John Engler's comments were criticized by legislators, victims and lawyers representing more than 250 girls and women who have sued Michigan State — where Nassar worked while he molested young athletes under the guise of treatment — current and former university officials, USA Gymnastics and others. More than 150 of the accusers are represented by the California-based Manly, Stewart & Finaldi law firm, which is working with two Michigan-based firms on the case.
"I'm very optimistic that we can get it done," Engler told a state Senate budget subcommittee in his first appearance at a legislative hearing since becoming president last month. "But it was put on pause when the California plaintiffs' bar felt that they had allies in the Legislature to advance a package of bills to change the negotiations."
On Wednesday, the state Senate approved bills that would retroactively restrict Michigan State's ability to claim governmental immunity in the lawsuit and let victims of childhood sexual abuse sue for claims dating back to 1997. That was the year that gymnast Larissa Boyce says she notified then-Michigan State gymnastics coach of concerns about Nassar's "treatment" but was persuaded not to bring a complaint because there would be serious consequences.
"We can negotiate a settlement, but we have to have somebody to negotiate with," said Engler, suggesting that the measures let Nassar's accusers hold out "hope" they do not need to negotiate. He said the school supports Senate-passed legislation that would expand who must report suspected abuse to authorities, "but a number of the bills have nothing to do with supporting the survivors at all. They're all about changing the leverage in the negotiations."
John Manly, an attorney for the victims, said Engler "is just not telling the truth. ... We have repeatedly offered mediators and dates. They have yet to agree."
The higher education subcommittee's chairwoman, Republican state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton, said Engler's comments were "insulting to the victims out there. If you've talked to any of these victims, I think that they are not bringing this as a result of California trial lawyers."
Schuitmaker defended the legislation that will next be considered in the state House, saying it would be "wrong" for some Nassar victims to be compensated while others could have their lawsuits tossed on statute of limitations grounds. People sexually abused as children in Michigan generally have until their 19th birthdays to sue, which critics argue is inadequate because victims often wait to report the abuse due to fear.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican who has urged Michigan State to drop attempts to dismiss the suit and to instead create a victim compensation fund, tweeted: "The legislative package does not prevent negotiations — it makes them possible. Without it, most survivors will likely be steamrolled and never get their day in court."
In his testimony, Engler said he would like to settle the suit by the end of the spring semester. He pledged that the university is improving how it responds to sexual assault complaints, is rebuilding trust with students, alums and applicants, and is cooperating with a number of investigations.
Asked if the financial impact of the Nassar scandal would lead to an increase in tuition, Engler responded: "Your legislation would certainly probably do that." He said "it is to be determined" if Michigan State's insurer will cover any settlement, pointing to Penn State University's Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and saying "sometimes insurers don't pay."
Republican Speaker Tom Leonard said he will give a House panel time to study the legislation that has drawn concerns from groups representing universities, schools, businesses and the Catholic Church.
"But one thing I can guarantee is this: We are going to ensure, as a House, that we bring justice for these survivors," he said.