WSW: Avoiding More Chaos At MSU

Feb 7, 2018

Michigan State University campus
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Interim Michigan State University President John Engler was picked to guide MSU amid the fallout from a sexual abuse scandal. But a report in Bridge raises questions about how Engler handled allegations of sexual abuse against female inmates in state prisons when he served as Michigan’s governor.

Michigan State University trustees unanimously voted to make Engler interim president after Lou Anna Simon resigned. The university has been dealing with the fallout of the scandal involving former sports doctor Larry Nasser who used his position at MSU and with the USA Gymnastics to sexually assault girls and young women for more than two decades.

Bridge recently published its story about how Engler handled allegations in the 1990’s of that female inmates were sexually abused in Michigan prisons. Ted Roelofs, who wrote the story for Bridge, told WMUK’s Gordon Evans that investigations were also happening in other states. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit and the United Nations wanted to enter Michigan prisons to conduct its own investigation. Bridge obtained the Engler letter sent to the U.N. Higher Commissioner For Human Rights. He denied their representatives access to prisons and called claims of sexual abuse in prisons “baseless.”

After Engler left office the state settled a class action lawsuit in 2009 for $100-million dollars. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 500 female inmates who were raped, abused or harassed by male prison guards. Roelofs says “It took 13 years of litigation on this lawsuit before the state finally caved in.”

Engler was asked for comment, although Roelofs says he didn’t expect an interview. John Truscott, who served as spokesman for Engler during his time as governor, said Engler’s involvement in the lawsuit was limited. He says the legal matter was mostly handled by the Department of Corrections. Truscott also said that it was Engler’s decision to move male prison guards away from female inmates.

In 1999 Engler and the Legislature approved an amendment to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to preclude prison inmates from seeking state civil rights protections. That was struck down by a federal judge. Roelofs says if that amendment had stood, it would have limited their ability to sue over prison conditions.

Roelofs also requested comment from all eight members of Michigan State’s board of trustees. Dianne Byrum was the only one who agreed to be interviewed. Byrum, a Democrat, served in the Legislature at the same time Engler was governor. Byrum was on the opposite side of Engler for many issues, and said she disagreed with his decisions about lawsuits related to prison sexual abuse. But Byrum says Engler is the right person to lead MSU now, and she promises to be vocal if he doesn’t follow through on making necessary changes.

Roelofs says the trustees have made their choice, and it’s John Engler.

“To backtrack on this now, I think there would be a lot of fear that it would create even more chaos.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons