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Content warning: sexual assault

Former University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor Stephen Shipps pled guilty on Tuesday morning to one count of transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual relations. 

“In 2002, I drove (a female student) from Michigan to New York when she was 16 years old … (I) intended for (her) to engage in sexual activities with me while in New York,” Shipps said during the hearing. 

Shipps faces up to 15 years in prison, though he and the government spoke in court of a sentence between 57 and 71 months. (As part of the plea agreement, Shipps forfeits his right to appeal his sentence if it does not exceed 71 months). Shipps’ recommended sentence was increased because he abused his “position of trust” as a violin teacher and because he “engaged in a pattern of activity involving prohibited sexual conduct,” according to the plea agreement.

Shipps also faces fines of up to $250,000. His sentencing hearing has been set for Feb. 17 at 11:00 am.

Shipps was indicted on two counts of transporting a minor across state lines in order to engage in sexual activity in Oct. 2020. At Tuesday’s hearing, Shipps pled guilty to the second count in return for the government dropping the first count.

Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin commented in a press release on the bravery of the anonymous woman who Shipps transported across state lines in 2002.

“Shipps used his position of trust to sexually exploit a child,” Moshin said. “Well regarded music professors at prestigious universities with competitive music programs like the University of Michigan enjoy tremendous influence within the music community.  These professors often have the ability to make or break careers…. I commend the brave young woman who stepped forward and exposed Shipps’s abuse.”

In the same press release, James C. Harris, special agent in charge of homeland security investigations in Michigan and Ohio, spoke of Shipps’ pattern of alleged abuse.

“Thanks to the remarkable bravery of Shipps’ victims and painstaking investigative work by HSI, this disgraced professor is being held accountable for coercing vulnerable young women into sex acts,” Harris said.

In total, including the incident for which Shipps pleaded guilty on Tuesday, The Michigan Daily is aware of 10 unique sexual misconduct allegations against Shipps. 

Shipps’ plea comes nearly three years after a 2018 Michigan Daily investigation uncovered eight previously undisclosed allegations of sexual misconduct against him over the course of his four-decade academic career at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Michigan. These were the first allegations to be publicly reported against Shipps and did not include the alleged incident for which Shipps pleaded guilty on Tuesday.

Shipps was the Chair of Strings and director of the Strings Preparatory Academy, a music program for local high school students, at the time of The Daily’s 2018 investigation. He was also the former associate dean for academic affairs. Shipps stepped down as program director and took leave from the University three days before the 2018 article was published.

In that 2018 investigation, Wendy Olson Posner, a former student of Shipps, spoke of her belief that numerous adults were aware of the allegations against Shipps. 

“I believed — and still do, frankly — that the people in positions of authority who I might have chosen to confide in must have already known … and would not have acted,” Posner said.

The Daily’s 2018 investigation also uncovered an allegation that a U-M faculty member was made aware of Shipps’ alleged pattern of harassment and misconduct in 1989, shortly after Shipps was hired to the University. The faculty member declined to comment on the record in 2018, explaining that he does not remember individual conversations from nearly 30 years ago. 

Subsequent reporting by The Daily found an email to the interim dean of the music school describing a tenth allegation of statutory rape against Shipps sent in Oct. 2017. University employees responded to the former student’s email more than a year after the student sent her email — a University of Michigan Police Department detective and a University Title-IX investigator requested more information from the former student shortly after the University became aware of The Daily’s investigation into Shipps.

Allegations against Shipps have also surfaced in The Atlantic and in a public Instagram post. Because The Daily cannot confirm the identities behind who made these allegations, it is unclear whether these allegations are unique from the 10 that The Daily is aware of. 

The Daily has been able to confirm that records from both the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance were subpoenaed as part of a joint investigation launched by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security in the wake of The Daily’s reporting. The UMPD also assisted in the law enforcement investigation.

Reflecting on Shipps’ guilty plea, a different former student survivor — who is one of the eight survivors first reported in The Daily’s investigation — expressed amazement that individuals in authority had finally investigated her allegations of abuse. This student requested anonymity for continued fear of professional retribution. 

“I’ve spent decades wondering if this was ever going to happen,” the former student said. “Though he will never be held accountable for what he did to me, I’m amazed that the world is finally holding him accountable for some of his actions.”

Focal Point Editor Sammy Sussman can be reached at