President Engler: Working to make MSU "stronger, safer, and more competitive than it's ever been"

Jun 22, 2018

Interim Michigan State University President John Engler talks about what he feels he has accomplished in his time leading MSU, what he wants alumni to know that they may not be hearing, what he hears most from faculty, students and alumni, MSU's new two-year budget, the search for a permanent president, what alumni who want to help can do, and more.

White:    I’m Russ White for MSU Today. My guest is interim Michigan State University President John Engler. Sir, what motivated you to step into this role in these important days for your alma mater?

Engler:    Well, I didn't want to step into the role. I was called by the chairman of the Board of Trustees when the university was facing a crisis. The president, Lou Anna Simon, who'd done the job for so many years at Michigan State as our provost, and then following Peter McPherson's presidency as our president, had stepped down, and there was a need to have a president here on an interim basis. I had led the business round table earlier in the year and had a busy life. And my wife and I were just beginning to build a house down in San Antonio, Texas, but felt that when the call came, I really had no choice, because the university I cared about, the university I loved, was in trouble. And so I accepted the challenge.

White:    You've accomplished so many things in your time here already. What do you feel is most significant and why?

Engler:    Well, I think two things really stand out. We were able to come into a situation where a man who committed heinous crimes against many young women and young girls had been sent off to prison. But we had over 300 lawsuits pending against the university, and we had a great deal of uncertainty about the university's path going forward. People were worried. People were scared. People were in denial that bad things had happened here. People were terrified about what the future held for the campus and the school they loved. Our alumni were upset. Nobody could understand how this could have happened, how it could have gone undetected for so long, and how one man could have hurt so many people. And we had investigations at the federal and the state level that were being conducted. Everywhere you looked, there was a problem to be dealt with.

I think what's important as we think about this in the middle of the summer, after arriving here in February, that it took three months to get the litigation resolved through a very effective mediation process that was led on behalf of the university by our new general counsel, Robert Young, the former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, who's been a spectacular addition to the MSU team. That was important and then to be able to deal with that very large settlement, which surprised people, given that it probably is the largest settlement of its kind in the history of any university in the nation. But we were able to then put that in the budget and build a budget that resulted in tuition increases for students in the incoming class ... and we'll talk a little bit about that class in a moment ... but the increases in tuition in year one were less than $1 per day, and we have a tuition freeze in year two.

So there's been almost no change in tuition, and we’re beginning to get ourselves on the financial path that not only sees us resolve some of our financial issues, but puts the university in a stronger position to compete for students completing projects that are very important to our research and teaching missions.

White:    What do you want alumni to know that they may not be hearing?

Engler:    Well, I think what they need to know is that this university which faced its most difficult challenge in many ways in its history has emerged and is going to be stronger, and safer, and more competitive than it’s ever been. That everybody's had to look inside themselves, to look in the mirror and say, "What could we do different?" And we're really stressing the values on campus today of standing for excellence, for respect, for integrity, the kinds of values that let Spartans everywhere know that this is a new time here with a new attitude.

With what we've gone through, and with the extensive work that's been done by so many people on this campus, we've had help from faculty members who've come forward, from very engaged students who've been here. And I have to say that one of the pleasant things about being on campus, despite some of the media coverage, is that the students and the faculty themselves have been overwhelmingly supportive and ready to make changes that are necessary. Ready to really talk about how these values of respect, where you're paying attention to your colleagues or your fellow students, and recognizing there's great diversity on this campus. But at the same time, regardless of that diversity, that religious difference, that political difference, the gender difference, that we have to deal with a new level of respect.

And integrity is how we go about our business. We have to say something when we see something. We can't stay quiet. We have to say that there is a code of conduct here that we expect people, as Spartans, to live up to, to adhere to that. And as a result, I think you're seeing a very positive environment emerging on the campus. We can be proud that after discovering a man who'd harmed so many people, that the university has responded. And I think that's the thing people need to know. That we've responded, not only through actions, but also, I think, in an emotional and intelligent way in terms of how we're dealing with each other and how we're dealing with these problems and challenges.

White:    You started to address it, sir, but you've been meeting with faculty, students, and alumni. What do you hear most often from them?

