Following announcements of multiple University of Michigan-affiliated faculty and staff facing misconduct claims since the Winter 2020 semester began, a number of students told The Daily they have lost trust in the University’s ability to protect them.
Several University faculty members faced sexual misconduct accusations made public within the past month. Martin Philbert, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, was placed on leave effective Jan. 20 for sexual misconduct and harassment allegations. Engineering professor Jason Mars stepped down from his position as CEO of Clinc, an AI company he founded, after The Verge published allegations of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior against him on Feb. 13. On Wednesday, multiple sexual assault allegations brought against the late Robert E. Anderson, former director and sports physician of University Health Services, were made public.
University President Mark Schlissel sent an email to University students and faculty on Jan. 22 informing them of Philbert’s leave from office. Philbert was appointed as provost and vice president for academic affairs in 2017 and previously served in various roles in the School of Public Health since 1995. The Detroit Free Press reported the University has known about other sexual misconduct allegations against Philbert since 2003.
In response to a request for comment, the University’s Office of Public Affairs directed The Daily to Schlissel’s statement on the several recent allegations during the Feb. 20 Board of Regents meeting.
“As a physician, scientist, father and university president, I condemn all sexual misconduct, especially instances that occur under the purview of our public mission,” Schlissel said. “This type of conduct is reprehensible — and whether it takes place now or took place in the past, it is unacceptable.”
The Daily interviewed multiple students across campus for the perspectives of the student body about these allegations. LSA sophomore Emma Sandberg, a founder of the student group Roe v. Rape, said she was angry and confused, but not necessarily surprised, when she received Schlissel’s email about Philbert.
“The fact that the University was aware of at least three complaints against him and still promoted him to the Provost highlights how the administration does not in any sense take sexual misconduct seriously, and that there is a structural problem at U of M,” Sandberg said. “This is a man who sounds to be outwardly inappropriate in a sexual manner to those working with him, and so I’m not exactly sure why some administrators, like the president, are claiming that they had no idea of any sexual misconduct.”
Ariel Friedlander, LSA and Art & Design senior, said it is concerning that someone who holds a powerful position at the University, such as Philbert, was accused of sexual misconduct. According to Friedlander, this gives power to perpetrators and makes them believe they should aspire to powerful roles in society.
“People see this predator revealed at the University, it’s terrible and people want to speak out and that’s great,” Friedlander said. “People should be speaking out and they should be questioning who’s in power and who’s in charge of overseeing sexual violence prevention, who’s in charge of taking care of survivors, women and minorities on this campus. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and below the sea, there’s a history of violent oppression and sexual misconduct. This is so much bigger than this one man, and the fact that he has so much power at this institution means he’s upheld by this history.”
Anderson worked at the University for 35 years and served as a top physician for football teams coached by Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. University alum Robert Julian Stone filed a complaint against the University in 2018, nearly 50 years after the alleged incident. The oldest complaint dates back to 1995, when a female student filed a lawsuit against Anderson for an incident during a mandatory medical examination for employment. Anderson retired from the University in 2003 and passed away in 2008.
Medical student Mark-Anthony Lingaya said he was disappointed to read that Anderson allegedly abused patients when serving as UHS Director.
“As a medical student, you go through classes where you learn the art of doctoring, how to gain your patient’s trust, how to keep your patient’s trust and the privilege you have with regards to patients,” Lingaya said. “It’s really shocking that someone was taking advantage of that and traumatizing patients and completely breaching that relationship and its foundation.”
Medical student Andrew Shute said he was concerned with the University’s handling of allegations against Anderson, particularly Anderson’s transfer from the head of UHS to team physician around the time of the alleged incidents in the 1970s.
“It sounded like they were trying to sweep it under the rug by moving him from one place to the other,” Shute said. “If they’ve taken advantage of patients in general or committed sexual assault, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue being in a position where they take advantage of patients.”
Lingaya said the alleged abuses should not be taken lightly just because it took decades for victims to come forward.
“My perspective is that these patients were terrified and confused,” Lingaya said. “Their trust was betrayed and they felt like they weren’t going to be believed … As a future physician and as Michigan students who are going to go on to positions of power and influence, we need to influence the spaces we’re in and make it so survivors of assault can comfortably and bravely come out and tell their stories without feeling like they’re not going to be believed.”
According to The Detroit News, 66 students and faculty from the College of Engineering and School of Information signed a letter to Schlissel on Feb. 6 outlining allegations about an unnamed faculty member and calling on Schlissel to make changes to improve the campus climate. Mars has said he is not this unnamed individual.
Last week, Computer Science and Engineering faculty released a statement calling for Mars to take a leave of absence. Though the Information School has announced it would be suspending its recruiting relationship with Mars, the University has not placed Mars on administrative leave.
Brian Noble, chair of Computer Science and Engineering, sent an email to undergraduate students in the College of Engineering Saturday afternoon addressing the climate within the department.
“I am writing today for three reasons,” Noble wrote. “First, to say that I am heartbroken for our community. There are profound problems with CSE’s climate. I know that there is a lot of frustration, pain and anger, and I share it. Second, I am sharing immediate steps that I have taken to address the recent climate concerns. Finally, I want to update you on some in-progress activity directed specifically at the Undergraduate programs in CSE.”
Engineering sophomore Tara Sabbineni said she was confused about the context of the email because Mars was not directly mentioned.
