At a sexual assault survivors’ forum on Saturday, Maya Crosman, a 2016 University of Michigan alum and survivor of former U-M lecturer Bruce Conforth, questioned the University’s investigation process into Conforth, who retired without any punishment in 2017.
“I cannot be sure what happened at (the Office of Institutional Equity) when Conforth was allowed to retire with his reputation intact, but it is clear that justice was not given to the brave women who reported him and the brave women who were still getting abused by him,” Crosman said.
Crosman was one of six survivors who spoke during the first portion of the forum at the Michigan League, titled “Survivors Speak Up Against U-M’s Pattern Of Enabling Sexual Abuse.” The event, hosted amid heightened community focus on sexual misconduct because of the allegations against late University athletic doctor Robert Anderson, addressed the University’s mishandling of sexual misconduct on campus and discussed policy changes to prevent future abuse. Isabelle Brourman, a 2015 University alum and survivor of Conforth, and U-M professor Rebekah Modrak organized the forum with help from Crosman and Katherine McMahan, a 2008 University alum and survivor of Conforth and Cassie McQuater, a University alum and Conforth survivor.
Conforth, a lecturer at the University from 2001-2017, was accused of using his popularity among the student body to abuse and threaten multiple female students. Brourman said the purpose of Saturday’s panel was to share the stories and research from survivors of sexual abuse at the University.
“There have been enough of these stories for us to know that it’s not just something that falls through the cracks,” Brourman said. “It’s not a single report that was ignored, and it’s rather a routine pattern of complainants who’ve come forward and a pattern of being ignored, their information being taken and being filed away.”
McMahan shared that she was abused by Conforth in 2007 while attending a blues concert. McMahan was the first known complainant against Conforth.
“He waited for me outside the bathroom, he grabbed me and tried to get me to go home with him,” McMahan said. “It finally took me pushing him away and going back to the table to get away from him.”
McMahan first reported her story to the University in 2008, which led to the University giving him a “last chance agreement.” According to McMahan, it was not enforced, and the agreement emboldened Conforth.
Similarly, Brourman and Crosman, who met Conforth around the same time, allege they were manipulated and abused by Conforth both physically and online. According to Brourman and Crosman, Conforth used conspiracies and fear, telling both women he was in the Illuminati and sending emails to them pretending to be a cult leader to keep them near.
“Upon earning my trust, Conforth initiated a very twisted game of, ‘How far could he push me?’” Brourman said. “‘How much could he make me believe?’”
Brourman and Crosman were both abused years after McMahan first reported her incidents with Conforth, which Brourman said highlighted the failure of the University’s “last chance” warning.
“There is no excuse for my introduction to Bruce Conforth,” Brourman said. “This is the number one public institution of higher learning — they cannot plead ignorance.”
Survivors of Anderson, a former doctor at the University from 1966 to 2003, also spoke at the forum. More than 1,000 former University athletes have come forward with over 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse against Anderson, who was never investigated by the University while he was alive and passed away in 2008.
Tad DeLuca, a former wrestler at the University from 1972-1975, was the first person known to report his experiences with Anderson in 1975 after hearing others had been abused as well. The report led to his scholarship being revoked and his removal from the wrestling team.
“All I kept saying was, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” DeLuca said. “‘Why me? What did I do? Why does someone want to do that?’ And that was a loop that just played in my head for a very, very long time.”
In 2018, DeLuca once again reported his abuse to the University, kicking off an investigation by the U-M police department. DeLuca credited Mark West, Division of Public Safety and Security patrol officer, with further investigating claims against Anderson when DeLuca brought them forward. The University moved West to road patrol and cut his pay in September, according to the Detroit News.
Chuck Christian and Jonathan Vaughn, both former football players for the University, then spoke about their experiences with sexual abuse and their choice to protest outside of University President Mark Schlissel’s house until Schlissel holds a formal conversation with them. The two survivors, who have been protesting since Oct. 8, say the University’s administration has played a role in perpetuating a culture of assault and are asking for a conversation about amending the University’s response in cases of abuse.
Thus far, Schlissel hasn’t directly addressed or acknowledged the protesters in person. He told The Michigan Daily in an interview Thursday that he appreciates Vaughn.
“He’s a passionate advocate for something that’s really important,” Schlissel said. “I admire him for the courage of stepping up and speaking out about what he went through.”
Schlissel did not directly answer why he wouldn’t speak with Vaughn and the other survivor protesters.
“The way I’ve chosen to listen to members of the survivors’ community doesn’t include stopping by the front of the house and listening to a group of folks in tents,” Schlissel said
Christian, who first came to the University in 1977 to play football and study art, said he didn’t recognize Anderson’s treatment to be rape until decades later. Christian also spoke about how Anderson’s abuse contributed to his unwillingness to go to doctors, ultimately leading to his stage IV diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2016.
