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Content warning: sexual assault and harassment

I’m a faculty member, not an administrator, at the University of Michigan. This document does not represent the views of my employer — and is often contrary to the processes the University would like students to follow. 

Over a number of years, I was part of a group of faculty who supported a group of students as they formally reported a professor for sexual misconduct — culminating in a story in The Michigan Daily, and shortly thereafter, his departure from the University. In the process, I was unfortunately able to witness how sexual misconduct reporting processes work at the University — which is likely not dissimilar to other large universities. While my experience is limited to this case, seeing the process up close left me with some observations I would like to share with our students.

First, students can no longer safely confide in most faculty members. Recently, the University made most faculty members mandatory reporters. This is an important change. It means that, in most cases, if a student reports sexual misconduct to a member of the faculty, that professor must report the incident — along with any identifying details — to the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (ECRT). Shortly thereafter, if the ECRT opens a case, the offending party will be notified and the student will lose control of the situation. The University, via the ECRT and its legal counsel, will be in control. For example, the University could direct you to attend a hearing at which you may be cross-examined by the reported professor’s legal counsel. This could all start with a chat with a trusted faculty member who genuinely wants to help.

The University claims to have made this change to make sure all sexual misconduct is surfaced and subject to investigation. However, the new policy to make professors mandatory reporters is contrary to the recommendations of prevailing research on the topic. It is likely that it will lead to even greater chilling effects, and take away faculty allies who can advise and advocate for students, both formally and informally.

Second, reporting sexual misconduct at the University is a long, retraumatizing process, and probably won’t result in the University taking any significant action. The formal reporting process via ECRT will be retraumatizing. The accused faculty member will be notified that there is an investigation, and you may have to interact with them or their lawyers. It will take a long time. Chairs and deans of your departments/colleges will be involved. Friends, labmates and group members will be interviewed. At the end of the process, the University will very likely take no action.

It is my opinion that the University has one primary objective here: minimizing damage to the University. This is not what they say publicly. If you read their materials and websites, their publicly stated goal is to help you. However, in my experience, many administrators make choices and design policies to deflect blame, insulate offending faculty members and minimize public relations fallout. For example, the University very rarely acts on misconduct that is reported to it; historically, only about 1% of reported cases result in any disciplinary measures. Only 3 of the 277 reports to the — now defunct — Office for Institutional Equity filed from mid 2017 to mid 2018 resulted in disciplinary measures.

The University has recently reorganized its approach, and perhaps will change for the better. And, a bright spot may be the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC), about which I have heard good things. But until proven otherwise, I assume the University will largely continue to act as it has for decades.

Third, though imperfect, there may be options other than reporting at the University.  Among them, you might consider retaining legal counsel, and/or going to the press. However, these approaches are not silver bullets. Lawyers may require upfront retaining fees, and sometimes will select only highly winnable cases for possibly large financial damages; talking to the press, even student reporters here at the University, may raise uncertainty about the audiences that will hear your story, or bring unwanted public attention (even if you do so anonymously). Moreover, lawyers and journalists cannot take on every case/story, which could make survivors feel further dismissed.  

However, in my limited experience, lawyers and reporters can also handle survivors’ stories with more sensitivity and respect than U-M administrators. These options also speak a language the University very clearly understands: legal, financial and reputational threat, which can lead to action. In the case I was connected with, I watched the University’s formal reporting process slowly grind on for months, culminating in a formal decision to do nothing. However, within days of a press story, the offending faculty member left the University. He wasn’t technically fired — and this tactic doesn’t always yield this result — but he was gone.

The law firm of Salvatore, Prescott Porter & Porter has successfully represented a number of U-M students over the past decade. The Focal Point desk at The Daily did a fantastic job handling the case mentioned above, as well as a number of other cases at the University. Finally, it can be very helpful to document as much as possible, even if you are undecided about what to do about it presently. This can help prevent gaslighting, as well as help with any future steps you choose to take (e.g., cases, press accounts, reports).

In conclusion, I wish I had better news. Better advice. I wish the University had safe mechanisms to protect students from abusive faculty. However, for the time being, I believe it may be more effective — and less retraumatizing — to explore options outside the University’s formal reporting channels.

Eric Gilbert is the John Derby Evans Associate Professor in the School of Information, & can be reached at eegg@umich.edu