Besieged Michigan State University, still reeling from the sexual assaults scandal by its former resident physician Dr. Larry Nassar—currently serving life imprisonment—has appointed Prof. Satish Udpa, 68, currently MSU’s executive vice president for administration and former dean of the College of Engineering as its new interim president.
MSU’s board of trustees on Jan. 17, announced Udpa as their pick hours after former interim president, John Engler, former Republican Governor of Michigan, resigned the previous day, before his likely firing for misogynistic comments against dozen of victims of Nassar.
To sustained applause, board chair Dianne Byrum told the packed audience attending the Jan. 17 meeting, after requesting Udpa to stand and be recognized, “I believe this is the beginning of a better relationship...as we continue to heal.”\
In a statement, she said, “MSU has been working hard to make needed improvements regarding the prevention and response to sexual misconduct and relationship violence, as well as enhancing patient care and safety. But none of our work will matter if our leaders say hurtful things and do not listen to survivors.”
Byrum said that “Engler’s statements regarding survivors of sexual assault have been extremely hurtful and do not reflect the values of our university. The board deeply regrets the impact on survivors and our community.”
Udpa’s appointment was also seen as a compromise by the board with the MSU faculty, which last year had voted no confidence in the board after it had hired Engler.
A permanent president was expected to be hired in July but Udpa’s tenure was to begin immediately, following his unanimous selection by the seven board members present.
Board member Kelly Tebay told the crowd present that “a wrong has been righted today. I'm sorry it took so long. Hopefully, we restored some faith in your board. We thought it would send a strong message if we made the move today and we wanted Upda to start immediately."
Another board member, Brianna Scott, said, "I'd like to thank Satish for being willing to step into this fiasco," and both she and several of the other trustees tool swipes at Engler who had regularly been accused for his combative relationship with Nassar’s victims and for his often insulting remarks against them, who included members of the U.S. women’s Olympics team.
The consensus among the board of trustees was that Udpa brings integrity back to the position.
Board member Nancy Schlichting, the former CEO of Henry Ford Health Systems, declared, "Values matter. I'm so excited to work with Satish in his new role. He is a healer. I think he will bring good decision-making skills.”
At a press conference, she said, Schlichting, getting rid of Engler was a much- needed first step, and acknowledged, "I had worries about how that transition would be,” and that Engler had aggravated the situation. “I could see it visibly. When he came into a room, it just changed. The tension went up. The openness ended.
"This (MSU president) is not a normal job," she said, and added, "Not only do we need a good administrator, but we really need someone who is interested in changing culture."
Another member of the board Brian Mosallam, who had led the campaign to fire Engler, said, "On this day, our survivors no longer have to go to bed thinking no one would listen to them.”
“Today, the healing can begin. Satish is a person of integrity. He has broad-based support across the campus,” Mosallam said.
He also noted, "The less MSU is in the news for negative events, the better," adding that “the “quieter the board is, the better."
In brief remarks, Udpa said, "I recognize it’s a challenge but at the end of the day this is a job that needs to get done. We can’t continue to operate the way we’ve been for the past two years.”
"This institution means a lot to me," he said. "One of the things I want to do is look forward. I don't want to look back and point fingers. I want to do my very best for this institution."
But he made clear that he would not be a candidate for the permanent president position.
As the scandal broke last year and in the midst of the controversy that raged for months when Engler was engaged in a war of words with the victims of sexual assaults by Nassar, Udpa had fired off a missive to the University community sympathizing with the victims and saying that "We share their anguish and our first obligation is to help them recover and become whole. Our collective will to be a force of good has to prevail.”
Udpa, who has been with MSU since 2001, began his academic career after receiving a doctorate in electrical engineering from Colorado State University.
Prior to joining MSU, Udpa was the Whitney Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. He was on the faculty at Colorado State University prior to this stint at Iowa ISU.