Letter to the MSU campus community

March 23, 2018

To the MSU campus community:

I apologize for the break in my updates. It seemed reasonable to pause for spring break, but the resumption of classes coincided with an avalanche of activity, so I have been slow in writing to you.

A couple of new items over the break represent positive news. First, I want to acknowledge the excellent work that IT Services and Residential and Hospitality Services staff did over spring break to install wireless Internet service in student rooms throughout Emmons and Shaw residence halls and University Village. Residence halls have wired service, but the new wireless installation eliminates the need for personal Wi-Fi routers in rooms and means better service for our students. The first night back from spring break more than 1,400 devices connected to the new service. The majority of our residence halls are already so equipped, and installation in the remaining 13 residence halls will be done as soon as students leave this summer.

At the dedication of the new MSU Data Center April 12, I will be speaking about our technology vision for the campus. The data center was constructed to support significant growth in our online demand and capacity, our need for enhanced security, and the growing high-performance research computing demands of the university. Our university should be a recognized leader in computer technology and support for our entire campus. I’m confident we have the talent at MSU to meet those high expectations.

The next item is one where our student leaders deserve great credit. Leaders of the Council of Graduate Students, Associated Students of MSU, and several other student groups acted to create a “Diversifest” as a peaceful and community-building alternative to the message of hate and division that Richard Spencer sought to bring to our community. They succeeded in attracting hundreds of participants in cooperation with local organizations and leaders.

At the same time, the racist gathering of Spencer’s followers was embarrassed by a meager crowd of 30 to 40 people. We owe appreciation to the MSU Police Department and the many other law enforcement agencies that skillfully handled the day. Even though, as a public institution, we were legally required to rent space, our legal team in federal court negotiated a location off the main campus and during spring break to minimize danger and disruption. Through police agencies’ thorough professionalism, injuries resulting from the confrontation between anti-Spencer and pro-Spencer groups were kept to a minimum and there was no property damage. There were arrests, but only one was an MSU student and a number were people from outside of Michigan. Interestingly, after the failed experience at MSU, Richard Spencer announced he would be cancelling further appearances on college campuses.

I’ll say it again: MSU is a proudly diverse community of accomplished scholars that honors free speech, while holding individuals responsible for what they say and do. I’m especially proud of MSU students and others who shunned the racist gathering and chose to attend other events offered that day, and possibly helped end this traveling road show of hate.

The state Capitol was the scene of much activity in the past week as I testified about MSU’s budget before the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. I chose to focus on the importance of MSU to the state, what we’re doing to increase our value to students, and how the Legislature can better support higher education in Michigan. The testimony is available on my website.

Following the prepared testimony, members of the subcommittee were interested in how we’re responding to the Nassar civil lawsuits and what actions we are taking to make MSU a model for preventing and responding to sexual misconduct or assaults. We had a frank discussion about the progress underway and about the status of the lawsuits.

I noted to them another issue of great concern: a package of bills the Senate passed that, while well intended to help victims of sexual assault seek justice, poses severe financial threats, not just to universities, but to all public and private employers and other organizations in the state. A coalition of all Michigan public universities and other public and private organizations have asked the legislature to take time to carefully review the impact of the proposed changes.

Some of the bills are supported by MSU and the other universities because they are recognized as helpful to the victims of sexual assault. One bill, for example, expands the number of people who are required to report to authorities if they become aware of sexual misconduct. Another bill increases criminal penalties for those found guilty of sexual assault crimes. Regarding the civil lawsuits brought against MSU by some of the survivors, we continue to seek a fair resolution. That means balancing money damages for survivors against the responsibility to manage our fiscal resources on behalf of the MSU community.

Last week, I met with the Academic Governance Steering Committee, along with Acting General Counsel Kristine Zayko, to discuss the external investigations and inquiries involving MSU. I said that our legal team continues to work hard to respond to all inquiries in a timely and cooperative fashion. We have produced more than 170,000 pages of documents. I appreciate all of the campus offices that have gone the extra mile to be responsive. We also explained that, to date, all the legal fees associated with pending Nassar matters are being paid from non-endowment investment income. 

There’s administrative staffing news as well. I announced the addition of two key executives, Kathleen (Kathy) Wilbur, PhD, and Emily Gerkin Guerrant to lead our interactions with external groups and to speak for the university.

Dr. Wilbur is executive vice president for Government and External Relations, overseeing our Government Relations, Communications, and Advancement and Alumni Relations—all key elements of our external efforts. Guerrant is serving as vice president and university spokesperson and will oversee our interactions with news media. Both are Spartan graduates who add ability and experience as we continue our transition and move forward. Together, Wilbur and Guerrant will greatly strengthen MSU’s ability to inform our community, alumni, and the general public of what we are doing to meet our challenges in the short term, while beginning to refocus on the many remarkable things being done by Spartans on campus and across the world.

We have much to be proud of and we need to tell our story even as we fix problems that have caused hurt to girls and women. My goal from the start has been to resolve the lawsuits while concurrently assuring that such abuse could never happen again. We are making significant progress on all fronts. Some of you have, no doubt, had experience with lawyers and lawsuits, and many have not. Litigation is almost never pleasant to watch. In real life, it is a bit different than portrayed on TV. Unfortunately, we can’t always wrap it up at the end of the hour.

We do understand that the survivors need to have this lawsuit come to a fair conclusion, as does the university. What I have said and continue to pledge is that we are doing all we can to arrive at a just and equitable result.

I take this message everywhere. Last week I met with a number of residence hall advisors from across campus in a two-hour meeting. I listened to their concerns and told them that it was very helpful. I stressed with them, as I do with everyone, that one of the key goals is taking care of the survivors’ lawsuits. I also stressed the importance of the changes we are making to ensure the Michigan State campus is a model of civility and respect. Since every first-year student is subject to the influence of an advisor, it is important to give them additional support in carrying out their additional responsibilities.

The MSU community now has available a preliminary Phase 2 report focusing on how MSU is meeting its requirements for handling sexual assault on campus. Title IX Campus Climate Forums were held and more are scheduled to allow campus community members to react to the report from the law firm of Husch Blackwell.The report serves as an external needs assessment for MSU’s education and prevention programs, our outreach and awareness efforts, and our crisis and advocacy services. The document confirmed that earlier efforts were not as successful as they should be when it comes to education and prevention programs or when promoting widely understood knowledge of our policies and procedures.

I was pleased that the report recognized that our program leaders were aware of the weaknesses and were already acting to address them. You can follow many of the changes if you go to Our Commitment website. It includes news about how we are addressing sexual assault and provides a wealth of information about resources for victims, including our Title IX program, the MSU Sexual Assault Program, MSU Safe Place, the Healing Assistance Fund, and other services.

Today I announced a structural change that follows from the recommendations of the Phase 1 report and adoption of that recommendation by the Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct Expert Advisory Workgroup. Next week, following the Title IX community forums Sunday and Monday, I will be discussing these changes in greater detail.

 Sincerely,

John Engler
Interim President