Engler:    That they're very proud of Michigan State University. They're proud to be here, proud to part of the faculty. We've recruited, I think, by the time this new school year starts, four new deans, who are major leaders of the university. And when I talk to these candidates, they’re excited about coming here. They think, as I do, that Michigan State's best days are ahead, and that they want to be part of that success story. They recognize that for the first time in some of these departments where we're getting new leadership. Our total university research dollars are over $700 Million a year. We're one of the strong members of the AAU, this group of research institutions in the country. And the things we're doing here are literally being done nowhere else in America. The FRIB and what it means, the medical research that's taking place here, the biomedical leadership. It's second to none.

White:    The Board has approved a two year budget for MSU? What is it you want us to know about that?

Engler:    Well, the first thing is that this budget's important because we have the largest ever freshman class coming in. It's also the most diverse freshman class we've ever had. And the Board a year ago, well before I arrived on campus, said, "Look. We want to hold the in-state freshmen to no increase in tuition." That promise that was made a year ago has been honored.

For everybody else, there was great concern that tuition rates would go through the roof. Would we be able to afford to come to Michigan State? What about the impact of this large settlement? Well, I'm proud to say that when we went to the Board with a two year budget, they adopted it. And why two years, and not one? We've always done one year. I felt it was important at a time of transition. We're going to go into a presidential search this fall, we want to recruit an outstanding leader to come to campus and I wanted that leader to have the security that the budget for this year is done, and it's solid, but also that the budget for next year is done, and that it's a really strong, strong budget.

So a couple of things went into that. Multi-year allows us to not only set tuition this year, and I was very proud to go to the Board and say, "Look. We're going to increase tuition less than $1 per day for this upcoming year." So a $364 increase is pretty modest and, I think, much less than what people had thought would be happening. And then there’s a freeze while we move to a block tuition strategy. In the 19/20 school year, we actually set up a situation where if somebody wants to take 16 or 17 credits, that they're able to actually reduce the cost of going to Michigan State. So that's pretty exciting.

At the same time, we're able to execute on projects like the new music building which replaces, in part, a WPA part of the building. There are none of the modern amenities that one might expect. And when we've got one of the leading jazz programs, for example, in the nation, we ought to be proud of that. And we certainly ought to, I think, celebrate the arts and letters on this campus. There's a strong cultural base on this campus, and that's all part of what Michigan State is for students who come here and have that Spartan experience.

The other thing that we're doing is with the success we had in the legislature, we're able to build the first new fully devoted to classrooms building since Wells Hall, when I was a student. That's 50 years ago. And the new STEM Building will be an innovative design that incorporates new structures on both ends of the old power plant by the stadium. Everyone remembers the power plant with the MAC on the tower. Well, that tower's gone, but the plant's there and that'll become the core of this new space that's going to be for these freshmen coming, a building they're going to use by the time they leave campus. So that's pretty exciting. We're planning a big celebration when we get ready to break ground and get that building underway later this year.

We're also able to, with the bonding that we've done, really manage the settlement. We still have financial issues to work out with the insurance companies. We are fully insured, and expect that will be a significant contribution, which ultimately will reduce that indebtedness. So I think fiscally the university's in a good position.

The other thing that we're doing with tuition, though, is sending a signal. Michigan State has historically taken about 5% of the graduating class in the State of Michigan. As we look ahead, that 5% of the graduating class is going to be a smaller and smaller number. The demographics are against us. And so we wanted to have a tuition message that we could take out from our admissions' office, not only across Michigan, but across the country, and especially in our neighboring states where we're, I think, needing to be a lot more competitive in terms of attracting students.

And so this gets us on this path, and over time, that mix will slightly modify, because we're still going to take our 5% of those graduating seniors out of Michigan, but we're going to have to, because those numbers are declining, fill those spaces with students from other states and, indeed, other nations. We're a major international institution, but this year we saw a decline in foreign students. We hope to be able to, with some of the changes we're making, turn that trajectory around and at the same time be much more successful in recruiting Michigan students.

White:    Have you talked much with Teresa Sullivan? Or do you have some comments on the presidential search?

Engler:    I have not talked with her since she was selected by the Board of Trustees to be the advisor to the Board for the upcoming presidential search. I think it was a smart decision. She has an excellent reputation. As Spartans may know, she's an undergraduate Spartan herself. She went here and rose up through the academic circles, became the provost at that other school down the road, and then later went on to the presidency of the University of Virginia. So she's going to be, I think, a very seasoned veteran that the Board can rely upon.