“I remember the first physical that I had with Anderson shocked me, because what he did to me had never been done to me before,” Christian said. “I remember when Anderson did that, he checked my joints, checked my elbow, he checked everything. But he made sure to say ‘Now bend over, and I got to check your behind.’”
DeLuca, who has also taken part in the protest outside of Schlissel’s house, said being a part of the demonstration has been an “out-of-body experience.”
“Right now, I’m not relevant; I’m irrelevant to this story,” DeLuca said. “The story is the University of Michigan is doing nothing to protect you — the students, the faculty, the staff. Every day we’re out there, we hear more and more stories. I never expected to hear young women tell me stories of how they were sexually assaulted or raped, and I really never expected to have 15, maybe 20 men come up and tell me that.”
During the panel, Vaughn also announced his decision to run for a seat on the Board of Regents in the next election.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, President Schlissel is a puppet, and the puppet masters are the Board of Regents,” Vaughn said. “Well, I’m here to tell you this today, the Board of Regents is a publicly voted on position, and today I want to announce that I’m going to run.”
Vaughn is still in the preliminary stages of his campaign and said he is communicating with friends who have run for office in the state.
LSA sophomore Maddie House attended the event and said she felt angered by the University’s repeated failure to take action on issues of sexual assault.
“It’s been very powerful, and I’m beyond inspired by the strength of the people presenting,” House said. “I’m also disturbed to hear what they’ve been through and the absolute lack of response from administration.”
Engineering senior Carla Voigt, Central Student Government vice president, said this forum was the first time she had heard about the allegations against Conforth.
“I had not heard about the professor’s stories and was really shocked to hear how odd and horrifying they were,” Voigt said.
LSA senior Zackariah Farah, LSA Student Government vice president, emphasized the urgency to address policy changes at the University.
“What all those survivors said was like something out of some kind of fiction,” Farah said. “But unfortunately that’s the reality here on campus and understanding that this is the reality for many students means that we need to act very quickly.”
The second portion of the forum went into the logistics and legal background of the sexual misconduct and harassment process. The panel consisted of Sarah Prescott, attorney and founding partner of Salvatore, Prescott, Porter & Porter; Rebekah Modrak, U-M professor and Senate Assembly member; Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information; and Kelly McClintock, attorney for over 300 Anderson survivors as well as seven Conforth survivors at Grewal Law PLLC.
Each panelist discussed their roles for assisting survivors in seeking justice, in being an ally and how they could contribute to a plan of action moving forward. Currently representing the seven survivors of Conforth, McClintock commented on the need for change to overthrow the norms that enable a culture of abuse and assault.
“There’s been a culture that has tolerated it,” McClintock said. “There’s been a steady pipeline, sadly, of victims for these people.”
McClintock said an important part of changing the culture surrounding sexual assault at the University is believing survivors.
“When we hear our friends and our family or acquaintances or we see in the comment section, someone saying something to undermine the credibility of a survivor and speaking in a mean-spirited, not trauma-informed way, we have to stick out and we have to stand together and show solidarity to our brother and sister survivors,” McClintock said.
Prescott, the attorney for eight survivors of former Provost Martin Philbert, discussed the difficulty many survivors face with coming forward and openly speaking on their trauma. To enact change, Prescott said there needs to be a plan of action, goals for the future and support for those trying to make change.
“Whether I’m talking to women or men who are in their 50s or I’m talking to teenagers, this stuff is hard to do alone,” Prescott said. “If you define your project as, ‘I’m going to do everything I can do to make the situation right and better,’ then you’ve defined it in a way that you can succeed at and you can avoid being disheartened by the enormity of the problem.”
Modrak called for a council of students, faculty, staff and survivors to oversee the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX office, the successor to the OIE that was launched in August.
“We need to include the expertise of survivors,” Modrak said.
Public Policy junior Kayla Tate said the forum further emphasized the need for the University to take action to better protect its students from sexual assault.
“It just goes to show how inept (the University is) with handling these sorts of situations,” Tate said.
Accompanied by fellow Public Policy students and friends, Tate came to show support for the survivors and the cause as they work to develop their own action plan.
“(We) wanted to show up and show support because there’s little fires all over this campus, and we’re just trying to connect it to make a big fire and really uproot the status quo,” Tate said.
Crosman said the forum’s turnout was impressive, and Christian said he was glad to see so many individuals across the campus community present.
“I think it’s powerful and is what’s needed because it’s pulling different groups into one,” Christian said. “That’s what you need to do in order to make an impact on this campus; if everyone stays separate, nothing gets done, but if everybody pulls together, fights together, you can kick Michigan’s ass.”
Daily Staff Reporter Daniel Muenz contributed reporting.