On Feb. 5, former Michigan Governor John Engler officially takes over as the interim president of Michigan State University. In accepting the post, Engler vowed to “treat every survivor and every student as I would my own daughter.”
That pledge is on the mind of every parent with a child now attending MSU...and everyone who will send their own daughters – and sons – to campus as an incoming freshman.
Hundreds of high school seniors pack a conference room at the MSU Kellogg Center, supercharging the place with nervous excitement. They’ve come to stake their claim at the Alumni Distinguished Scholarship Competition. Each one hopes to catch the eyes of the gatekeepers who allow the worthy to enter into Spartan Nation.
Jim Cotter leads that team. He’s the executive director of admissions and recruitment at MSU. Cotter welcomes the competitors by asking them to take a risk.
“This weekend is about you, and it’s about broadening your horizons,” Cotter asserts. “You now have one minute to stand and introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met before, and to begin to engage in the Spartan community. Go!”
The students’ visit comes at a precarious time. The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal has thrown MSU under the microscope and shaken the campus to its core.
It all begs the question: Will Michigan State University continue to be an attractive educational option for new students?
“You really do have to do some soul searching,” Cotter explains. “We’re not perfect, we need to continue to get better, we need to continue to work together and to listen to people. But first and foremost, for a student who’s visiting, I simply want them to ask the question, can they see themselves here?”
(Lavery): “Can they see themselves safe? Listened to? Authority figures they can trust; can they see that as well?”
(Cotter): “I don’t think that’s a decision that I can make for people. I think individuals have to make that decision for themselves.”
“Be assured that I will move forward as if my own daughters were on this campus,” said incoming interim MSU president John Engler. The former Republican Michigan governor, who’s the father of triplet daughters, delivered that vow on January 31 to all Spartan parents.
Lance Olson will soon be one of them.
Olson and his family came to East Lansing from their home in suburban Chicago to check out the campus where their daughter will live as a freshman. He’s followed the news about the sexual assault allegations that have plagued the MSU athletics department.
"Yes, I’ve been concerned,” Olson admits. “The amount of revenue that the sports programs generate is huge and I think it’s reprehensible, some of the actions. They need to clean that place up.”
But MSU doesn’t just have to assure new parents. It’s also trying to keep smooth relations with its long time patrons.
“There is no doubt that this will be damaging to the university in the short run, and they want to see that addressed as quickly as possible,” says MSU vice-president for university advancement Bob Groves.
Groves says most alumni and donors remain loyal to university. Still, he says they’re worried about tangible costs like tuition rates...as well as the immeasurable human cost the crisis is inflicting.
"All those things are in their mind," says Groves. "We're trying to listen, make sure their voices get heard in the process, and those who've made contributions of any size understand that they're doing that to make the university stronger, and this feels like a setback."
As the stream of investigations, apologies, protests and finger pointing continues, Michigan State University continues to receive incoming students.
Lance Olson is thinking about his daughter, whom he says despite the scandal is looking forward to starting classes at MSU next fall.
“It really hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the university,” Olson says. “She’s excited, she’s admitted. So, we’re pressing forward.”
The coming days will be telling for the future of Michigan State University. Interim president John Engler faces a skeptical and enraged constituency who will be scrutinizing his every move...and those of the eight trustees at his side.