University President Mark Schlissel said Tuesday he hopes to update the University’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy “before the new year.”
“The goal of making change is to have the process be as fair as possible to the complainant and the respondent to help us arrive at a decision which is the right one,” he told The Michigan Daily in an interview.
Schlissel previously discussed the University’s intentions to consider changes to the policy at a fireside chat in April. The policy was last revised in 2013, when it was updated based on a set of recommendations handed down by the U.S. Department of Education. The updated version changed the burden of proof applied when adjudicating sexual misconduct cases. Now, decisions require only a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning an incident is more likely to have occured than not.
Tuesday, Schlissel said the Office of Student Life will spend the semester working with Central Student Government to garner additional feedback on the policy. Those forums will begin Oct. 1, according to University Spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
In April, Schlissel said changes would likely focus on the timeline of the adjudication process and issues, as well as improving University resources provided to students during and after the process.
“One thing, in particular, we’re concerned about is there are issues of representation during the process,” he added during the chat.
However, Schlissel said Tuesday he doesn’t anticipate changes to the policy’s definition of consent.
An April report by Daily raised questions about the difference between language in the University’s official policy, which defines consent as “clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed in mutually understandable words or actions,” and wording in educational materials provided by the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.
SAPAC’s more stringent language identifies consent as an explicitly verbal agreement, not satisfied by silence or body language.
SAPAC Director Holly Rider-Milkovich later announced plans to clarify language around consent on its website and in educational materials.
“At the end of the day, we can have really tight definitions, but we’re still left with an interaction that occurs with the door closed between two adults,” Schlissel said. “So who’s version of what happened forms the basis for moving forward? I think it is important to discuss consent mainly so students can really understand one another when they are in a room with the door closed, but I’m not 100 percent confident that’s going to end up affecting in a very dramatic way the adjudication process.”
Still, Schlissel said he’s open to the discussion, and will watch the impacts of laws in other states, like California, that have enacted legislation defining consent in the affirmative.
“Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent,” California’s 2014 definition states. “Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”
“The states that are pushing hard on this will be our laboratories, right?” Schlissel said. “If California all of sudden had a huge drop in sexual assault and misconduct, then oh boy, I’m ready to do that too.”
Schlissel said there are other benefits to discussing the University’s definition of consent, even if it doesn’t lead to a change in the official policy.
“We like to think there’s an objective reality out there in the world, and as a scientist, I cling to this idea that there’s truth out there, and you know, I’m going to discover it,” he said. “It turns out from the moment you set your eyes on a situation, you’re interpreting it differently than I am. And I think a discussion about consent will help all of us understand what one another are thinking so we can treat one another more respectfully."