For a recent Detroit Metro Times article, reporter Lee DeVito asked Rick Fitzgerald, the University of Michigan spokesman, about an op-ed written by an anonymous U-M staff member. Fitzgerald’s response, which regarded an alleged conflict of interest with Regent Ron Weiser (R), came close to engaging the point that such conflicts of interest aren’t anything new. Fitzgerald, presumably unintentionally, focuses on what the University prioritizes: serving private wealth and preserving its reputation. The anonymous staffer writes that this is additionally symptomatic of nationwide “deterioration and rot,” which they believe descended upon us only in the past four years. However, there is significant evidence that this distinctly American cultural rot at an ostensibly “progressive” public University isn’t new, with institutional cowardice running rampant alongside it.
What then, might you ask, is the true culprit? The business model the University uses is not unique from the traditional college and university model. It is a patently corporate business model that discourages accountability from top to bottom. This dependence on private wealth actively privileges the interests of its wealthy donors over the well-being of its students, vulnerable faculty, graduate student employees, adjuncts and other members of the community, with the University’s endowment driving these decisions. In service of its brand, the University prioritizes burying the smoking gun of imminent harm. Such political theater is ignited when one of its administrators, a powerful member of its athletic department or a tenured faculty member, is implicated in wrongdoing.
The necessity of preserving the University’s lifestyle brand is the real reason we’ve only recently learned of the decades of preventable sexual misconduct and manipulation by former University Provost Martin Philbert. The logic is obvious when one looks more closely at the scandal: If a university is known to allow its tenured faculty members to sexually assault students with impunity, how does that affect its reputation? If it is known to use Title IX investigations as legal cover to protect itself from liability, how might that affect a parent’s decision to send their child to school there?
There is a term for this: institutional complicity. University leadership is protected from legal liability in most cases by qualified immunity laws and misbehaving faculty reported to OIE are protected by employment laws meant to safeguard their right to privacy. In other words, if OIE had hypothetically investigated Philbert at various points, it is incredibly unlikely they would have done anything to stop him. Smart criminals, unfortunately, don’t leave trails aside from their victims, and OIE has no incentive to look into those cases properly. OIE’s staff are paid by the University, and acknowledging a sexual predator’s presence, past or present, doesn’t serve the institution.
When reached for comment, Fitzgerald said he doesn’t believe these claims about the University’s transparency are accurate, citing the fact that “the University publishes annual reports on sexual misconduct matters that allow anyone to follow a case through to conclusion.”
In the years following the advent of the #MeToo movement, the entire University community was deceived into believing they were not capable of such crises. That’s not because a crisis didn’t exist, but because the University does what administrative offices have always done when faced with what the anonymous University staff member calls “unprofitable inevitabilities”: They gaslight individuals already victimized by the scandal, and then suppress the truth until they can no longer do so. That is, when the trail of harms becomes extensive and undeniable.
With that in mind, the sexual misconduct cases of Philbert and former University physician Dr. Robert Anderson have much in common. Both men were exalted and protected by the institution even after their predatory behavior was brought to the attention of administrators. Both hid their malicious targeting of victims under the veneer of professionalism and preyed on their victims’ ambitions while exploiting a culture of silence. Knowing this, it is important to acknowledge that under institutional layers of negligence there were other bad actors who enabled predatory behavior. The truth was, as they say, hidden in plain sight — by administrators with ample reasons for doing so.
Philbert accuser Emily Renda told The Daily that “President Schlissel 100% lied to the Michigan Daily when he told you that he first learned of any allegations against Philbert in January of this year.”
Indeed, evidence uncovered during the WilmerHale investigation indicates Schlissel should have known — a survey he was charged with reviewing in advance of Philbert being appointed Provost described him as a “notorious sexual predator.”
Additionally, another individual abused by Anderson, Tad DeLuca, reported his abuse to former University wrestling coach Bill Johannesen in 1975 — over 40 years ago. Not only was he disbelieved despite how Anderson’s serial abuse was an open secret, but he was kicked off the wrestling team. Anderson was allowed to continue his sexual abuse unabated. At Anderson’s funeral in 2008, football coach Lloyd Carr called him “a tremendous asset in this community.” When the University was made aware of the extent of the allegations, rather than opening an internal investigation, it passed them on to the University of Michigan Police Department and the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor quietly dismissed the charges, because Anderson was deceased and the statute of limitations had passed.
There is also the case of David Daniels, a disgraced opera singer and former School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor. Daniels was fired one year after he and his husband were charged with sexually assaulting fellow singer and former SMTD graduate student Andrew Lipian. But in his civil suit against the University, Lipian alleges the University had known about his allegations for years and failed to act. Even in comments made by representatives for Daniels and the University after several other accusers came forward, the specter of a ruined reputation overshadows the importance of learning from institutional mistakes and ensuring the well-being of alleged victims.
It is important to note the University has other options. For example, it can allow Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to completely investigate any allegations. Knowing this, the University has refused to suspend attorney-client privilege or to commit to complete transparency, shutting down those possibilities in favor of taking measures to control the narrative.
Case workers for the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center could direct survivors to OSCR’s much less formal Adaptable Conflict Resolution process rather than an OIE investigation in the case of reported sexual misconduct. In choosing the ACR route, survivors (or “complainants”) forego the possibility of sanctions or a guilty finding for the offender (or “respondent”). This is part of a defense strategy meant to protect the University and avoid liability traps, due to how imposing sanctions or punishment of any kind on the respondent (including a finding of policy violation) opens the University up to litigation. As a result, even in cases where a Title IX investigation results in a guilty finding, it behooves the University to impose sanctions on the offending party that can be considered inappropriately light.
