BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — Michigan State interim president John Engler said Thursday he doesn’t believe the university has placed more priority on winning games in basketball and football than keeping students safe from sexual misconduct on campus.
Engler said those sports receive extra scrutiny in the media, but that coaches Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio have handled sexual assault accusations against players in the program with “great personal integrity.”
The interim president spoke Thursday morning at a breakfast event organized by the Detroit Free Press. For roughly an hour, he answered questions from moderator Carol Cain and members of the audience about Michigan State’s culture, how it has handled sexual assault allegations in the past and the ongoing litigation regarding former university doctor and convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar.
When asked if he was worried about a culture that prioritizes winning over other issues, Engler criticized media coverage and said he was concerned about any woman who says she was assaulted, but not about how the school’s high-profile sports have handled those accusations in the past.
“I think in Dantonio and Izzo you’ve got two coaches with great personal integrity who run very clean programs,” Engler said. “That is not to say that everybody in those programs has always comported with what’s expected of them.”
Michigan State is currently facing multiple lawsuits that allege the university mishandled accusations made against football and basketball players, in one case discouraging a woman from reporting an alleged rape by three basketball players to police. Four football players were dismissed from the team last year after they were charged with sexual misconduct crimes. Three of them pleaded guilty to a lesser charge this spring and the fourth is awaiting a trial.
A current member of the basketball team, Brock Washington, was formally charged with misdemeanor assault in March after a criminal sexual conduct investigation that began in August. Washington has remained a part of the team; Michigan State has not responded to questions about his case or whether he was disciplined by the athletic department.
In January, shortly before Engler took over as interim president, Outside The Lines reported that it had found “a pattern of widespread denial, inaction and information suppression” of sexual assault allegations made against student-athletes at Michigan State. Engler later called that report a “sensationalized package” and inaccurate. A Michigan State spokesman declined to provide any specific examples of inaccuracies in the report when asked multiple times by ESPN reporters.
Engler has denied ESPN’s interview request and declined to answer any questions from ESPN at Thursday’s breakfast event.
Former athletic director Mark Hollis announced his retirement hours before the report was published. Engler said Thursday that no decision has been made yet on finding a permanent replacement for Hollis or whether interim athletic director Bill Beekman would take over that role. Engler added that he was certain that Izzo would return next season when asked if the longtime coach was considering retirement or a jump to the NBA.
“Tom’s got a team that’s going to compete for a national championship next year,” Engler said. “He’s going to be here. He’s a Spartan for life.”
Engler also answered several questions about the Nassar scandal and the measures Michigan State has taken in the past several months to make sure other sexual predators can’t go unnoticed or unchecked. He said due to changes the school has made in its protocol for doctors and in the way it shares information internally and externally, he is confident that something like Nassar’s abuse will never happen again at Michigan State.
“That door has been nailed shut and locked,” he said. “I’m very confident there.”
Engler said he remained hopeful that the university will soon be able to settle the hundreds of lawsuits that claim the school failed to stop Nassar when it had opportunities to do so. The two sides resumed mediation discussions about those suits last month and are expected to meet again early next week.
Engler has been criticized by students, faculty and community members multiples times for the way he has publicly addressed some of the issues facing Michigan State.
In response to the woman who says she was discouraged from reporting her claim of being raped by three basketball players, Michigan State attacked her credibility by publishing some of her counseling records. Engler later issued a statement saying that the school regretted its choice to share that information.
The same day he expressed those regrets, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse accused him during a university board meeting of bullying her and asking her — without her attorney present — how much money it would take to settle her lawsuit against the school. Engler said he did meet with the woman and her mother, but he had a different recollection of what was discussed.
When asked directly on Thursday about whether he should have taken that meeting, Engler said it likely would’ve been better to not have met with them.
“In hindsight you’d love [them] to say, ‘Look, he just refused to meet with us,'” Engler said. “That would’ve been criticism coming from a different direction but it would have been accurate. We’re trying to get things fixed.”
ESPN’s Paula Lavigne contributed to this report.