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The University of Michigan is replacing the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) with the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (ECRT) in an effort to improve sexual misconduct prevention and support. The Michigan Daily sat down with President Mark Schlissel and Regent Jordan Acker (D), chair of the Board of Regents, to discuss criticisms of U-M sexual misconduct investigations, civil rights lawsuits filed against ECRT’s future director Tamiko Strickman and additional resources devoted to the new office. Read more about ECRT here and more about other U-M efforts announced Thursday here. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: ECRT intends to “shift the focus from one of investigations to one that provides care and leads with support and prevention” — important goals, I think everyone can agree. However, the investigative process itself has also been subject to criticism. Some complainants say their investigators were sloppy or favored respondents from the outset, and others, including yourself, President Schlissel, have said investigations and adjudication take too long. How will the changes announced today make investigations more accurate and timely?
Mark Schlissel: One of the challenges that students in particular have when they’re going through an investigation either as a claimant or respondent is their point of contact. Their point of contact previously has been the investigator, and that’s pretty tough, because when you have a person who’s doing the investigation and you’re trying to get information from them and you’re trying to get support from them, it’s a very ambivalent role — we recognize that through many of the complaints that have come about investigations. That prompted us to set up a brand new position called an Equity Specialist and a Support Coordinator.
The idea is that they’ll be the point of contact for students, faculty or staff going through an investigation so that whenever you want to know what’s the current status of things, or what’s going to happen next, or when should I expect to hear — but not just that — who can I tap into help to help me through this period of time where things seem to be lingering and taking a long time? So that focus of care and support would really be delivered through the Equity Specialists, helping both the respondent and a claimant through a process which we’re trying to make more timely.
One of the problems in timing, as we look at cases that have dragged on, is there are winter breaks and there are summer vacations and there are exam periods, and many parties to an investigation often request a delay for very valid reasons. You add those things up, and they keep pushing the process to be longer and longer. In recent years we’ve hired more investigators, and that hasn’t solved the problem. We really hope that by providing dedicated support staff to work with respondents and claimants, it’ll make the process something less foreboding and more helpful and supportive in outcome.
Jordan Acker: One of the things that we took really seriously when devising how we were going to make changes was listening to students and listening to people who had been on both sides of these issues to see what the complaints were. I can say this until I’m blue in the face because it’s so important: Making sure we have community buy-in is perhaps the most important thing. You can have the best policies in the whole world, but they’re meaningless if the community doesn’t trust them and the community doesn’t feel like their input has been taken and taken seriously. I think that was a big part of this push with Guidepost, with our administration. We didn’t just want a one-size-fits-all policy just thrown on walls, we wanted the policies that worked for Michigan. And ultimately, that required a significant amount of listening, and I think they were going to be more successful in this area because of that.
TMD: Besides sending the initial outreach, what is the functional difference between the new role of Equity Specialist and the role that Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR) case managers have played in the last couple of years?
MS: OSCR is focused on the disciplinary step. This new position is within ECRT, which is the successor to OIE, and it has purview over faculty and staff as well. And to be honest, the faculty and staff were somewhat jealous in that SAPAC does an outstanding job with prevention and education work and support work, but SAPAC is focused on students. Now, in this office, we’ll have SAPAC-like activity that’s helpful and supportive to faculty and staff as well.
TMD: Tamiko Strickman, current director of OIE and soon to be named director of ECRT, led the University of Nebraska Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance before coming to Michigan. Two lawsuits filed by ten total plaintiffs allege Strickman and her office repeatedly violated federal civil rights and sex discrimination law when handling cases. One of these lawsuits has attracted attention from the Department of Justice. Allegations, for example, include that she allegedly told a Black student that race discrimination claims “Will never be fully investigated because students on campus have a right to free speech.” Do the allegations in these lawsuits and the mistrust the community may have because of them give you any pause in appointing Strickman to this position?
MS: Yeah, I’ll say two things to that. One is we looked very carefully at the lawsuits you’re mentioning, and we looked at the nature of the suit, and we had our general counsel speak to the general counsel and the communications staff at Nebraska. We spoke to Tammy (Tamiko) about these cases as well, and we satisfied ourselves that ultimately she’ll be cleared of wrongdoing in these cases.
Also, we’ve had the opportunity to work with her now for a year and a half, and she is an outstanding professional. She’s educated and thoughtful and expert and quite sensitive. She has a very powerful sense of responsibility and justice and equity. She’s really a fantastic person. And I think in the fullness of time, her leadership of this office will be a great benefit to the University.
But it’s a fair question, and we look really carefully at it. We have to be careful in all cases that an accusation, particularly in a politically charged area, doesn’t become the same as truth. It’s an accusation. And we’ll keep our eye on how those cases play out, but we looked at them very carefully.
TMD: Have anything to add on that, Regent Acker?
JA: I don’t.
TMD: President Schlissel, you state: “As President of this university, and on behalf of the regents and university community, let me say today and always to those who may have suffered harm, that we believe you.” Does that include the ten women in the Nebraska lawsuits?
MS: I think the purpose of that statement was to tell folks that we want them to come forward and tell their truth. We are going to investigate with seriousness and take seriously every complaint and accusation that gets made. That’s what I mean when I say we believe you. We’re never dismissive, and we always look at the details of what somebody is bringing forward, and that’s the way to treat everybody fairly. We also look at the statements of respondents when we do cases as well, because they deserve both due process and fair treatment as well.
Also, there’s a long history in the area of sexual misconduct of claimants not being believed, and that results, I think, in underreporting. We know sexual crimes and sexual misconduct are underreported when we compare our surveys to the number of reports we actually get. So to begin the process by telling folks that feel harmed: “We believe you, come and tell us what’s going on,” I think is the healthy way to pursue a situation with an open mind and a very welcoming approach.
TMD: What is the approximate dollar amount of additional resources being invested into ECRT compared to OIE, if you know that already?
MS: We don’t have precise numbers, but we’re talking about adding 10 or 12 positions, so it’s likely to range over an additional million dollars of base budget. It’s a significant amount, but you compare that to the scale of the institution — the tens of thousands of employees and thousands of faculty and tens of thousands of students — it’s an important investment to make.
JA: I think from a governing perspective from the board that passes this, we always say that our budget reflects our, our ethical and moral priorities as well, and getting this right is one of the priorities of this board. One thing I never want to hear is someone saying the investigation didn’t have enough resources, or that this person wasn’t heard because there wasn’t enough staffing — that’s not an acceptable answer. Especially, as Mark said about the size of our institution, you’re talking about a relatively small investment. But ultimately getting this right is so important that spending the money feels like the right thing to do — to regain one of the most important values of our institution, which is trust.
Summer Editor-in-Chief Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.