Despite attacks, ‘I’m still not quitting’
Joel Ferguson offers no remorse for what fellow Trustee Brian Mosallam labeled as John Engler’s “reign of terror” at Michigan State University.
When the Board of Trustees accepted Engler’s resignation two weeks ago, the other six members who were at the special meeting took time to apologize to the survivors of convicted pedophile Larry Nassar or opine about the brighter future ahead.
Not Ferguson. Instead, he sat quietly. But last week, confronted with calls for his resignation, he broke his silence in an exclusive interview with City Pulse.
Ferguson referred to the public reaction of other trustees to Engler’s departure as a “grandstanding circus.”
Among the points Ferguson made in the phone interview were:
• Engler, by and large, did the job he was hired to do: Protect MSU’s finances. There was no reason for trustees to apologize to anyone when they accepted his resignation. Instead, trustees were only “covering their asses” to protect the reputation of the institution amid a continued crisis, he said.
• Reports that Ferguson, a leading Democrat in Michigan who served on the Democratic National Committee, had privately flipped his initial vote from former Gov. Jim Blanchard to support former Republican Gov. Engler last year — and the criticism that came along with it — are based on inaccurate journalism by the Detroit Free Press, he contended. Ferguson always supported Engler, up until days before he left.
• His comment on Tim Staudt’s radio show last year that there are “so many more things going on at this university than just this Nassar thing” was twisted in the media in an attempt to demonize him. Strangely, though, when Ferguson volunteered a transcript of the interview that he said was “verbatim,” of that interview, the controversial words were omitted entirely.
• “I’m not quitting.”
No apologies on Engler
The former governor was only appointed president to safeguard university finances amid a growing public relations nightmare, Ferguson said. And by all accounts, Engler had fulfilled the board’s expectations. There was simply no reason that he, or anyone else on the board, owed apologies for a job well done, Ferguson explained.
“At Michigan State University, with all that noise, our job was to make a decision that was best for us and to make certain our funding and everything else stayed intact,” Ferguson added, saying finances “were the whole thing. Nobody griped when he came in, because we all knew it had to happen, because that was what our needs were.”
Although the board was initially confident in its selection, a series of insensitive statements by Engler— culminating in January with saying some sexual assault victims were “enjoying the spotlight” —eventually helped turn the tide. Hundreds of students and staff had urged him to resign by the end of his tenure. The trustees agreed. “For all the reforms we’re making, we keep slipping backwards,” Board Chairwoman Dianne Byrum told City Pulse.
But two days before the vote Ferguson disagreed that Engler needed to go. His thinking, he told City Pulse, was that Engler was only slated to stay on board for another couple months anyway.
And a replacement would’ve only created the optics of a disjointed and dysfunctional board, Ferguson claimed.
Referring to the vote to accept Engler’s resignation, Ferguson said, “After we make the vote, then guys want to cover their asses and claim they don’t like Engler.”
Harkening back to his vote to appoint Engler, he said, “My decision was about what was best for MSU at the time. We were under attack by the Legislature. We had legislators grandstanding and saying shit and everything else. We were under attack and we did it unanimously.”
As interim president for almost a year, Engler helped quell concerns when the Republican-controlled legislature was threatening to slash state funding for the university. He also helped negotiate a $500 million settlement for Nassar survivors and bring some “financial closure” amid MSU’s continued legal exposure, Ferguson said.
And that was all Engler was ever hired to do in the first place, Ferguson emphasized. It was never about healing. Engler’s resignation letter also touted his personal list of “accomplishments” and further argued MSU was better off after a year under his leadership. It’s a sentiment that Ferguson — despite differing opinions — still supports.
“If I had to do it again, I would do everything I could to protect the university,” Ferguson added.
In an 11-page resignation letter, Engler suggested his departure was more of a political mandate than choice. Democratic board members had enough support to oust him, without Ferguson if need be, if he didn’t leave on his own accord. And by the time the motion to accept his resignation came to the table, Ferguson said he didn’t have another choice.
“I only voted for what was in front of me at the time,” Ferguson emphasized.
‘No fucking vote’
When former President Lou Anna K. Simon resigned last January, the Board of Trustees was left to fill the gap. The Detroit Free Press reported that Ferguson ultimately served as the linchpin vote for Engler after the board initially deadlocked in closed-door negotiations between Engler and former Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard.
Ferguson, for his part, claimed the author of that story — David Jesse — entirely fabricated the narrative. There was no consensus reached before the unanimous vote to appoint Engler, Ferguson said. And Ferguson had never offered to support anyone other than Engler for the job, he argued. Jesse didn’t return a call for clarification.
“There was never a fucking vote,” Ferguson said. “Once anonymous people start something, it takes a life. It’s not relevant. The board voted to make certain we kept out funding.” He said the former Republican governor had “rapport with the people who were making the decisions. That was what the discussion was about. It had nothing to do with (political) party.”
