East Lansing — Michigan State University interim President John Engler faced blowback Wednesday after emails emerged in which he criticized lawyers for Larry Nassar’s assault victims and said the first gymnast to come forward in the scandal was probably getting a "kickback” from her attorney for "manipulating" other victims.
The comments from Engler, reported Wednesday by the Chronicle of Higher Education, generated outrage among Nassar's victims and their allies, including one MSU trustee who said it was time for Engler to take a long look at what he is doing to MSU as it works to move past the scandal.
"Interim President John Engler’s emails released today are completely unacceptable and tone deaf and he should publicly apologize immediately and denounce these insensitive comments," MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum said in a statement. "We need to be focused on culture change at MSU and allow the healing process to begin and statements like these from Interim President Engler and his advisors are hurtful, counterproductive and unnecessary.”
Trustee Brian Mosallam added that he was stunned by Engler's comments.
"I am extremely troubled and disappointed," Mosallam said. "The interim president's tone and conduct Is embarrassing. We are a university that should be showing compassion and contrition and he is doing the exact opposite."
Asked if Engler should step down, Mosallam declined to directly address the question.
"He really needs to take a long hard look at himself and determine what is the best course for Michigan State University," he said. "He needs to think long and hard about what (this) means to the perception of this university, what it means to different stakeholders and survivors and ask himself if he is doing this university good or harm in this role."
In a series of tweets, Rachael Denhollander, whom Engler suggested might get a kickback for "manipulating" other victims, called his comments part of a culture of abuse. She said he is "incapable of understanding the impact of sexual assault, bringing accountability, or creating a safe culture for survivors to speak up."
"Engler is so used to focusing on money and power, bullying and manipulating, he can't conceive that I would do what I've done because it's RIGHT, not because I'm getting something from it," Denhollander said on Twitter.
Denhollander also challenged the comments of Byrum and Mosallam.
"This was not tone deaf," Denhollander tweeted. "This was a vile character attack. It was a lie.This is how Engler views survivors. And his views and methods were well known when he was hired. Call it what it is, he serves at your direction. Change the direction if you don't agree."
Engler's comments were made by email to Carol Viventi, an MSU vice president and special counsel, in April, a month before Michigan State agreed to a $500 million settlementwith more than 300 women and girls who said they were sexually assaulted over more than two decades by Nassar, an MSU and USA Gymnastics sports doctor.
Engler, who took over at MSU in February after Lou Anna K. Simon resigned, wrote the emails shortly after Kaylee Lorincz accused Engler of secretly trying to settle her civil suit against the school for $250,000 without her attorney present.
"The survivors now are being manipulated by trial lawyers who in the end will each get millions of dollars more than any of (sic) individual survivors with the exception of Denhollander who is likely to get (sic) kickback from Manley (sic) for her role in the trial lawyer manipulation," Engler said, according to the emails obtained by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It is too bad we can’t have a debate about who is really trying to help those who were harmed by Nassar,” Engler continued. “At least, all of the positive changes are beginning to get some modest attention. It will be years before the use and abuse by trial lawyers point is understood. Have a good Sunday. See you Tuesday morning. John.”
Lorincz told the trustees during their April meeting that Engler said he had met with Denhollander, the first woman to speak publicly against Nassar, and that she gave him a proposed settlement figure — a statement Lorincz said she later learned was untrue.
Attorneys for Nassar's victims were infuriated by Engler's latest comments, including Denhollander's lawyer, John Manly. He called Engler a "coward" and a "vile and despicable human" on Twitter.
"What does it take for this Board to fire Engler? He’s has taken a fire at MSU and turned it into an inferno," Manly tweeted.
Mick Grewal, an attorney for many of the women who sued MSU, called Engler's statements "revolting" in a Twitter post.
"Once again, MSU’s denial of this whole scandal is absolutely horrendous," Grewal tweeted. "Victim blaming, shaming and false accusations is the way they respond. No change here!"
MSU officials did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
Nassar is serving what amounts to a life prison sentence after being convicted of criminal sexual conduct and possessing 37,000 images of child pornography.