“We got an email that said something really vague about ‘We know there’s a lot of issues in CSE, here are some of the things we’re trying to do to solve it,’ but I wasn’t aware of what they were talking about until my friend showed me The Verge article,” Sabbineni said. “They haven’t fired him or done anything about it yet. I understand why they sent such a vaguely worded email, but it was definitely a little weird.”
Mars was a speaker at the TedxUofM event on Feb. 14, which occurred after he resigned as CEO from his company Clinc. Though Mars was slated to speak at the event for months in advance, LSA freshman Ceciel Zhong said it was concerning that he was allowed to speak after the allegations were made public.
“I heard that he spoke at the recent TED Talk, which is very unacceptable,” Zhong said. “There’s more than plenty of evidence that he had done such things, but it’s very disappointing that he’s still not on leave.”
Students who spoke with The Daily noted a specific cultural climate surrounding sexual misconduct nationally and on campus. Friedlander said conversations she has heard around the Philbert and Mars accusations have often missed what she sees as structural issues on campuses.
“A lot of people see situations like these occur and they appear to be some type of isolated incident of some serious predator who has gotten away with so much, but it’s just one in a million people who commit acts of sexual violence and sexual misconduct against women,” Friedlander said. “These incidents were not a surprise to me. I don’t think the culture on campus is made to uplift women or survivors of sexual violence, or that (the University) breeds this type of culture.”
Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Helen LaGrand reflected on instances of sexual misconduct within her school that The Daily reported on last year. She specifically noted Stephen Shipps, a former professor at the School of Music, Theater & Dance, who was accused of sexual misconduct and ultimately resigned.
LaGrand said she would expect issues of transparency at an institution as large as the University.
“It’s what I would expect from an institution as huge as and as established this,” LaGrand said. “I know there are other schools around the country — particularly music schools because I can speak more to that — that have the same situations going on and a lot of those cases haven’t come to light. My opinion of the University hasn’t really changed. I think (transparency issues) are just inevitable, I think it has happened in a lot of other schools.”
LSA sophomore Ethan Hauser referenced the #MeToo movement when discussing the sexual misconduct allegations against faculty. Hauser said he thinks the University is only bringing up these allegations now because society has made these issues more acceptable to bring to light.
“It doesn’t look good if you’re covering stuff up,” Hauser said. “Given how our society has changed the last few years with the #MeToo movement, it makes more sense that they’re coming out now compared to the past.”
Students told The Daily they believe the University does not have a strong history of being transparent with students and faculty about sexual misconduct allegations. Though students see the emails about Philbert and Mars as progress, many agreed more work needs to be done.
Schlissel addressed concerns about transparency around the Philbert investigation at the Feb. 20 Board of Regents meeting.
“Because this investigation is so critical, and because we must ensure that the outside, independent firm is able to conduct their investigation in a thorough, reliable and fair way, I will not be able to share any details while the investigation is underway, even though I know that there is wide interest in this case,” Schlissel said.
Even though students are asking for more clarity about the situations regarding sexual misconduct allegations, LaGrand said she believes the legal aspect of the allegations makes it hard for the University to be totally transparent about the situation. However, she said students and faculty who were directly involved with the accused should have a warning before the situation goes public.
“It’s a very sensitive matter because the law is involved and there are victims involved who might not want to be spoken about. Transparency is tough,” LaGrand said. “Maybe it should be brought to students’ attention before they actually go on leave. Maybe if the professor is being looked into, more faculty should know about it or more students who are in contact with them should know about it before the decision is made to put them on leave. They shouldn’t wait to hear about it until then.”
Though Sandberg said she thinks Schlissel’s email to the student body is an improvement, she said the University could still provide more clarity.
“I wasn’t very surprised by it based off of what I know about the University’s history with the issue,” Sandberg said. “I was more surprised by the fact that they emailed all of the students because that is pretty rare. Normally they sweep this under the rug. I still don’t think that they have been transparent enough with the process, because the University itself hasn’t told any students what these allegations are and other news sources have investigated and discovered what the allegations are.”
Sandberg said she disapproved of the University’s handling of the Mars allegations. In particular, she was disappointed Mars was not placed on leave when the allegations were made public.
After the recent allegations surfaced, Friedlander said she did not feel assured that the University is making progress around sexual misconduct.
“The fact that they are promoting people to positions that influence the sexual misconduct policies and procedures and influence other people who are promoted, that they’re promoting harassers to these positions is really concerning because that’s going to continue this structural issue at U of M,” Friedlander said. “It’s so important that when they promote people to these positions they’re promoting people who are very good on this issue.”
LaGrand said she thinks many factors are making it difficult for the University to meet everyone’s needs in these situations.
“It doesn’t look good to potential students or current students if there’s this problem that seems like a mess,” LaGrand said. “It seems more put together if they just officially say this person’s on leave and don’t inform people about an investigation. It’s hard to make those two meet. The professionalism and keeping the reputation of the University and the respect for the University and at the same time, providing for its current students more trust and more transparency. I don’t know how they’re going to find a balance between those.”
Though she believes the University has more work to do, Friedlander said what students, staff and faculty can do right now is support sexual assault survivors and stand up against behavior that fuels perpetrators.
“Show up for survivors,” Friedlander said. “We need to speak up and show up for survivors when it matters. This doesn’t mean just tweeting something or putting some hashtag on your Instagram profile. That’s all great, but this means demanding the hard things … All of us need to step up and tell survivors that we believe them and that we will make the world safer for them. This is hard work.”
This article has been updated to clarify LaGrand believes the issues inevitable in a large institution are issues of transparency.