Some Democrats, however, were already painting a target on Ferguson’s back as a political traitor. Several elected officials (all of them Democrats) have since called on Ferguson to resign for his role in selecting Engler last January — regardless of the behind-the-scenes board mechanics that ultimately installed him as the president.
A spokesman for Progress Michigan, a progressive think-tank designed to “hold public officials accountable” and “challenge conservative propaganda,” said all remaining trustees that supported Engler should reconsider whether they’re the right people to effectively guide the university forward and rebuild wounds of the past.
“Joel Ferguson, in particular, has made comments in the past about ‘this Nassar thing’ and several other controversial statements throughout this process,” said Sam Inglot, a spokesman for Progress Michigan. “Anyone that thought John Engler was the right person here needs to reconsider their time on the board.”
Ferguson already gave it some thought.
And he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I’ve done my job every time,” Ferguson added. “I had enough guts and balls to represent the university and hire somebody that I didn’t vote for because he was the right fit based on who was giving out the money at the time.”
‘I didn’t apologize’
To Tim Staudt on Lansing's WVFN-AM (730), Ferguson commented on Jan. 22, 2018, that “there are so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.” Critics were at Ferguson’s throat. He later issued a statement outlining “deep regrets” for trivializing the experiences of those who survived Nassar’s crimes.
“He recognizes the suffering of these young women and had intended to refer to it as the ‘Nassar tragedy,’” according to a statement from Ferguson provided by his spokeswoman at the time, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, now-spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel. “Mr. Ferguson deeply regrets his comment and apologizes to those he offended.”
But Ferguson put it another way in last week’s interview with City Pulse.
“I apologized for what people felt and how they perceived me. I didn’t apologize for the statement,” Ferguson said. “I guess I should’ve used a different word, but what I was trying to say was we’re going to keep running the university as we go through this Nassar stuff. Now people are running off and developing a story off a negative.”
Later in Staudt’s broadcast, Ferguson defended Simon before her resignation two days later. He also touted her work fundraising for the Breslin Center and laughed at the idea of an NCAA investigation. But Ferguson still maintains that his critics “cherry-picked” the negative aspects of that interview to “crucify” him.
“You can never use money to completely make over people’s pain and suffering, but there’s going to be something happening in their favor,” Ferguson said later in the interview. “I think that when people find out (Nassar) was on an island by himself, they’ll move on and we’ll keep the university moving with the president we have.”
Of course, Nassar’s abuse wasn’t isolated “on an island” as Ferguson had suggested. State investigators later issued a scathing report about a “culture of indifference” toward sexual assault at MSU in favor of protecting its reputation. All told, at least 11 university employees had failed to report Nassar’s abuse, the report found.
Investigators called it a “failure of people, not policy” and advocated for a “topdown cultural change at MSU.” Calls for Ferguson’s resignation, after the interview hit the local airwaves, were already gaining momentum.
East Lansing Councilman Aaron Stephens, after hearing the broadcast, labeled Ferguson’s commentary “deeply offensive” and suggested he resign from the board. State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said Ferguson hasn’t represented his views on the issue and he “wouldn’t be upset” should Ferguson follow Engler out the door.
“He should’ve resigned before he was even elected,” added Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner.
Retired State Rep. Sam Singh, an MSU grad who was mayor of East Lansing, has called for Ferguson’s head since last year, namely because of the “inappropriate and insensitive” comments toward Nassar survivors. And he still doesn’t think Ferguson has a role on the board.
“It’s clear that he never wanted to shoulder any responsibility to the university,” Singh added. “He protected Simon until the last day. He protected others until their last day. Even with Engler, he supported him to the very end. He has shown absolutely no leadership and has actually hurt this university over the last several months.”
Ferguson, for his part, still claims he misspoke during the interview and that media outlets and attorneys have since “doctored” his original statements. He said he meant to emphasize that Nassar won’t “distract” from other, equally important university business. And he laughed off questions about those who might still want him gone.
“I have no reason to resign,” Ferguson added. “I hope I don’t look too bad, but if I do, I’m still not quitting.”
‘This Nassar thing’ disappears
Ferguson later sent City Pulse a copy of what he labeled a “verbatim transcript” of the controversial radio interview. His reference to “things going on at the university other than just this Nassar thing,” however, was missing from the document. And Ferguson couldn’t offer much of an explanation for the omission.
“That’s not even germane to the doggone discussion,” Ferguson said. “The main part is the part at the bottom where I said we got to help these young ladies and do all that. That’s the real part. I didn’t conveniently omit a goddamn thing. I don’t type. Whoever prepared it must’ve missed it. We’ll get a new one sent over.”
A revised transcript never arrived; City Pulse instead used audio from the interview to verify the statements.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to accurately reflect the broadcast location of WVFN-AM.