Courtesy of Samantha Rich

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Eight survivors of Bruce Conforth, former American culture professor, held a virtual press conference on Friday to discuss the state of the ongoing legal proceedings against Conforth and to call on new University of Michigan President Santa Ono to play a more active role in combatting sexual misconduct on campus.

The survivors’ legal counsel, Grewal Law, also spoke at the conference, drawing attention to patterns of sexual abuse at public institutions. Grewal attorney Daniel Barnett began the event by explaining that the firm decided to file the lawsuit against the University to help create a system that better protects students and survivors.

“We want to pave a better path where institutions place student safety and well-being over money, power and recognition,” Barnett said. “We want to create an educational experience where universities will do everything in their power to keep students safe, and where students know if something does happen, the university is going to have their back instead of supporting their perpetrators.”

The allegations against Conforth first surfaced publicly in April 2021, when The New York Times reported that the University was previously made aware of three alleged instances of assault — one in 2008 and two in 2016 — but did not investigate the reports or fire Conforth.

Last week, a summary disposition hearing on the lawsuit led to a dismissal of a portion of the claim after Judge Thomas Cameron ruled that the plaintiffs did not file timely notices of their legal action against the University. The Court of Claims ruling will not impact another lawsuit in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court in addition to a state civil rights claim against the University, Barnett explained to The Detroit News last week. 

U-M alum Katherine McMahan, one of the eight plaintiffs, said at the press conference that she was not surprised by this ruling given the University’s history of neglecting survivors of abuse. 

“The ruling from last week — the dismissal of every one of my fellow survivors and my experience — was no surprise to me,” McMahan said. “I told the University about Bruce Conforth’s predatory and aggressive behavior in 2008. … The University had the opportunity to take action 14 years ago, and they chose to pay lip service and turned a blind eye as his behavior grew more egregious and violent.”

U-M alum Isabelle Brourman, another plaintiff, said she was frustrated with the way the University  burdened survivors in these proceedings.

“Last week, I sat in a courtroom with University representation next to me on the other side, where they blamed me for their inaction,” Brourman said. “How dare the University tell me that I did not report him in the proper amount of time? How can you stand in front of a judge, in front of your victims, and claim that the responsibility falls on us?” 

The plaintiffs urged the University to sit down with them and discuss how to move forward. U-M alum Amelia Brown, a plaintiff in the case, spoke directly to Ono at the end of her remarks.

“The new president of the University, President Santa Ono, has made it a point to speak about the University’s well-known issues enabling sexual abusers and has said it’s one of his top priorities, which we appreciate,” Brown said. “President Ono, we are a group of survivors personally inviting you and the University attorneys to meet with us, to grant us the justice we deserve and to line up your actions with your words.”

Daily Staff Reporter Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu.