On Wednesday afternoon, Michigan State University interim president John Engler resigned under pressure from school trustees, academic administrators, alumni and survivors of the abuse of former school doctor Larry Nassar. That the board of trustees allowed him to resign rather than declaratively announce him fired is a cleaner break than is deserved by the former state governor, who has done nothing but further tarnish the school's reputation and revictimize the survivors of Nassar's abuse.
There have been calls for Engler's dismissal since early in his tenure nearly a year ago, but it was his comments in an interview with The Detroit News this past Friday that sealed his forced resignation.
"There are a lot of people who are touched by this, survivors who haven't been in the spotlight," Engler said to The Detroit News. "In some ways, they have been able to deal with this better than the ones who've been in the spotlight who are still enjoying that moment at times, you know, the awards and recognition."
To allege that survivors who healed privately are faring better than those who went public with their abuse is not only presumptive, it's ignorant. To claim it is enjoyable for survivors to relive their trauma repeatedly in the public sphere is tone-deaf and downright cruel.
"You mean, like having to change the day I grocery shop so my three kids don't see a photo of their mom demonstrating what was done to her body?" Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault, told ESPN of Engler's comments. "Tell me more about how enjoyable this spotlight is."
Anyone tasked with guiding a major university through the devastation of widespread sexual assault and the decades-long cover-up that accompanied it should be required to understand the nuances of sexual crimes and predation, including the varied ways in which victims may react and respond.
"There is no one way to heal," says Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor, activist and founder of nonprofit Set The Expectation. "I had no one in 1998 when I tried to pursue justice against the men who raped me, but today I have an army of people who believe me and support me. It's not only cathartic, but those survivors who choose to remain anonymous are able to vicariously heal through me and other survivors who have taken their stories public.
"Rape is the attempted murder of one's spirit and soul," says Tracy. "The trauma runs deep and healing is hard. To judge or minimize any survivor's healing process is not only disgusting, it's harmful and only serves to further traumatize."
Engler was hired to right the ship when former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon was forced to resign over her handling of Nassar's crimes (she's now facing criminal charges of lying to police about the investigation). In January 2018, then-MSU board of trustees chairman Brian Breslin said Engler would "keep a focus on survivors and the victims," and Engler himself said he would "move forward as though my own daughters were on this campus."
Instead, Engler's tenure has been riddled with missteps and controversy. Among them: closing the Healing Assistance Fund, which helped Nassar's survivors pay for mental health care; accusing Denhollander of getting kickbacks from attorneys for filing a lawsuit against MSU; publicly sharing the medical information of a student who sued MSU for its handling of a sexual assault complaint not related to Nassar; appointing political allies and friends to key positions, including the head of MSU's Title I?X office; and canceling an alumni magazine cover story dedicated to the school's handling of the Nassar scandal and replacing it with a question-and-answer, in which he detailed the positive work he had done at MSU since taking the helm.
Perhaps most notably, one of Engler's first moves as interim president was to oppose state legislation backed by Nassar survivors that would increase the statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault victims, restrict the ability of governments to claim immunity from lawsuits and appoint more mandatory reporters of child sex abuse.
The list of adults who have failed Nassar's hundreds of survivors now includes those who voted to appoint Engler despite his ?troubling history? handling sexual assault claims, thereby prioritizing political ties and funding issues over healing. It includes those who defended his presidency over the past year even as he stymied, belittled, undermined and further insulted sexual abuse survivors.
For victims of sexual assault, the pain caused by bystanders who didn't step in, friends and family who don't believe them, or administrators who put protection of institution ahead of morality and justice can be greater than the pain of their initial trauma.
"I can rationalize a rapist," says Tracy. "I can't rationalize good people not doing the right thing. When we look at all of the enablers and people who turn a blind eye, who are complicit in their action and complicit in their silence, I do hold those people accountable. It's why these things continue to happen."
This week, while the rest of the internet was participating in the trending "10 Year Challenge," posting a current photo of themselves alongside a shot from a decade ago, Tracy was instead going back just four years, to the day after she went public with her rape, to show the healing that has taken place, not just mentally but physically. You can see it on her face -- the power of speaking her truth, being believed, turning her pain into activism and change, and finding strength in the very spotlight Engler mocked.
? "When you've been minimized, forgotten, ridiculed and invalidated to the point that you want to kill yourself," says Tracy, "validation, love, support and recognition from your community can be life-changing."
As the hundreds of survivors of Nassar's abuse continue to heal, whether privately or via brave activism and public outreach, they deserve -- finally -- to be believed, to be supported and to be respected. Whoever takes on the difficult job of leading MSU should first and foremost be someone who prioritizes the lives affected by the school's complicity, who understands that there's no quick fix to decades of failure, and who knows that healing can come only with transparency, accountability and compassion.
If politics, money or institutional protection once again lead the way for the trustees tasked with appointing a new president, it will be clear that one of our nation's finest institutions of higher learning still hasn't learned a thing.