Editor’s Note: The author of this op-ed has been kept anonymous due to their fear of retaliation.
As a University of Michigan staff member, reading the WilmerHale report on University Provost Martin Philbert’s sexual misconduct is both sickening and validating. Staff who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at the University know how it goes. The Office for Institutional Equity is brought in — or they aren’t — they botch an investigation or don’t conduct one at all and then you’ll face retaliation for daring to speak up. In some cases, you didn’t actually dare report, but unwittingly stumbled into someone’s reporting obligation and found your reputation destroyed anyway. Oh, there is a policy in the Standard Practice Guide against retaliation? Please tell that to the managers who retaliate readily, easily and with impunity.
Time and again, the report alludes to staff who experienced or got wind of harm but feared speaking out, feared professional retribution. I want to affirm that based on my many years working at the University, all those fears are completely valid. This place is incredibly hierarchical, and power is concentrated within leadership. Survivors and their supporters get kicked off important projects, denied promotions or socially iced-out under the guise of not being “trusted” — that is, no longer seen as willing to trade their ethics for advancement. Some staff try with limited success to fight back against this dynamic; some try to bury the pain of their disenfranchisement and moral injury, often resulting in mental and physical health problems; some are chased out of their field. The Michigan brand and image takes precedence over safety and fairness, and in turn, over retaining diverse talent. You’d think the University would view all those things as important to its reputation, but stupidly, it doesn’t.
The report offers several recommendations to improve campus climate. I hope the University takes them seriously. But none of the guidance engages the point: Unchecked power and hierarchy in higher education preserves sexism, racism and violence toward students and workers.
To that end, though I love my work, I’m job searching to get out of this place. I’ve been gaslit by supervisors whose “feedback” amounts to backlash. I’m tired of watching my friends and colleagues get violated by male coworkers, then traumatized by OIE and their leaders. This place doesn’t deserve us. I’m sorry to the brilliant students I won’t be able to serve, I’m sorry to my dedicated colleagues who are still trying to make it work — there is indeed something to the idea of making change from within, if you can stand it — and I’m most sorry to survivors whom this University has failed. You always deserved a safe and fair workplace. You still do. May we find it, and may brave people continue to tell the truth knowing that it just might set their future on fire.