Considering risks, University initiates review of sexual misconduct policies

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 8:33pm

The University of Michigan will be hiring an “outside expert” to perform a review of how the University handles sexual misconduct reports and the policies that guide these practices.

The University of Michigan will be hiring an “outside expert” to perform a review of how the University handles sexual misconduct reports and the policies that guide these practices. Buy this photo
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The University of Michigan will be hiring an “outside expert” to perform a review of how the University handles sexual misconduct reports and the policies that guide these practices. The announcement came eight days after the University’s revised sexual misconduct policies went into effect on Feb. 7.

At the Feb. 15 Board of Regents Meeting, University President Mark Schlissel laid out the purposes behind the Feb. 7 revision, which was in accordance with the policy’s annual review, and the decision to hire an outside firm.

“Now we will seek a broader examination of our entire community,” Schlissel said. “This includes students, faculty, staff, visitors and patients. We will ask an outside expert to assess the quality of our current efforts and suggest what we can be doing better, so that we can make any fixes that are necessary.”

University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said while staff at the University “are already working on it,” many details of the review, such as which firms would be considered or how the review would be structured, were not yet worked out. Still, Fitzgerald said, the University wanted to demonstrate its commitment to overseeing an effective review.

“I think what the president wanted to make clear very quickly last week is that we've done a lot of work in this area, but of course we always want to take the opportunity to see if there's more we should be doing, or if there's a process that can be refined,” he said. “I would say that's how we've done things in the past — pretty open and transparent. I don't know how exactly this process will work because we haven't gotten to that point yet.”

A report released by the University’s Office of Institutional Equity in January showed a 40 percent increase in sexual misconduct reports from 2016 to 2017. Of the 218 reports made to OIE between July 2016 and June 2017, 82 were deemed outside “the scope of the policy.” Twenty-eight were formally investigated, and 111 were reviewed by an OIE panel. Of the cases which were investigated, only 8 found a student in violation of University rules. 

The University’s attention to examining its current practices comes shortly after the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of young girls and women he was supposed to be treating. Investigations by ESPN and The Detroit News in the wake of the Nassar sentencing revealed the degree to which the case reflected a failure of MSU administration and staff on multiple levels, and also extended to other areas of MSU’s athletic department.

The announcement also follows two incidences of possession of child pornography by University of Michigan employees. On Feb. 12, Mark Hoeltzel, a former University pediatric rheumatology specialist, was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for possession of child pornography –– Hoetzel also had a two-year sexual relationship with one of his patients, who started seeing him for treatment at age 17. On Feb. 13, Clifford Raymond Bingham, a former professor at the University, was sentenced to 90 days in jail for child pornography possession.

In April 2017, before many of the revelations of the flaws in MSU’s sexual misconduct practices, MSU’s then-President, Lou Anna K. Simon, also called for an independent review of its sexual misconduct policies. Simon’s announcement was part of her administration’s response to the Larry Nassar allegations.

MSU hired the law firm Husch Blackwell to conduct the initial review. On Nov. 20, 2017, Husch Blackwell published a report detailing their investigation, which found MSU was Title IX compliant, saying the policies “reflect a strong and genuine institutional commitment to combatting sexual misconduct.” 

A press release published on Feb. 13 announced MSU would engage in another review led by investigative risk consulting firm Kroll to address Title IX complaints.

According to LSA freshman Morgan McCaul, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, MSU even obscured the findings of the first review by hiring the firm as an assistant counsel in lawsuits against the university, which made the documents subject to attorney-client privilege, which can only be forcibly released if subpoenaed in court. She said it was important the same thing didn’t happen with the University of Michigan’s review.

“There is no guarantee with external or third-party investigations that the results will be made public, and that’s what I think is really important to call for in these situations,” McCaul said. It’s fabulous that they are going to do that, but if they are not going to release the results and they are going to disappear conveniently, then they might not as well not have it in the first place.”

Rackham student Nicole Bedera researches Title IX on college campuses, and explained organizations are often prompted to participate in an external review by a new event or development. In the case of the University’s decision to pursue an external review, Bedera believes the decision can be attributed to the Larry Nassar trials and the fact that the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are in close connection.

According to Bedera, the hiring process for firms that lead external investigations depend on the types of results an organization hopes to yield and the insights on sexual misconduct they hope to gain. Bedera made the distinction that a legally-focused firm would likely consider issues like compliance and the legal soundness of an institution’s policies, whereas a socially-focused firm may focus the investigation more heavily on the student experience.

While details of the University’s firm hiring process have not been announced, Berdera hopes those involved in the investigation will seek out the perspective of faculty, researchers and students on campus who have valuable insights on the issue of sexual misconduct and how the University interacts with the issue on campus.

“As we are moving towards this external review, one thing that I hope the University will be doing is turning to a lot of experts about sexual violence on the campus who should be chiming in,” Bedera said. “And by experts I don't mean just necessarily researchers, but also people who have been through an adjudication process on campus, who have been involved in sexual misconduct claims whether they are making them or they are the one they have been made about, and I hope those people who know Michigan really well will have a chance to speak about their own experiences.”