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Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault
More than 50 students in the Ford School of Public Policy walked out of their classes and marched through the halls of Weill Hall Friday in protest against the admission of a Public Policy and Social Work master’s student who was found guilty of Title IX violations related to sexual assault by his undergraduate university, Eastern Mennonite University.
In a Wednesday email addressed to Public Policy master’s students, an individual named as Ryan Decker — who The Michigan Daily was unable to verify the identity of — expressed his dismay that a current Public Policy graduate student had been granted admission to the Master of Public Policy and Master of Social Work programs at the University after committing sexual assault.
The Daily obtained a copy of Decker’s email. Because the student hasn’t been criminally convicted and is not a public figure, The Daily is not publishing the student’s name.
“I am horrified to learn that (name omitted) has been granted admittance to the prestigious Masters of Social Work and Masters of Public Policy programs at the University of Michigan, given his history of sexual assault,” Decker wrote. “It’s baffling- how was someone who was found guilty of violating Title IX at another university allowed into these programs?”
The protesters have created a list of three demands: the immediate removal of the particular graduate student’s ability to come to campus, transparency on the University’s admission process and for communication from Ford as they address the situation, and for Ford to create safe spaces for survivors of sexual misconduct.
In addition to Friday’s protest, the demonstrators initially said they planned to continue to boycott their classes and picket outside of Ford every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the demands are met. However, they stopped their picket midday Monday after some in Ford raised concerns that the protest could create an uncomfortable or triggering atmosphere for survivors walking to class, according to messages reviewed by The Daily.
The protest comes amid intense focus on the issue of sexual misconduct on campus recently because of the more than 2,000 allegations against former University athletic doctor Robert Anderson, which may be the most sexual abuse accusations against a single person in U.S. history.
Other recent occurrences of sexual misconduct at the University include allegations against Computer Science in Engineering professors Walter Lasecki and Jason Mars and the upcoming trial of former interim CSE chair Peter Chen. In addition, former provost Martin Philbert retired in June of last year after being placed on leave due to allegations of sexual misconduct, and SMTD professor Stephen Shipps retired in 2019 after 40 years of sexual misconduct allegations were brought against him. Former SMTD professor David Daniels, former LSA lecturer Bruce Conforth and English professor Douglas Trevor have also been accused of sexual misconduct.
Following Decker’s email, Public Policy Dean Michael Barr wrote in an email to all Ford students Wednesday night that addressed “sexual assault in broad terms.”
“I know it will be frustrating to some of you, but for confidentiality reasons I am not able to comment about the particular case raised or the student mentioned in the email,” Barr wrote.
Barr’s email offered students resources on campus if they feel unsafe and said the Ford School’s academic advisors and its Counseling and Psychological Services counselor would be available for students to talk to. Barr said he and Ford leadership would be meeting with the Public Policy Student Affairs Committee and student organizations to make sure all Public Policy students felt safe on campus.
“I’ve heard from some who feel unsafe at the Ford School in the wake of the message,” Barr wrote. “Nothing is more important to me as a leader than that people are safe and feel safe in our community. I and the rest of the Ford School leadership team will do all we can to ensure that no one ever feels threatened, intimidated, or harassed in the Ford School.”
Public Policy junior Alyssa Donovan led the protest, which began at 9:30 a.m on Friday. It started on the steps of the lower entrance of Weill Hall and eventually moved inside and up to the Dean’s Suite on the third floor.
In an interview with The Daily, Donovan said she hoped that this demonstration would lead to all students feeling safer on campus.
“We are outraged, and so as soon as we found out, we began mobilizing, because this is something that is unacceptable,” Donovan said. “As a result of that, we are taking action until our administration does something to either confirm the safety of all students and the equitable access to education for all students, especially survivors.”
In a 2016 campus safety incident report from Eastern Mennonite University, the student was accused of rape by his former partner. The report alleges the student repeatedly raped the partner from January 2014 to September 2015.
The student was later found guilty of sexual misconduct and received a Title IX violation in January 2017 from Eastern Mennonite University based on the written and verbal statements of the complainant, respondent and witnesses.
The Daily reached out to Eastern Mennonite University to verify the authenticity of these reports but did not receive confirmation in time for publication.
In a Sunday email obtained by The Daily, Barr addressed the Ford community and explained that Rackham Graduate School asks all potential Ford graduate students if they have received a criminal charge or Title IX violation during the admissions process. Rackham determines if the violation makes the candidate inadmissible and, if no such determination is made, Ford is not alerted of the violation.
