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The Office for Institutional Equity is forming a new committee of students, faculty and staff to advise the University of Michigan’s Title IX coordinator, Elizabeth Seney. With the committee, OIE — which has long been criticized for taking a long time with investigations and not centering the needs of survivors — aims to increase channels of input and feedback between OIE and the University community.
The advisory committee will consist of four “constituency groups”— faculty, staff, undergraduate students and graduate students — with up to 10 members in each group. Up to three representatives from each constituency will meet four times a year within their group and will meet once each fall and winter semester with Seney to discuss sexual- and gender-based misconduct policies, prevention efforts and the campus community’s awareness of these processes and resources. Seney’s office directs the University’s response to reports of sexual misconduct, which have gone up for several years, according to OIE’s annual reports of misconduct among students and employees.
According to these annual reports, OIE violations have steadily increased from 2014 to 2020 — from 134 incidents to 322.
In 2020, OIE faced particular scrutiny after former University Provost Martin Philbert — who oversaw OIE — was placed on administrative leave in January 2020 amid several allegations of sexual misconduct against him. WilmerHale law firm conducted an independent investigation of the Philbert case and released a report in July 2020 detailing not only decades of his misconduct, but also years of administrative failure to properly investigate allegations against him.
Many of the University’s faculty have been accused and charged with varying degrees of sexual misconduct in recent years. David Daniels and Stephen Shipps both left the School of Music, Theatre & Dance after sexual misconduct allegations and are going through the legal system. In addition, Computer Science and Engineering professor Peter Chen was placed on administrative leave following pending criminal charges for sexual conduct, and CSE assistant professor Jason Mars faced allegations of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily that the formation of this advisory committee was in talks before the WilmerHale investigation. Fitzgerald also wrote that the University considers direct input from faculty, staff and students on the University’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures “critically important.”
“The OIE staff began discussing the creation of this committee well before the WilmerHale report and it was important to launch it now before the end of the academic year,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We think the advisory committee will provide an important opportunity for students, faculty and staff to have a voice in shaping new efforts focused on the prevention and reporting of sexual or gender-based misconduct.”
LSA sophomore Danny Hwang told The Daily he sees the advisory committee as a positive step toward including student voices in the University’s policy decisions. Moving forward, Hwang, who chairs the Diversity Affairs Committee in LSA Student Government, said he hopes the committee will put energy not only into improving resources for survivors after they report misconduct, but also into preventative and educational efforts.
“There’s gender harassment, there’s sexual coercion, there’s unwanted sexual attention — you know, there’s differences,” Hwang said. “I think that (those are) some distinctions that are not clearly made, and that people sometimes don’t really know if they’re committing a (form) of sexual harassment. I would like to see that (training) in this new panel, but I like the initiative.”
Representatives from Roe v. Rape, a student organization dedicated to seeking justice for survivors of sexual misconduct, did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Members of the U-M community can apply to join the advisory committee by nominating themselves or others. The deadline for nominations is this Friday and can be submitted via a Qualtrics form.
Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.