New Michigan State president tried to derail investigation into prison sexual assault

Critics say the university must bring in an outsider to recover from the Larry Nassar scandal
February 1, 2018, 3:00pm

Michigan State University has a plan to fight accusations that it turned a blind eye to years of abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar: hire the guy who tried to stymie an investigation into sexual abuse in Michigan’s prisons.

Michigan State tapped former Michigan Gov. John Engler to lead the university as interim president on Wednesday, as the Board of Trustees seeks to soothe claims that it ignored the Nassar’s victims. (Nassar housed his medical practice at Michigan State.) President Lou Anna Simon resigned last week, and the school now faces more than 100 lawsuits over the ongoing scandal.

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But while governor in the 1990s, when a group of female prison inmates said they were raped or harassed by male guards, Engler declined to make state prison officials available for interviews with United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ special rapporteur.

In a 1998 letter obtained by Bridge Magazine, Engler wrote, “I view the United Nations as an unwitting tool in the Justice Department’s agenda to discredit the State of Michigan in spite of the objective evidence that the State of Michigan has not violated the civil and constitutional rights of women inmates.”

Read more: Larry Nasser left a trail of destruction that's just started to be revealed

By the time Engler sent his letter, investigations by both Human Rights watch and the U.S. Department of Justice found evidence of sexual assault — and, in some cases, retaliation by guards against women who reported it. A U.N. investigation into U.S. prisons also later noted that its special rapporteur had “found [Engler’s] refusal particularly disturbing since she had received very serious allegations of sexual misconduct.”

In 1999, Engler took further steps to derail a sexual misconduct lawsuit by signing into a law a bill that explicitly sought to remove prisoners from the protection of Michigan’s civil rights statute, according to a Prison Legal News article written at the time. That law was eventually struck down as unconstitutional, Bridge reported.

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Ultimately, more than 900 female inmates came forward to say they’d experienced harassed, abused, or raped by prison guards. Michigan ended up settling a $100 million class-action lawsuit brought by hundreds of these women in 2009.

After news of Engler’s appoint emerged, Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to go public with claims of abuse against Larry Nassar, took to Facebook to say she was “beyond disappointed to hear this.”

Read more: USA Gymnastics doctor gets up to 175 years for abusing women and girls

“Engler is a deep political insider at MSU,” she wrote. “At a time the university desperately needs, and survivors pleaded for, outside accountability and leadership, the Board chooses one of the most entrenched insiders.”

Michigan State University didn’t immediately reply to VICE News’ request for comment. However, Engler’s longtime spokesperson declined to give Bridge Magazine an interview with Engler for its story and defended the 1998 letter. He said Engler wasn’t involved in the case’s litigation, adding, “He wasn’t going to roll over for the U.N. The U.N. did not have a legitimate right to go in and start interviewing prisoners.”

More than 250 women have now told law enforcement that Nassar abused them.

Cover: Former Gov. John Engler runs a news conference after Michigan State's Board of Trustees met and voted to name him as their interim president in East Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. (Dale G.Young/Detroit News via AP)