I think she'll be an excellent communicator with the faculty and the staff here. And it's important. The faculty and staff need to understand what the process is by which a president is selected. They need to and will be part of that process. The search committee, no doubt, is certainly going to include members of the faculty, include probably a graduate student, probably an undergraduate student, as well as alumni and other supporters of the university. So it'll be a diverse group, I would imagine. It needs to be. And when they're done with the search, not everybody will say their candidate emerged, but what everyone has to say is I believe the process was a solid process, and it offered us very good choices.

White:    What are you priorities for the rest of your time as interim MSU president?

Engler:    Well, it is to make sure that some of the reforms that we need inside the university are made. This budget's a painful one in some ways. We want to focus on the students, and we've done that by holding the tuition in check for the next two years. But in this current year, we’ll have a freeze on all of the administrative salaries and the deans' salaries and a reduction in faculty salaries of 1%. Those are important, but necessary, moves that we had to make.

We did not reduce staff salaries, with the idea that if we look across the campus, probably some of the men and women do some of the hardest work for us every day. They make this place run. We wanted to be sensitive to their challenges, and so we did not apply cuts just broadly across the board without discernment. Instead, we looked at the budgets very carefully and said, "How do we do what we need to do while minimizing the impact?" And so you will not see a widespread, university-wide layoff policy. That's not going to be necessary.

There is a reduction of about 1 1/2% that will impact each of the colleges, so they're going to have to manage their reserves, and they'll have to, over the next two years, make that work. But I, again, am confident that given the size of the budget and given the magnitude of the challenge, they're going to be able to make that work. They'll lead through this, and we'll emerge stronger.

So getting that done, I don't have to do that, but I have to make sure that it is done. Getting some of these building projects underway. But at the same time on campus, we're really ramping up our technology capabilities over the summer. All of the dormitories were fully upgraded to have wifi available in all the rooms. There's so much technology that everybody who arrives on this campus brings with them. I want anybody who walks on this campus to be experiencing the best technology experience you'd find anywhere in the country. So we're doing that.

We're certainly looking at programs like human resources and communications to see where we can strengthen our delivery. A new website for the university. Bringing back something old, the old MSU Bulletin, which used to be a newspaper on the campus which you could actually pick up and know what was happening. For at least recent years, we said, well, it's on the web, but that doesn't help unless you've got a lot of time to spend surfing the web. And we think it might be better just to have something available every day, or once a week, it's a weekly, but here are the seminars that are taking place. Here are the guests that are going to be on campus. Here's the professor that won an award, here's the student that was selected for an honor, and to let everyone know that there's this musical experience, or this play, or this lecture that you might want to take advantage of.

This campus has so many activities that are academic and cultural and enriching, and I think in recent years we haven't told our own story well enough. And so, from a communications standpoint, we want to communicate better internally. And then for the external audience, again, the same thing is to build a better way. I'm tired of hearing somebody got six pieces of mail about this, or six emails on that topic, and somebody else got missed. So we want to level that up. We've got 150,000 emails to locate for faculty and graduates of this university whot have departed from here and are living elsewhere in the country but still love Michigan State. So we want to be in touch with Spartan Nation which is now over half a million strong. So we've got that work to do, and that will be exciting.

So a number of these things can be accomplished by an interim president, and so you end up leaving them a university that's really ready to respond to a permanent president who's going to be here for, hopefully, a period of years.

White:    How does everything we've talked about and what you've worked on come together to make MSU stronger?

Engler:    Well, I think it is additive. You bring it all together. You first of all realize that there were crimes committed by a doctor. That man went to jail, but the victims are coping with these crimes, some of these from many years ago. So we had to deal with that, and try to do so in a compassionate way, recognizing that they were damaged by this doctor. They got hurt. And a lot of their families are hurting, too, because the families were part of this process.

So we've tried to deal with that, and at the same time, nationally, America's having a conversation. The #MeToo movement is one where the whole set of questions surrounding relations between men and women are being brought into question. How the sexes interact. And Michigan State has issues like every other campus, but now I think we have an opportunity to step to the head here, to be a leader.

And we've fixed the challenges that were discovered when we looked closely at the clinical practices, and we said, "How could this happen?" Well, you could see where there were weaknesses in reporting, weaknesses in oversight, and those have all been fixed. So it's very unlikely that those kinds of crimes could ever be committed again. And, yet, at the same time, every day, somebody in the Greek system or somebody in the residence halls, if they're not paying attention or if they're not being honorable, they're not respecting their classmate or somebody on this campus, misconduct can occur. And if it does, if prevention fails, we want to be in a position to respond to that.

