Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault.
University of Michigan alumni and survivors of former U-M American Culture lecturer Bruce Confoth came together at a virtual press conference Monday morning to announce they would be filing a lawsuit against the University for failing to adequately protect students against a predatory professor.
In total, there are eight U-M alumni — who attended the University between 2004 and 2017 and are survivors of Conforth’s abuse — involved with the lawsuit. They are being represented by Michigan law firm Grewal Law and said they will be filing the initial complaint with the Washtenaw County Circuit Court.
Several sexual assault allegations against Conforth, including those for inappropriate emails and rape, came to light on April 23, 2021. It wasn’t until 2017, Conforth retired from the University after previously winning the 2012 Golden Apple Award for most outstanding U-M instructor.
Nolan Erickson, a legal counsel for some of the Conforth survivors, said the University was complacent despite knowing of Conforth’s sexual misconduct allegations during his professorship.
“Even after (the University) learned of the professor’s misconduct because of student complaints in 2008, it did not prevent him from committing further abuses or warn students about his behavior,” Erickson said. “What followed was nearly a decade of serial abuse in the form of sexual harassment and sexual abuse of students.”
Katherine McMahan, who graduated from the University in 2008, is one of the survivors who spoke at Monday’s press conference. McMahan said Conforth had invited her and other students to a bar outside of class one night and bought everyone a round of drinks. She alleged that when she got up to use the restroom, Conforth cornered her, grabbed her waist and repeatedly asked her to sleep in his home. After that incident, McMahan said she received multiple emails from Conforth asking her to not report what had happened.
“He hoped that I wouldn’t do anything rash (and that) he had his career to think about,” McMahan said. “Bruce knew what he did was wrong. It was not something a professor should do with a student and he was trying to guilt me into staying silent.”
McMahan said she decided to report the incident to the Office of Institutional Equity — which was replaced in 2021 by the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office — after she graduated. She said she waited until she was no longer a student to report Conforth so her ability to graduate would not be thrown into jeopardy. She said when she brought the emails between her and Conforth to Pamela Heatlie, the OIE senior director and Title IX coordinator at the time, Heatlie assured McMahan the allegations would be taken very seriously. McMahan said Heatlie then reached out to Conforth, asking him to corroborate McMahan’s account.
“Pam emailed me to tell me that Bruce corroborated the events and that the department and the University were taking all the necessary steps to ensure this wouldn’t happen again,” McMahan said. “But Bruce was allowed to keep teaching.”
Isabelle Brourman, a 2015 University graduate and another survivor of Conforth, alleged that the OIE had known about Conforth’s sexual harrassment and manipulation toward female students since 2008.
Brourman said she first heard about Conforth freshman as a freshman in 2011 and met him in winter semester of her sophomore year in 2013. Brourman said going into her first year at the University, she knew Conforth’s classes were popular and often had long waitlists. She said she heard from other students that meeting with Conforth in person was the best way to try to get off the waitlist.
“(When) I nervously approached him about taking one of his courses, he stared at me and then told me he would see what he could do,” Brourman said. “Moments later, Bruce began the grooming process. He managed to find my Facebook account and sent me a friend request.”
Brourman said Conforth began contacting her from encrypted email accounts. Though she did not know he was the one sending her the emails until later, she said the anonymous sender claimed they were a powerful cult leader and threatened her safety if she did not allow Conforth to sexually abuse her. She said she took these threats seriously at the time.
“I was told that (the anonymous cult leaders) were watching me, that they might kill previous romantic partners and that I was required to sexually service Bruce as a way to keep not only myself safe, but to also prevent his death,” Brourman said.
In the summer of 2014, Brourman said she received an email threatening her life if she did not have sex with Conforth.
“This time I arrived at the University of Michigan not as a willing student, but as a helpless hostage,” Brourman said. “Bruce locked his office door and began to rape me.”
In 2016, Brourman and two other survivors filed Title IX reports to the OIE detailing Conforth’s abuse. Brourman said she was made aware that Heatlie was examining Conforth’s University email account at the time and found an explicit video Conforth had taken of Brourman. However, Brourman said Conforth allegedly told the OIE that she had consented to sexual interactions with him. After that, Brourman said OIE did not follow up with her about her Title IX report.
“When (Heatlie) asked (Conforth) about it, he, a 65-year-old instructor, told (her) that he and I, a 23-year-old former student, were in a committed and consensual relationship,” Brourman said. “I was never asked (about it). I was never even contacted by the OIE. OIE was the only lifeline I had, the only people or agency that was privy to reports about his violations, and (they) felt no obligation to inquire into my well being.”
Erickson said Brourman sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the University in June 2021 to obtain several documents and emails pertaining to her Title IX report. Erickson said as of Jan. 31, the University still has not responded to the FOIA requests. He said he worked with Brourman to file another FOIA lawsuit last week to pursue the documentation.
Erickson said she has been frustrated by the extent to which it seems sexual survivors have to advocate for themselves to receive any sort of justice.
“(Survivors) need better support, they need to know that they’re not alone,” Erickson said. “They need to know that this isn’t happening in isolation. That is something that has to change at the University of Michigan, and frankly, other institutions in the state of Michigan and across the country.”
In an email to the Michigan Daily on Monday, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote Conforth was covered by a collective bargaining agreement which requires several actions be taken before an individual is terminated. Fitzgerald wrote the University took the necessary actions to ensure he had no contact with students prior to his resignation and that Conforth was not offered any compensation or benefits in exchange for his resignation.
“Mr. Conforth admitted to allegations of sexual misconduct that were made and a separation agreement outlined his permanent removal from the university, no contact with students and other requirements,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The university was prepared to initiate dismissal proceedings had he not first resigned.”
Fitzgerald wrote the University is committed to protecting students and community members from misconduct and has added new policies such as prohibiting student-teacher romantic relationships to facilitate that goal.
“The university continues to take extraordinary measures to put critical protections in place for students and all members of our community on top of earlier protections,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We continue to work with the nationally recognized consulting firm of Guidepost Solutions on additional measures.”
Brourman also spoke on the history of silencing survivors at the University, including allegations in the Philbert and Anderson cases. She urged the University to take action and accountability for administrative sexual misconduct.
The University recently reached a settlement agreement with survivors of the late doctor Robert Anderson after 15 months of mediation between Anderson survivors and the University. The $490 million settlement follows months of protest and over 1,050 survivors coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Anderson.
Former University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel was terminated by the Board of Regents in early January after an internal investigation revealed he had been engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a University subordinate. Documents obtained from the Detroit Free Press reveal Schlissel could still return to the University this fall as a tenured professor due to a faculty tenure position he is entitled to under his initial contract with the University.
“Firing the President does not fix this issue,” Brourman said. “Changing a Title IX office while keeping the same administration and procedures in place does not fix this issue. Your empty, false messaging every time a new story comes out will not fix this issue. Tell the truth. Tell them what you allowed to happen to us.”
Correction 2/6: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Brourman first heard of Conforth as a freshman in 2013. She heard of Conforth as a freshman in 2011 and met Conforth as a sophomore in 2013.
The article has been updated to include a statement from University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at email@example.com.