorsement of sexual violence. That may not be surprising, but it’s one way a culture of enablement works. For one reason or another, it’s convenient to look the other way.

It would be unfair to pick out Engler in this regard were he not taking over a university in the midst of a crisis over the toleration of sexual violence. He is an astute institutional tactician, but the challenges he faces demand something more. There must be a deliberative rethinking of what happened in the Nassar case and a patient exploration of how to foster a culture whose resistance to sexual violence is part of a culture of mutual respect and confidence in public discussion.

(Richard Peterson is a retired professor of philosophy at MSU. )


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