Eight women reach $9.25 million settlement over sexual misconduct allegations against ex-Provost Philbert

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 12:37pm

(Note: This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic)

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Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Eight unnamed women have reached a $9.25 million settlement with the University of Michigan following sexual misconduct allegations against former Provost Martin Philbert.

Sarah Prescott, the lawyer representing the eight women, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that power imbalances at the University often allow those with more power to harass. She wrote she hopes this puts harassers on notice that no one is too big to fail. 

“Recent history has shown us that powerful people are better able to harass,” Prescott wrote. “Those power imbalances are endemic all throughout the University. Grad students, medical residents, young professors, and of course staff and students are all at risk of exploitation.”

Prescott wrote she hopes the community is able to draw hope from this case.

“My clients did not lose their jobs,” Prescott wrote. “They did not end their careers. Instead, they ended the career of their harasser. They got policy changes. They got a public apology. They got a settlement payment.”

Allegations against Philbert first publicly surfaced when he was placed on leave in January, later retiring from his position in June. Three women spoke out with allegations against Philbert in July.

In an email to The Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed the settlement, writing the University will not be naming the women to protect their privacy and will not publicly share additional details regarding the settlement.

Fitzgerald wrote Philbert’s actions were “abhorrent and unacceptable.”

“The University of Michigan failed on many levels, as this individual advanced through the administrative ranks,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We recognize how difficult it was for these eight women to come forward to share their experiences. We thank them for their courage and we apologize to each one of them and to all survivors.”

An investigation into the accusations by the law firm WilmerHale found “significant evidence” that Philbert had violated the University’s sexual misconduct policy and that multiple University personnel had prior knowledge of Philbert’s actions.

The report found that Philbert’s inappropriate behavior was pervasive and regular, and that he intimidated women who were his subordinates. 

“Philbert had expressly threatened some of them—one witness, who in fact was in a relationship with Philbert, told us that he said: ‘If you ever tell anyone about us, I will make sure you go down. I will destroy your career,’” the report reads.

According to the report, Philbert allegedly sexually harassed numerous members of the University community throughout his career, as he rose from the position of an assistant professor all the way up to his role as School of Public Health dean and then provost, the University’s second-highest ranking official. 

Early on in his time at the University, Philbert allegedly harassed women who worked in his research lab, making unsolicited sexual comments about their bodies and redirecting conversations toward sex. The investigation found Philbert had sexual relationships with at least two school employees, and sometimes more, while he was provost. He stored nude photos of these women on devices owned by the University and had “sexual contact” with them in U-M offices.

The report concludes that Philbert’s alleged misconduct was long-running and offered recommendations to address shortcomings at U-M regarding how the institution handles claims of sexual misconduct.

“Two things are clear: First, there is significant evidence that Philbert engaged in a wide range of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, for at least fifteen years,” the report reads. “Second, neither OIE (the Office of Institutional Equity) nor the senior leadership of the University understood the seriousness or the pervasiveness of Philbert’s misconduct.”

Daily News Editor Barbara Collins can be reached at bcolli@umich.edu


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