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Engler's arrival in East Lansing shows that "The Club" is still in charge in East Lansing

Feb 3, 2018

Michigan State University is consumed by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. It’s so far claimed the school’s president, its athletic director and a growing chunk of its reputation. So, what does MSU’S partisan Board of Trustees do? They tap former Republican governor John Engler as interim president.

As confidence-building measures go, the move doesn’t rank among the best of them. It nakedly exposes just how partisan the governance of MSU really is – and how irrelevant the students, the faculty and transparency are to those making the decisions.

The Club – with a capital C – is in charge at Michigan State.

A day before the trustees met publicly to vote on Engler, sources were already telling ranking state officials that the deal was done and it would be unanimous. Oh, and former governor Jim Blanchard would be a, quote, “senior adviser” to Engler – an obvious sop to the four Democrats on the eight-person board.

Sounds like a Club to me.

Engler may have bolted the state when he left office in 2002 and he may have built a second career representing corporate c-suites around the country. But he’s still a Michigan insider, an MSU alum, a product of the Lansing political mill.

Inside the president’s box at Spartan Stadium, a seat bears his name. He’s been a board member of mega-booster Peter Secchia’s Universal Forest Products since 2003. He gave Attorney General Bill Schuette a job after Schuette lost a U.S. Senate race in 1990.

Fans of Engler say he’s the guy to kick butt and take names. He’s the one to clean up the mess along the Red Cedar to clear the way for a permanent replacement to Lou Anna Simon. Maybe.

Other agendas lurk. Engler is backing Schuette for governor.

That means the attorney general investigating MSU is relying on political support from the new president of MSU.

If all this feels a little too cozy, that’s because it is. Not illegal. Not technically unethical. Just too convenient in a place where coziness is a toxic precondition for incompetence.

But it’s how governance is practiced at the top of Michigan’s Big Three universities especially at Michigan State. Members are elected on statewide ballots and whatever expertise they bring to the board room may have absolutely nothing to do with running a multi-billion dollar institution.

That’s no recipe for accountability, as the hundreds of women victimized by Nassar learned long ago. Letting members of The Club call the shots at times like these tends to deliver results that benefit them, and The Club, first.

A crisis like the one squeezing Michigan State’s leadership and tearing at its community requires hard decisions. They need to excise the cultural rot eating the institution from the inside out, as Engler signaled this week.

But the reality of major institutional reform around Michigan the past decade or so is that real change is not led by insiders. Not at bankrupt General Motors and Chrysler. Not inside a bankrupt city of Detroit. There a sweeping workout was led by a Washington lawyer named Kevyn Orr, not one of the usual suspects in Lansing.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.