The appointment of former Gov. John Engler as interim president of Michigan State University may be controversial, but it was also entirely predictable — especially under the political circumstances.
After all, this is the first time in modern history that a MSU Board of Trustees has had to pick an interim president following a resignation but before a permanent successor could be named WHEN THE GOVERNOR AND BOTH BRANCHES OF THE STATE LEGISLATURE ARE CONTROLLED BY A SINGLE POLITICAL PARTY. In this case, that’s the Republicans, and Engler belongs to the tribe.
If there is one thing the trustees — and the university as a whole, if they have their wits about them — must ensure, it’s that the revenue stream from state government to MSU must continue unabated, or with as little damage as can be hoped for, in the wake of the Larry Nassar Disaster. Engler gives the university its best chance to make certain that happens.
As usual, memories on the campus and in the political chattering class are short, but we have to hope that if the MSU faculty, students and gymnast victims could recall or study up on the last times the trustees were faced with a similar situation, they arrived at similar decisions as they did with Engler.
Does anybody remember Walter Adams, Edgar Harden, and Gordon Guyer? All three, going back nearly half a century, were named acting or interim presidents of MSU following the departures of, respectively, John Hannah, Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., and John DiBiaggio.
Adams, Harden and Guyer all had strong ties with MSU, just like Engler. All three men were considered strong administrators (Adams less so than Harden and Guyer). So is Engler. All three had the ability to “get things done” with the Legislature and whomever was the governor. Engler also fits that bill. All three were chosen by a board of trustees that was divided politically, although none when it was 4D/4R, as it was this week when Engler was chosen.
The obvious difference between the three earlier “interims” and Engler is that none of them ever ran for or served in elective office, and none was overtly affiliated with a particular political party. But in each of their tenures, control of political power in the state capitol was split.
Adams, an economics professor, served the last nine months of 1969 after Hannah left and before Wharton assumed the presidency on a permanent basis. The Governor at the time was a Republican, William G. Milliken. The Senate was controlled by the Republicans and the House by the Democrats.
Harden, who had served as president of Northern Michigan University, had been a professor of counseling, testing and guidance at MSU and had headed the university’s Dept. of Continuing Education. He took over for nearly two years in 1978-79 after Wharton left but before Cecil Mackey was chosen on a permanent basis. Milliken was still the governor, but both chambers of the Legislature were held by the Democrats.
Guyer, who garnered three degrees from MSU, had been chairman of the school’s Dept. of Entomology before he assumed the interim presidency after John DiBiaggio resigned in 1992. He served into 1993 when Peter McPherson was chosen to succeed him on a permanent basis. Guyer also served as director of two state departments — Agriculture and Natural Resources. Engler was Governor, the Senate had become Republican again, but the House was controlled by the Democrats and then in a ‘shared power” arrangement with the GOP.
None of the three men — Adams, Harden or Guyer — faced a crisis of confidence in the university’s board such as exists now. None had to worry about “retribution” against the university involving appropriations or demands by legislators that no state taxpayers’ money should go to paying MSU’s Nassar-induced legal bills.
Aggrieved ex-gymnast Rachael Denhollander, who suffered horribly at the hands of Larry Nassar, said earlier this week that she was “beyond disappointed” when learning of Engler’s appointment because she wanted someone unaffiliated with the university, not an “insider” like Engler.
For what it’s worth, Engler is far less of an insider than Adams, Harden or Guyer — he’s had little to do with MSU since he graduated nearly 50 years ago. As a victim, Denhollander is deserving of our compassion and support, but we don’t owe her deference for her acumen in deciding what is the best course of action for MSU going forward.