So we want to tell people what the standards are that we think are appropriate, how we think they should behave, and have that code of conduct be very clear. But at the same time, we also want to make it very clear that if you violate that, if you violate someone else's rights, you will be held accountable. Accountability is a big thing. And that's also part of that. You know, when I talk about excellence on campus, excellence means behaving appropriately, living up to the standards, to that code of conduct. Having the right ethics. I think that's all part of what we're trying to do on this campus. Then you add those conduct areas to quality teaching and superb research.

And then, there’s the public service mission that I think is unparalleled here; that's been part of Michigan State's legacy from its founding. And that's true whether it's a day a year, when all Spartans go out and provide service, or the Spartan alumni clubs on another day a year all go out and do something in their communities all over this country. So we've got a very strong ethic there. We just want to build on that. We're in the top ten universities that send students around the world for enrichment and study in other nations, and we're very well aware that Michigan State has a global presence, and it's a global presence that we want every Spartan to be proud of.

White:    I just wonder, sir, maybe not necessarily related to your current role, but how did MSU place get you launched, and how did it impact you? And how does it still, being a Spartan yourself?

Engler:    Well, I came from a small school up in central Michigan with 42 students in the graduating class. I was the first in my family to go through college and get an undergraduate degree. But it really helped me, I suppose, in another way, because, the story's been told a lot, I was a student here in the late '60s, a time of great activism, and I ended up channeling that into running for the legislature at a pretty young age.

I was 21 when I won a primary, beating a man who'd been in the legislature 14 years. Today, you can't be there 14 years. It's a six year limit. But, nonetheless, in those days, I ended up there and that started a career that I didn't expect, and it took me a lot of places I never imagined, from the House to the Senate, to the Governor's office, to leading a couple of national organizations.

I've had a very blessed life, and lots of experiences, but it does all go back to Michigan State University, and maybe specifically to East Shaw Hall, where I was a resident and ultimately president of the dorm.

White:    Can you talk more about the changes you’ve made at MSU?

Engler:    If you were to say, what are these changes that we've made? I guess the answer would be that we've had a strong focus on responding to the debate about sexual misconduct and sexual assault.

It's interesting in Michigan that long before there was a national focus the way there is today, the First Lady of Michigan, Sue Snyder, had made this her issue. She'd been talking about sexual assault on campus, and I had followed these issues through the recent graduation of my daughters. A year ago the three Engler girls all graduated from three different colleges, and so different experiences there, and different levels of involvement by the girls. But Sue Snyder had made this an issue. And she was prescient about understanding that this was a big problem.

On this campus, what we've tried to do is say, "Look. What are the prevention measures?" And it's important to respond if prevention fails, if there is sexual misconduct or if a sexual assault occurs. Now I think we're going to find that we're among the very best. We're hoping to be the best. It's a transition. It's progress that we're making. One thing that's important now is we're seeing many more people come forward when they do have a concern. There's less silence. And that's good. But prevention is something that we're stressing.

Well, what does that mean? Well, it's a lot of things. One area is that we understand that today on campuses, the demand for mental health services is soaring. And so we brought in a new leader. We've reorganized the mental health programs. The counseling and psychiatric services programs have been reorganized. There's new leadership there. The new director's coming in. We're expanding the availability of counseling. We've expanded the 24 hour hotline for all students, so if there's a crisis, somebody can help immediately. We're opening up in the Union new counseling facilities to give students greater access and, frankly, because we need more space for more counselors. We've hired more counselors.

At the same time, we're hiring in our Title IX office, which is the office under the federal law that is responsible for looking into any complaints. We're hiring additional investigators there. And we're hiring navigators, if you will. They are people, employees, who can help somebody who has got a concern and feels they might have been a victim of an assault. How do they get through the system? And this helps the person who's looking at a problem. So we think that this array of services, when added up, are going to make this campus very strong.

One of the changes that we've made, mandating effective with January 1 of 2019, is that all students coming here will have to have health insurance. We already do that for international students who arrive here, but we think that's going to allow us to have more continuity in care especially, again, those mental health services. Most young people today if their parents are employed or under the federal Affordable Care Act can keep their kids on their policy until age 26, anyway. So this is an opportunity for us to, we think, provide better services, more comprehensive services.

