We’re all guilty of it. In a hurry or a huff, we’ve all sent an email or text we wish we could take back. Unlike private conversations, those messages often have a hauntingly long, and very public, shelf life. No one knows this better than John M. Engler, interim president of embattled Michigan State University, which has been reeling since news of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal broke. Engler is now battling a public relations nightmare of his own creation after a reprehensible email he sent about abuse victims came to light. Ironically, he sent the email knowing full well that MSU was living under a “microscope” and subject to a “blizzard of ongoing” public records requests.
Engler was appointed interim president upon the resignation of long-term president Lou Anna Simon, who spent her 40-year career at MSU. Engler’s appointment was reportedly controversial from the get-go. Now that Engler’s emails have been leaked, his tenure seems tenuous at best. The Chronicle reports that the MSU Board of Trustees could vote as early as Friday to fire Engler, as calls for his resignation or termination intensify.
The Chronicle obtained Engler’s emails through a public-records request. As it reported Wednesday, Engler stated that one of the first abuse survivors to come forward may be getting a “kickback” from her lawyer for “manipulating” other survivors to come forward. This came on the heels of a scathing allegation by another survivor that Engler tried to “pay her off” during a private meeting where her lawyer was absent.
Ironically, after only two days into the job, Engler wrote in an open letter to the collegecommunity that it “isn’t easy to live under a microscope.” He listed an array of government investigations, civil lawsuits, and an “ongoing blizzard of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests” weighing on the school. Despite recognizing the intense scrutiny he faced, Engler sent the email anyway.
If someone as politically savvy as Engler, former governor of Michigan, can fall prey to such temptation, is there any hope for the rest of us? Perhaps. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- For public institutions, be sure your institutional leadership knows that anything they commit to writing regarding public business is fair game for public disclosure under FOIA.
- As Chicago Mayor Emanuel found out the hard way, you can’t skirt FOIA’s requirements by using private cell phones or email accounts. Indeed, as Presidential- hopeful Hilary Clinton can attest, the use of private devices to conduct public business can open its own can of worms.
- Private institutions are not off the proverbial hook. Great care should be taken when a government official is invited to sit on a Board of Trustees or Directors to ensure that emails about the private institution’s business are not intermingled with public documents, which can lead to inadvertent disclosure as public records.
- Both public and private institutions frequently face litigation, where emails that were never intended to see the light of day may have to be disclosed during discovery, which can be just as intrusive as a FOIA request, if not moreso.
- Consider creating a culture where face-to-face (or telephone) communications are favored over emails, particularly in times of crisis. This can be accomplished by adopting relatively simple measures like scheduling regular, daily debriefing meetings. As our written communications become less and less formal, rarely do they capture the full nuance of what we intend to say, particularly when read by a third party. Trying to undo the damage of a poorly worded email or text is rarely successful.
Before the days when handheld devices were ubiquitous, the phone company told us to “phone first before you go.” Now if only someone could come up with a catchy jingle to get us to “think first before we write,” we’d probably all be better off.
Written by Therese King Nohos