He did not directly address whether Ford administration was made aware of the Title IX violation of the student that other Ford students are protesting against.
Barr wrote that the admissions policy was in hopes that a restorative approach can be made to students convicted of misconduct.
“The policy … seeks to protect the safety and academic integrity of the University community, while ensuring a fair and equitable admissions review procedure for prospective students,” Barr wrote. “In addition to evaluating if the applicant represents a threat to safety or academic integrity, the review incorporates principles of restorative justice. When a restorative decision is made, it is an acknowledgement that the student was forthright in disclosing the misconduct, that any sanctions or disciplinary actions were fulfilled, and that the student learned from that situation.”
At Friday’s protest, Donovan also said the walkout was in solidarity with Anderson survivors, some of whom have been camping outside of University President Mark Schlissel’s house since Oct. 8 in a protest led by Anderson survivor Jon Vaughn. At least 950 individuals have come out with more than 2,000 allegations of sexual assault against Anderson, who died in 2008 and was never investigated by the University when he was alive.
Public Policy senior Emma Sandberg, Central Student Government representative, said she attended the event immediately after spending the night in a tent alongside the Anderson survivors. Sandberg said she wanted the University to take further action in supporting survivors and preventing sexual misconduct.
“I’ve always assumed that if a student is found responsible for rape, and that’s on their record, that they would not be accepted into a graduate program, or at least not one as prestigious as the Masters in Public Policy,” Sandberg said. “I’m honestly shocked by this. I’ve been dealing with all the other stuff on campus surrounding this issue … and I’m really fed up with the entire University at this point.”
The leaders of the protest — including Donovan, Public Policy junior Dora Koski and Public Policy junior Kayla Tate — began the demonstration by walking out of their morning discussion sections and moving into the lobby of Weill Hall. They began encouraging students to join them in walking out of their classes.
Donovan then led the protestors up the stairs of Weill Hall while they chanted “Protect survivors, not rapists,” “Don’t stay complacent” and “We reject the administration’s disrespect.”
Donovan eventually led the crowd to the Dean’s Suite on the third floor, where Koski approached Barr with the group’s list of demands. She called on Barr to try to put himself in the shoes of survivors.
“There are people being disproportionately harmed by (the student’s) presence here,” Koski said. “People with trauma surrounding assault have been continuously triggered by this situation, not allowing us to equally receive education from this University.”
Donovan then moved the group down to the Weill Hall lobby, where she called on the protestors to stand with her in support of the group’s demands by abstaining from their classes for the rest of the day.
Tate said while the turnout of the event was a success, more work needed to be done as there are still members of the U-M administration who are not taking survivors and allies of sexual misconduct seriously.
“This obviously was a step in the right direction, but we need more disruption,” Tate said. “People are going about their everyday lives as if this isn’t happening, and people are in their offices right now doing work as if this isn’t happening. We need more action. We need more people. We have to disrupt the status quo or this will continue to happen. We have to protect survivors.”
The group then moved outside to continue the walk-out at the Weill Hall lower entrance.
Public Policy junior Hailey Espinosa said she was missing two classes due to the walk-out, but she attended because she thought it was important to both show solidarity for the survivors and to improve the culture at the Public Policy School.
“The lack of response from the administration has really disrupted the school environment,” Espinosa said. “ It’s kind of been silent … and I think it’s really important that (we) do more to address it.”
Public Policy junior Georgia Richardson-Smaller, another organizer of the event, said the demonstrators were working with the U-M administration and Barr about how the Public Policy School should move forward.
Richardson-Smaller said some members of the Public Policy administration referenced support of “Ban the Box” — a movement that calls for the removal of the box on job applications that asks applicants to disclose their criminal record prior to applying — as a means to justify the student not having to disclose his misconduct.
Richardson-Smaller said while she supported “Ban the Box” in general, she didn’t believe it should apply to people who were accused of sexual misconduct.
“We’re really big proponents of ‘Ban the Box,’” Richardson-Small said. “That’s not to protect sexual assaulters or perpetrators of violent crimes. That’s for low-level (crimes) like drug crimes or (crimes) specifically targeting a community that is overpoliced.”
Public Policy junior Zan Rabney said he decided to skip class to show the University that they needed to take action to create a safer campus environment.
“I’m here to stand in solidarity with everyone who’s been affected by the administration’s lack of action,” Rabney said. “The administration tends to take a stance where they just say ‘we hear you’ without doing anything, anytime some kind of issue that’s controversial comes up. … The way that they respond leaves survivors feeling like there’s no hope for them.”
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.