White:    Do you have any thoughts on the importance of our donors and philanthropy to MSU?

Engler :    Well, we've been very pleased. One of the things that we're announcing already, and looking ahead to, is October 19th and the 20th. That weekend, we'll celebrate the successful conclusion of a $1.5 Billion capital campaign. In some ways, that's sort of amazing, because that was going on during the period that we also had all of this litigation and all of this turmoil on the campus. And yet it's closed out to be successful. We're excited about that.

And what it means in practical terms is that our donors, our alumni group, have helped us put what will be more than 100 new faculty on this campus. Many of these are exciting young faculty with tremendous research portfolios, tremendous teaching capabilities. We're endowing chairs. We're probably going to have more than 100 endowed chairs when the campaign is concluded. We're seeing additions to not only the music building, but a big addition to the business school. Investment in some of our engineering and communications programs. So it's very exciting to see around the campus the impact that the donors are having. And I think that when people think about Michigan State and the legacy that they can leave by financially supporting the university, they'd be very proud.

One thing that has also been a very, very important success story, and I think under publicized, is our ability to retain this very diverse population that's now coming to this campus. We've seen a significant uptick in retention for students coming from either economically or racially disadvantaged backgrounds. We are seeing an uptick in students coming here either as racial minorities or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. And so the retention is better. They're staying in school more. We saw a very interesting statistic when I sent in the data to the NCAA this year, that we saw for the first time that the graduation rate for student athletes was one point higher than it was for all others on campus. 80% and 79%.

And in the African American community, we saw athletes have an 11 point higher graduation rate than the rest of the African American students on campus. So just interesting points that, when we talk about student athletes here at Michigan State, we’re not kidding about the student part. They're doing well. They're staying in school. They're graduating. I know that one of the things that during the course of this last couple of years, we've had some publicity about the major programs, football and basketball, and it's nice to have these statistics to show that they really are programs led by men of great integrity, and that the benefits are then being felt by the athletes who come here to play.

White:    One of the questions we hear a lot from alumni is “What can I do? I want to support MSU. And not necessarily financially, but the average alum, what can I do?” What would you say to an alum who asked you that question?

Engler:    Well, I think we need to give that alum better data from which to both defend the university and promote the university. We're hoping that through communications like this magazine and some of the online communications that we're trying to develop and the new website, to really tell the story of Michigan State more effectively, to celebrate our successes more completely. It frustrates me when I know that we're achieving great things, and yet people simply don't know about it.

Part of it's just that where people get news today has changed so much, and there aren't the traditional news outlets. We don't have mom and dad getting a newspaper and sitting down and reading that, or the kid seeing the newspaper laying around and picking it up and maybe seeing a story. I mean, the newspaper business has been suffering for a long time and continues to decline. When people go on to cable or digital media, they have the ability to only watch what they want to watch and what's of interest to them right now. That they don’t have to be exposed to anything else is pretty prevalent.

So I think that we've got to figure out how we do our outreach better in order to tell our story better. I do think that what alums can do is make sure that other alums are in the system and being communicated with. Friends of Michigan State are all over this nation, we're half a million strong, but we've probably got more than 150,000 that we don't reach out to at all. And we need to do that. So we need to find them. We'd love it if everybody would get involved with the local alumni club, or if there isn't one, start one. They can become more informed about what's happening here, and this university has a lot of pride and a lot to be proud of, too. So let's tell those stories.

And I think what we're going to do is hopefully set the stage for the next president to really have a platform. Michigan State's going to play a big role in this country going forward, and we need to tell that story. We're going to play a big role internationally. This past year, we've been celebrating the long standing relationship with Michigan State University and the continent of Africa. Two of our honorary degree recipients at the summer graduation, or spring graduation, I guess I should call it, this year, this May, were from Africa. They were both talking about the importance of Michigan State University on the continent and how strong the name is. And that's also the case in many parts of Asia.

So we've got things that we need to build on, and we need to get back. We're builders here. We always have been. And let's get back to doing that. But we're going to build with excellence, and we're going to build with integrity. And I think you'll just see not only greater respect on this campus, but greater respect for Michigan State as we conduct ourselves the way a leading global university should.

White:    That’s interim Michigan State University President John Engler. And I’m Russ White for MSU Today.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.