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Editor’s note: This article contains depictions of sexual assault
Several sexual assault allegations surfaced Friday against former University of Michigan American Culture lecturer Bruce Conforth, who won the 2012 Golden Apple Award for most outstanding U-M instructor, according to the New York Times.
Conforth, a musician and founding curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, retired in early 2017. His retirement came after three women reported to the University in 2008 and 2016 that Conforth had attempted to engage in sexual relationships with them as students, according to the Times.
Now, six former students have filed legal papers with the intent of suing both Conforth for sexual misconduct and the University of Michigan for failing to provide Conforth with consequences or protect the victims with further investigation and action.
Conforth’s allegations of sexual harassment include unsolicited messages and rape.
Former students of Conforth Lauren Lambert and Shaina Mahler, and former University student Cassie McQuater, all claimed that Conforth sent them unsolicited messages containing sexually charged drawings and texts in 2011, 2014 and 2007, respectively.
Katherine McMahan, a 2008 University graduate, alleged that Conforth cornered her at a bar, grabbing her waist and repeatedly asking her to sleep in his home.
Amelia Brown, another one of Conforth’s former students, told the Times she was pressured into a sexual encounter with Conforth after being pursued with inappropriate advances. Former University student Maya Crosman, who received anonymous, harassing emails she believed were from Conforth, said Conforth forcibly kissed her and stuck his tongue in her mouth in his office.
Isabelle Brourman received similarly harassing emails and stated in court papers that Conforth raped her in his apartment in Ann Arbor. Brourman also said Conforth continued to rape her during her time as a student at the University, the first time in his office when she was a junior.
The other plaintiffs that came forward said that they were accosted by Conforth about pursuing a sexual relationship and received other sexually explicit messages. According to the Times, the victims said the requests from Conforth persisted after they declined.
When contacted by The Daily for a statement, Conforth said he had no comment.
The University claimed to have taken action against Conforth by setting restrictions on him after the first report of sexual assault in 2008, and planned to conduct an investigation after the second two reports in 2016, if Conforth did not agree to retire in 2017.
“He should have been fired,” Brourman said in an interview with the Times. “But they allowed him to thrive. They allowed him to win awards.”
The University’s sexual misconduct policy includes sharing their investigative findings with students who filed complaints, but both Brown and Mahler said they were only alerted to the outcome of the review last year when Mahler inquired about it.
The University’s Office of Public Affairs did not reply to request for comment in time for publication.
The allegations against Conforth come in the wake of several other allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against U-M faculty members by their students or former students, including The Michigan Daily’s reporting on tenured English professor Douglas Trevor in January. Trevor, the former director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and the Hopwood Awards Program, was sanctioned by LSA Dean Anne Curzan in April 2020 and told he could no longer hold closed-door office hours or meet with students off campus for the next two years.
The University last year fired David Daniels, opera star and voice professor, who was also charged with sexual assault.Another former Music, Theatre & Dance professor, Stephen Shipps, was indicted in federal court in Oct. 2020 on two counts of transporting a minor across state lines with the intent of engaging in sexual contact after a Michigan Daily investigation found 40 years of sexual assault allegations against him He awaits a tentative trial date of June 15.
Additionally, allegations of sexual misconduct against EECS professor Jason Mars surfaced in Feb. 2020 in an article published in The Verge. The article cited 13 reports from former employees at Mars’ startup Clinc regarding inappropriate behavior from Mars. In Dec. 2020, it was announced that Mars would be teaching a class required for the EECS major. The University faced criticism from students about Mars’ appointment as assistant professor.
Another EECS professor, Peter Chen, was put on administrative leave following allegations of sexual misconduct of a person under 13 years-old. On Jan. 28, Chen was charged with criminal sexual conduct of the first degree at an arraignment. Chen was a well-known professor, and former students said they were shocked to learn of the allegations.
In Jan. 2020, former Provost Martin Philbert was put on leave after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against him. A wide-ranging investigation by the law firm WilmerHale released in July found evidence of sexual harassment for at least 15 years. University President Mark Schlissel also received an anonymous allegation of Philbert’s misconduct in his own April 2019 performance evaluation. Schlissel denies having read that allegation at the time. In response, the University hired the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions, which is assisting the administration with the implementation of recommendations made in the WilmerHale report regarding sexual misconduct at the University.
In 2019, the University was required to amend its policy regarding its handling of sexual misconduct to give students accused of sexual misconduct more power in proceedings against them. The amendment came after the U.S.Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Doe v. Baum that the University was required to allow students accused of sexual misconduct the opportunity to cross-examine their accusers and request live hearings, a decision that has been widely criticized by members of the U-M community.
The University pushed back on the ruling, arguing that the potential for a retraumatizing cross-examination by their assailant would deter victims from reporting sexual misconduct and assault.
After the Trump administration’s Department of Education narrowed federal definitions of sexual misconduct, the University in Aug. 2020 released an interim policy that preserved the broader definition outside federal Title IX regulations. The interim policy also retained mandatory reporter obligations for certain University employees that the federal government dropped. A non-interim policy will be finalized by July 1 of this year.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Brourman said Conforth raped her in his office after she graduated. She actually said Conforth raped her consecutively while she was a student, including the first incident in his office.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cassie McQuater was a former student of Conforth’s. McQuater was actually a student at the University, not a member of Conforth’s class.
This article has been updated to reflect allegations of harassing emails and unwanted kissing by Conforth from former University student Maya Crosman.
Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a developing story. Check back at michigandaily.com for more updates.