Dean's Message Following Resignation of Interim President Engler

January 17, 2019

Dear RCAH Community,

All of us have been deeply disappointed and sometimes angered by the language that former interim President Engler used to address the survivors and the wider MSU community over the past year. And sadly, his actions often mirrored his words.

Among other positive actions, the current Board of Trustees has moved quickly to restore the emergency funds for survivors to their earlier level. Now that Engler has officially resigned, there is one less obstacle to a successful search for a new permanent president. Much more still needs to be done, of course, but many of us believe that this is a step in the right direction.

The appointment of Vice-President Satish Udpa, former dean of the College of Engineering, is another important step. Deans who have worked with Dr. Udpa have the highest regard for him as a superb steward of University resources and facilities. Before that, he was an effective leader of his college who was also deeply committed to collaboration across campus, especially where the liberal arts were concerned. For example, he was instrumental in getting the RCAH-Engineering project at Peckham, Art@Work, off the ground.

As we move forward under Dr. Udpa’s leadership, it is also important for all of us to take stock of what we have learned over the past year and more. John Engler may no longer be interim president, but we should not forget how he approached the challenges he faced. He was hired for partisan political reasons. He left citing partisan politics as the primary reason for his forced resignation. It is no accident that he approached his work here in a narrow political way, casting aspersions on critics and centralizing power wherever he thought it would be more efficient for his purposes.

I am quite confident that the new Board of Trustees and interim President Udpa will not approach the work at hand – what Max Weber described the “slow boring of hard boards” – in the same hasty and realpolitikfashion.

But before we put the Engler year behind us, it is worth drawing a couple of lessons from this experience.

The pain experienced so acutely by the survivors will have to be addressed over a long period of time. Engler’s sarcastic comments that some survivors were enjoying the spotlight is revealing. Comments like this and others he made earlier show just how little he appreciated the abandonment they experienced and the responsibilities other members of the MSU community have to continue to shine a critical light on the institutional causes of that harm over an extended period of time.

The healing process for long-term survivors is a complex and lengthy one, and the systemic changes needed at MSU will not come overnight. RCAH is a good place to have these conversations and make the changes needed. There are several reasons for reminding ourselves and others on campus what an important catalyst RCAH can be for positive change that can build on the exemplary bravery and leadership of the “sister survivors.”

One reason is the experience we have dealing with conflict and deep-seated pain. The work that our students and faculty have been doing with poor, marginalized, and indigenous communities has taught us how to listen actively to others; to sit quietly with them and build relationships; to develop new conceptual frameworks that go beyond transparency and live-and-let-live compromises. We’ve done this in our classrooms, in local community settings, and in our scholarship. Many MSU faculty and students have a commitment to this kind of work; RCAH makes it central to our mission.  For example, RCAH led the Teach-in/Learn-in activities on campus to help survivors and their allies openly discuss the causes as well as the impacts of sexual abuse and violence on campus in the midst of the Nassar affair.  RCAH works with Native and Latinx students in the Lansing Public Schools who struggle with discrimination in an under-resourced school system. RCAH alumni continue this work in a variety of schools and community organizations.  One reason our placement rate remains so high is because the passion for social justice that students bring to RCAH is fueled at RCAH and only grows stronger when they leave.  To mix metaphors:  it is bred in the bone.

Where does some of this fueling come from? This semester our visiting artists, Justin Bryant and Edgar Heap of Birds, will add their voices to ours. The performance company Theatre of War will present a staged reading at the Wharton Center about incarcerated women (Promethea in Prison) for the campus and many local organizations who advocate for the rights of formerly incarcerated persons. Next semester, a powerful exhibit by the talented artist William Kentridge will be the centerpiece in a series of events highlighting the challenges of reconciliation and justice in post-conflict societies.

It is too early to call MSU a post-conflict campus. The conflicts, norms, and culture that made the Engler year possible have not disappeared with his exit. But we’ve opened a new chapter in this story, and RCAH can and should play an important role in it. I look forward to this future and to working with all of you to make it worthy of our highest shared values. And I look forward to hearing from you with suggestions and comments.

Sincerely,

Stephen L. Esquith, Dean

 

 

The Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University is where students live their passions while changing the world. In RCAH, students prepare for meaningful careers by examining critical issues through the lens of culture, the visual and performing arts, community engagement, literature, philosophy, history, writing, and social justice. RCAH is situated in historic Snyder-Phillips Hall, where students learn and live together in a small-college setting, with all the advantages of a major university. For more information, visit rcah.msu.edu, email rcah@msu.edu, or call 517-355-0210.

 

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