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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Tamiko Strickman, director of the new Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office, sat down with The Michigan Daily on Thursday to discuss updates to the University’s mechanisms for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and other crimes. The interview began with Schlissel and Strickman giving opening remarks regarding the status of the new ECRT office, followed by an interview with The Daily. This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You can read part one of the interview, which discusses past controversies with OIE and lawsuits against Strickman from her time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, here.
Mark Schlissel: For us to really change and improve, we’ve got to look at three categories of things: the structures we use around our issues of misconduct, the actual policies and our culture. We’ve been announcing policy changes, like the policy about relationships between supervisors and supervisees. Along with those policies, the ECRT is a structure that allows us to do many things. We really want to be a place where every member of our community feels respected, safe and supported. We’re working hard on a new anti-retaliation policy, and that’ll come out in the coming months. We also are committed to education and prevention so that we can prevent (misconduct) to begin with. We hope all these things, when you put them together, really put us on a path to be amongst the best universities when it comes to sexual misconduct.
The Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office is central to these efforts. We took the Office of Institutional Equity apart and rebuilt a new organization, covering the functions of the old OIE but in a different way — one that’s designed to provide better support, more outreach, better education and integrate prevention efforts along with our other investigatory efforts.
Tamiko Strickman: It’s a really exciting time right now. Shortly after the announcement in July, we were able to post the positions for the equity specialists, who are a critical change for the ECRT. You’re familiar with the critique of OIE-type offices, that oftentimes the initial contact feels cold and intimidating when it’s from an investigator. Survivors aren’t prepared sometimes for that outreach, and these equity specialists will serve as what I like to call a soft outreach, or a buffer between the survivor and the initial meeting with the investigator.
Once that survivor makes a decision on the most appropriate and comfortable path for themselves, the equity specialists will work alongside the investigator to continue providing that support for both parties who are involved in an investigation. So when somebody says, “This has just been an emotional time for me, I have an exam coming up and I really need a modification,” it would be the equity specialists that would help to facilitate that. We will start our final interviews in the coming weeks and engage some of our campus partners to help make those decisions.
We are very close to finalizing the position for an outcomes officer. That will be a critical position as well to ensure that these cases are completed, and if there are recommended steps or sanctions, that they are followed through upon.
The third position that we are hoping to post next week will be the Director of Prevention Education Assistance and Resources. And we’ll start to build out all of the prevention and education efforts, working very closely with SAPAC (Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center), collaborating with our faculty research expert partners, partnering and continuing working with the Center for Research on Learning & Teaching.
MS: Tami and I now work directly together, so this will come to me to make sure that it has the full attention of the campus and the resources it needs to be successful.
The Michigan Daily: In July, it was announced that ECRT will oversee a new department of Prevention, Education Assistance and Resources (PEAR) that aims to develop and distribute materials on sexual assault prevention and support. Under the new department, PEAR would also institute a liaison program that would “designate a member of each department to be a point of contact for any information or resources regarding sexual misconduct and discrimination.” How will said department members be selected, and what will they be trained to do with the information they receive?
TS: One of the ways that we’re starting to get some information on these liaisons are people who are interested in the cause. For example, when ECRT goes in and does a training program in a particular unit, I will have particular people reach out to say, “Look, I’m really interested in this subject matter and any opportunities for partnership.” I’m a big believer that people are most receptive to messaging through their peers and their colleagues.
The training will be through ECRT in the beginning to talk about things like if somebody comes to you and asks a question about reporting, here’s a bullet point list of talking points. So it would be an ongoing training. We would build it out more robustly as the program develops more and more.
TMD: In the past, OIE has investigated less than 10% of reported allegations due in part to some allegations falling “outside the scope of University policy,” according to a 2017-2018 OIE report. Under the ECRT, do you plan to expand the scope of University policy to investigate a greater percentage of allegations? What constitutes an allegation to be “outside the scope of University policy”?
TS: A lot of factors come into play, because oftentimes somebody may say “I don’t want an investigation, I’d like to be able to drop out of this course right now because somebody is in that course who makes me feel uncomfortable, but I don’t need an investigation, I’m just looking to withdraw with no penalty or adverse impact to my academic record.” A lot of times people will say, “I’m looking for some alternative form of resolution,” perhaps student-to-student, so we go over to the OSCR (Office of Student Conflict Resolution) office, sit down with the experts there and come to some type of agreement. So we continue to address every civil rights allegation or report that comes into our office; there are just a menu of ways to handle it and we try to take into account what that person is requesting.
MS: There are some reports that we don’t have jurisdiction over, like somebody who’s a member of our community but is complaining about someone who has nothing to do with the University at all. Other instances where there’s a complaint about troublesome behavior, but it doesn’t qualify as being harassment or violation of civil rights, it’s just a complaint. So there are lots of reasons, but the goal is to investigate and have a good resolution of every complaint that comes forward, and sometimes it’s through an investigation. Other times it’s through these other mechanisms that Tami mentioned.
TS: And a lot are anonymous, but we still track that as well.
TMD: In August 2020, the University announced a new interim umbrella sexual misconduct policy that was set to be reevaluated to a more permanent policy by July 1, 2021. Following the formation of the ECRT, what does the University plan to include in the new sexual misconduct policy, when can students and faculty expect to know when the policy is going to be enacted, and finally, will any of the recent WilmerHale investigations against former Provost Martin Philbert and the late Dr. Robert Anderson affect the new policy in any way?
MS: The umbrella policy that’s out there now is an interim policy … So now that the current administration has put out some guidance, we’re finalizing the umbrella policy and we hope to have it out (at the) beginning of October and may talk about it at the upcoming regents meeting. This is also a landscape where rules are changing all the time and we’re learning. So although the umbrella policy will be “final,” we are going to try to make this in a way a living document and keep it as the best set of policies for our community that’s possible.
TMD: There have been several complaints against OIE in the past for being sloppy, time-consuming or biased toward respondents in investigations. Does ECRT have a plan to make the investigation process more straightforward in response to those allegations?
TS: We’ve focused on making our investigations more timely and making them as transparent as we can because certainly, we have some restrictions and parameters within the law that we must follow. But we’ve made changes such as putting two investigators on every investigation. We transcribe our interviews… and I think that’s been a very well-received change. We are keeping parties and stakeholders updated approximately every 30 days to let them know where we are with the investigation generally. We’re trying to really give them a sense of what’s going on without divulging any restricted private information.
MS: One of the challenges is we try our best to speed things up because we recognize it’s really important for people to come to closure. (But) there are vacation breaks, there are final exams, there are midterm breaks. And often people ask us to delay an interview or meeting because it’s the middle of spring break, or because it’s over the Christmas holiday, etc. So there are all kinds of things that contribute, and we want to strike the right balance.
Daily News Editor Calder Lewis and Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.