With the current Title IX process being what it is, encouraging a survivor to endure a long and emotionally taxing investigation, with inadequate professional support provided by the school, might be thought of as an endangerment of the survivor’s well-being. While case managers at SAPAC are licensed professionals, the on-staff advocates often charged with supporting survivors through traumatic processes are trained interns, not licensed therapists nor trained legal professionals.
With regards to the allegation that the University’s Title IX Office is in place to protect the reputation of the University and not the members of its protected classes nor the members of its community, Fitzgerald replied, “That’s not accurate. The safety of our community is our highest priority.”
Fitzgerald additionally stated that “SAPAC advocates and all staff are trained in the empowerment philosophy approach, which has at its foundation the belief that survivors are the ones who know what they need best, and SAPAC advocates are available to help them understand all of their options and not make decisions for them. This is affirmed on the SAPAC website.”
In the case of Claire*, a former SMTD student, the student she accused of sexual assault was found guilty after a lengthy investigation by OIE. However, once OIE concluded its investigation, responsibility for imposing sanctions or “punishment” was then passed to OSCR because the respondent in her case was another student. Other than the OSCR sanctioning board’s recommendation that the respondent seek counseling — noting they had taken into consideration his autism spectrum disorder diagnosis and suggested he disclose the finding appropriately in the future — the board’s only required sanctions were a monthly “educational project focused on building awareness” that could be “satisfied in a variety of formats, including outside professional providers,” in addition to a short reflection essay he was given six months to write.
Claire says a permanent, no-contact directive OSCR gave the respondent was never enforced. Instead, she was forced to see him in class every day for her final two years in SMTD. Now enrolled in graduate school at another institution, she disclosed that she experienced panic attacks as a result of nearly constant exposure to her assailant after the investigation concluded. She added that she found SAPAC’s resources to be unhelpful.
In a letter containing the sanctions sent from OSCR to the respondent dated May 5, 2017, and copied to Claire, the sanctioning board wrote, “You are to write an essay of 1,200-1,500 words (size 12, Times New Roman font, standard margins) discussing your experience. Please reflect on the situation and how this experience has affected your personal, social and academic experience since the time of the incident.”
While the letter from OSCR goes on to say the essay can’t be used to justify the respondent’s actions, I’m unsure what’s more concerning: how a school’s punishment for a finding of responsibility for sexual assault can be so light, to the point of amounting to no real punishment at all or that the University imposes such light punishment while proclaiming they want to prevent sexual misconduct from occurring. When potential offenders know they won’t be appropriately punished for their crimes even if they are found guilty — particularly faculty offenders who know very well how much the system is already stacked in their favor — why wouldn’t they exploit an opportunity? Despite all this, Claire could not sue the school due to how OIE’s investigation had run down the clock, on the window during which victims can file for their right to sue: 180 days from the date of the trigger incident.
Meanwhile, Counseling and Psychological Services continues to have long wait times and currently has one on-staff counselor specializing in the treatment of sexual assault and trauma, Danielle Zohrob, Psy.D. Rather than enacting change, the administration continues to speak publicly over those they’ve harmed.
With that said, the University community needs to talk about exploitation marketed as empowerment. Given the OIE’s process for adjudicating sexual misconduct — one that Philbert himself actively defended — and the administration’s initial decision to hire a defense firm that has listed among its clients the notorious sexual predators Jeffrey Epstein and Roman Polanski (a decision only changed later, after it met swift public backlash), it seems the University is good at cover ups. It is to the point that while rights for complainants in Title IX processes are being gutted, the University administration has placed a spin on this gutting reminiscent of a “right-to-work” advertisement campaign.
With all of the supposed safeguards, accountability measures and a “commitment to transparency” the administration so frequently alludes to, why does this institutional cowardice and deceit come as a surprise to anyone in our community? Why, when so much evidence of Philbert’s sexual misconduct contained within the WilmerHale report had already been communicated to University leadership over decades, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg still so shocking? Why has it taken a devastating pandemic to see through the administration’s strategic avoidance of the truth?
The short answer is both effective advertising and the continued necessity of cover-ups to save face in an age of expanding public awareness. We see the University make frequent use of the language of salesmanship, especially in the form of today’s corporate buzzwords. Words like “commitment,” “transparency,” “mental health,” “wellness,” “support,” “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” see frequent use, while relevant improvements are an entirely different story. Empty slogans are no substitute for responsible, ethical and decisive action.
The appearances of democratic decision making and the idea of educational opportunity as the great equalizer are coveted brands in the United States. However, at this point, we should be asking the question of who has branded who. Despite the University’s status as a public university, we have recently seen how we are being collectively misled by the whims of a much more secretive and menacing set of private incentives, promoted by a select few.
If we have learned anything over this past decade of monumental social and political shifts, it is that for better or worse, circumventing reality does not create a better and newer reality. Instead, avoiding the problem only delays and worsens its consequences. Despite the false, telegenic realities presented to us by our corporate leadership, the truth is still widely available. In order to speak truth to power, we must first find it, consolidate it and confront it.
*Name has been changed to protect survivor’s anonymity.
Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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