Content warning: sexual assault
“It only takes one.”
At his talk on behalf of the Michigan Students Against Sexual Assault, Jonathan Vaughn gave this empowering message; a message of inspiration, a message of hope. Vaughn was one of Dr. Robert Anderson’s victims, and to directly hear his story personified the appalling abuse more than 2,000 people endured. Yet, after all these decades, the University still hasn’t taken meaningful steps to adequately address the harm caused and prevent this type of crisis from occurring again. While President Mark Schlissel made a public acknowledgment of the survivors, he has failed to speak to any of them directly.
Vaughn was a running back for the University of Michigan in the early 90s and went on to play in the NFL. However, instead of resting and enjoying his well-earned retirement, Vaughn has been camping outside Schlissel’s house for nearly three weeks and is planning to remain until December.
While listening to Vaughn talk, I still remember the moment the entire room went silent; it was with the number 50. In his own words, Vaughn had been raped by Anderson 50 times and sex trafficked 250 times. Every time it happened, he painfully described how he felt a piece of him die.
I can not put into words the immense suffering, hurt, sadness and anger evoked from this story, but more than anything it added fuel to my never dimming fire. I just couldn’t understand (1) how one human being could violate and induce such trauma in another human being nor (2) how a university as prestigious as the University of Michigan could be aware of such abuses and simply elect to ignore it.
One story of neglect that exhibits the University’s trend of covering up sexual misconduct is that of Tad Deluca, a former wrestler for the University. He wrote a letter to his coach, Bill Johansson, specifically disclosing Dr. Anderson’s abuses, and in return, he lost his scholarship and was kicked off the team. If that doesn’t smell like a cover-up, I don’t know what does.
Anderson’s perversions appear to have been common knowledge, as Deluca wasn’t the only one to try and bring light to the horrors. Hundreds of survivors have filed a class-action lawsuit. During Anderson’s time with the University, according to the report by law firm WilmerHale, multiple employees of Michigan were aware of the abuse. This trend of ignoring the victims feels like the go-to strategy within the University. For instance, LSA junior Porter Hughes, the press secretary of Michigan Students Against Sexual Assault, was also sexually harassed by an employee at the University — yet, in classic fashion, that employee faced no consequences.
Though there are clear mistakes made on the University’s part, there is some hope to be found in the progress made since. For one, very recently, there was a Senate Assembly meeting to discuss the University’s Title IX sexual and gender-based misconduct policies. In terms of policy implementation, the University did manage to pass five new policies and has already accepted 98% of the policies recommended by Guidepost Solutions, a consulting organization hired by the University to promote a safer campus environment. Moreover, important points about accountability and transparency were also addressed in the meeting.
Not only are there many faculty and senate members who are upset with the lack of accountability for past abuses, but a new plan about replacing the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) with the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office (ECRT) was also brought up to improve this process by assigning an ‘equity specialist,’ amongst other efforts. As was brought up in the meeting, the University can say that it is working on the policies, but without clear communication about their activities, we can’t hold them accountable. Considering the history, namely the absolute lack of support for victims, this becomes even more important. Additionally, even though the University’s first reaction was filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuits against itself, now, at the very least, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald has confirmed that the institution is working on monetary compensation for victims.
However, despite the fact that the University has definitely begun to take steps in the right direction, its cover-up culture is deeply ingrained and thus needs a deep systematic overhaul to change. The good news is, looking at the ways in which the University has already improved, there is hope. But to fully get there we need better policies, more accountability, actual enforcement and, most importantly, a change in mentalities.
The fight to be heard is one part of the battle, but the fight to be understood is the other. Until University officials themselves realize why it is not, was not and never will be okay to insensitively dismiss something that has the power to destroy lives, real change is impossible. And thus, until they acknowledge the past mistakes made by members of their community, we will be stuck in the same status we were in more than four decades ago: unsafe.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and canbe reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.