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Michigan State Chief To Victims: Tough Luck

Matthew Burnett, John Engler and Bernie Carlson
John Engler, center, in 2013. Photo courtesy the Miller Center.

It may be inevitable that anyone who comes in contact with the sex abuse scandal at Michigan State University, which began with Larry Nassar but clearly will not end with him, is going to get dirty. The moral and legal sludge around the place may just be too thick to avoid.

But former Michigan Gov. John Engler isn’t trying very hard to keep himself out of the muck. Engler became interim president earlier this year and seems to be hell-bent on trying to make the Nassar mess go away before he eventually turns over the reins to whoever is unlucky enough to become the university’s next “permanent” boss.

Granted, Engler’s position would not be enviable no matter how he approached it. MSU appointed him interim president after Lou Anna Simon resigned under the cloud of the Nassar scandal. Along with Simon’s title, Engler inherited what Forbes contributor John Baldoni characterized as “a dumpster fire that has yet to be extinguished” in the form of the school’s tattered reputation, ongoing lawsuits and calls for an investigation from the state attorney general.

So it was that Engler took the short Uber ride to the Michigan statehouse recently to chide lawmakers for contemplating legislation that would make it easier for the hundreds of self-reported sex abuse victims to sue for damages. Engler even hinted darkly that, if adopted, the legislation could force the school to consider bankruptcy – although it is highly questionable whether that is even an option under federal and state bankruptcy law.

MSU has already asked a federal judge, twice, to dismiss the lawsuits on multiple grounds. One is that as a subdivision of the state of Michigan, the school is immune to the lawsuits in the absence of state legislation to the contrary; it says Michigan’s version of such legislation does not apply. MSU also says most of the victims waited too long to bring their cases against it. Those are exactly the two roadblocks the Legislature is working to remove.

The school went so far as to ask the court to grant it such financial relief – from the more than 250 victims – as it deemed appropriate. That’s right. The school said the women who were abused by its staff should be made to pay.

Just kidding, says Engler, a former three-term GOP governor who helped Michigan get back on its financial feet after a bad downturn in the 1980s. Engler actually wants to compensate the victims ASAP – very soon, in fact. Say by the end of the current school term, in early May. Apparently his strategy is to persuade victims and their attorneys that unless they take a pittance offered by the school, they stand to collect nothing at all. He did not appreciate lawmakers threatening to take away his bargaining chips.

Engler is full of concern for the victims, and he believes they are fully entitled to justice, as long as it comes only from Nassar or any other fall guys that prosecutors turn up. They seem to have already found one in the form of Nassar’s ex-boss, former dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel. Strampel has been charged with failing to properly monitor Nassar after a patient’s complaint, along with criminal sexual conduct of his own. (He is currently on a leave of absence, though in February Engler announced plans to fire him.)

Unfortunately for Engler’s theory about who should provide justice to the victims, Nassar is going to spend the rest of his life behind bars and is thus hardly a useful source of fair compensation. But you know, sometimes the balance beam of life gets a little slippery, so tough luck, ladies.

Engler probably thinks he is doing the right thing in protecting an institution from the financial consequences of what he sees as malfeasance by a few bad apples and, at best, lack of initiative by administrators who are now being judged in hindsight. Why should the school or its students, or its faculty, or state taxpayers or – heaven forbid – MSU’s big-time sports programs pay for those mistakes?

Because there is such a thing as institutional as well as individual accountability, that’s why. It is why postwar German taxpayers have paid reparations for over 70 years to victims of Nazi crimes. While the abuses in East Lansing were of a vastly different scope and scale, they were serious, prolonged and systematically directed at hundreds of girls and young women. The evidence has mounted that although there were multiple opportunities to stop the abuse, some university employees actively discouraged action while others avoided taking any. Strampel is entitled to the presumption of innocence in his own criminal matters, but should the allegations against him prove true, they will be even more damning for a school whose administration claimed that no one knew, or could have known, what Nassar was doing.

The inescapable conclusion is that the enterprise needs to bear the costs of its decisions to employ Nassar and the people who were supposed to be supervising him who utterly failed in those duties. Think of it as reparations for a crime against humanity that took place under the Spartan banner. Issuing hollow threats of bankruptcy only makes Engler look like MSU’s new gauleiter. It is a look that nobody has ever worn well.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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