Schlissel: Sexual misconduct investigations “take too long”, result in OIE discontent

Monday, December 3, 2018 - 5:33pm

University President Mark Schlissel

University President Mark Schlissel Buy this photo
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Each month, The Michigan Daily Administration Beat sits down with University President Mark Schlissel to discuss important questions about University policy, commitments and challenges. This transcript has been abbreviated and reordered for reader clarity.

The Michigan Daily: In recent coverage, The Daily has highlighted the stories of people at the University who have had less than favorable experiences with the Office for Institutional Equity and the Title IX sexual misconduct reporting process as a whole. Do you believe the current Title IX reporting process is effective given these stories and, if so, will the Sixth Circuit ruling make it less effective in your opinion?

President Mark Schlissel: I think the OIE has a very difficult job to do across a very challenging landscape … I think they do a very good job in aggregate. I think our investigations and adjudications often take too long. That’s a problem we have to work hard to correct. We’re going to have to adjust to the implications of the Sixth ruling, which is a pretty significant change. We’re pretty close to having a new approach that’s consistent with the Sixth Circuit ruling that we’re going to roll out in the beginning of the new semester, and recognize that we’ve done this in an accelerated way with some consulting but not as much as we normally do because in effect we’re under a court order … The biggest thing I’m worried about is we know misconduct is underreported, and what we’re concerned about is changes we make in light of the court ruling may impose even more challenge around reporting … We need to do everything we can in the context of this legal limitation to support students that come forward with claims of misconduct to hopefully make sure they still feel comfortable. Particularly on these stories of sexual misconduct, when you think or get information from people that don’t think the University is paying adequate attention or if someone accuses the University of trying to brush under the rug or hide these episodes, I can tell you that couldn’t be more wrong … The darn problem with these cases, even this one in Music, Theatre and Dance that has become a bit notorious, the initial complaints were anonymous complaints, and it’s extremely difficult to follow-up on anonymous complaints but we do … When you don’t hear of an investigation it doesn’t mean the University is ignoring it. It’s just unfair and untrue and this notion that it’s in the University’s best interest somehow to hide misconduct is exactly the opposite.

TMD: Given the recent midterm regents elections, the new partisan makeup of the board is seven Democrats and one Republican. Although the members of the Board are supposed to be nonpartisan, how do you believe this shift towards a large majority Democrats will influence the decisions made on behalf of the University and the issues the Board decides to undertake?

MS: Rarely do partisan issues show up in discussions by the board. They’re responsible for supervising me and then general oversight of the University, and there are way more similarities than there are differences between the members of different parties … With two new people, that’s a quarter of the group that’s different so there’s a whole new dynamic and people come in with their own background and the issues they care about … but I wouldn’t parse those things into Democrat or Republican.

TMD: Why do you think we are one of the only three public universities in Michigan that hold statewide elections for the regents?

MS: It’s historic. It was done here in a moment in time as part of the bylaws of the University of Michigan. The other universities in the state that do this are Wayne State and Michigan State University. The other publics all have appointed boards.

TMD: Do you foresee that changing in the future?

MS: I don’t see the politics that would lead to a change.

TMD: In terms of political platforms, candidates like Jordan Acker and Paul Brown were running on affordability, which, as you said, is very nonpartisan, but what about issues like Richard Spencer last year and free speech, which are very partisan issues?

MS: I don’t think Democrats or Republicans were thrilled with the content of what Richard Spencer would speak about. I don’t think either party would be excited about the specter of potential violence and spouting racist, misogynistic discourse … I think that members of both parties recognize that free speech is essential for a university … We’ve had discussions on the board about whether the campus is sufficiently welcoming to more conservative political points of view or whether they get suppressed … The commitment to free speech is bipartisan. People look at different groups and worry differently but the commitment is that same.

TMD: At our last meeting, you discussed the formation of a committee to address the University’s goals for carbon neutrality. Students have expressed a hope that the “proper individuals” will be placed on the committee to ensure success. How are you taking into account the voices of student environmental advocates or supporting faculty when selecting committee members?

MS: The goal of making us carbon neutral is very hard … Experts say the same thing, they’re not sure how we’re going to get there. There are lots of ideas and it’s going to take a window of time … It’s going to be complicated. It’s an area that’s so important that there’s so much activism not just by students, but by faculty and staff, citizens of Ann Arbor and the state. Everybody would want to be a part of this commission because everybody wants to help. What I have found is that for a group to be effective it can’t be too large. I’m going to try to keep it to a reasonable size that allows it to be high functioning and schedule frequent meetings … To make up for the fact that we can’t possibly have every constituency represented on the committee or all the expertise we need, we’ll encourage the committee and help it set up other advisory groups who will be turned to for thoughts and advice.

TMD: How is the University also looking into other facets of anthropogenic climate change (wildfires, food shortages, coral reef depletion, etc.)?

MS: There are faculty interested in a large number of aspects of global climate change and sustainability. For instance, one of the initiatives funded through the Biosciences Initiative is global change biology … fascinating research but not directly related to our carbon neutrality process. This commission will be focused on advising the campuses on how to become carbon neutral in as rapid a time frame as we can handle economically and in a way that others can replicate so we make more of a contribution than just the campus.

TMD: On the topic of committees, a separate panel created to examine “obligations to students as instructors with regard to letter-writing and all other modes of academic support” was announced in October, reportedly containing mostly senior members of the University community and no representation from the humanities fields. Some faculty members have expressed concern regarding this lack of diversity in the panel. How does the administration intend to address these concerns?

MS: The idea is to appoint a committee that’s thoughtful, high-integrity, (with) high expertise on it, but empower them to reach out broadly across the campus where lots of people are concerned about the question that’s been called … The panel’s in charge of collecting thoughts from a diverse array of people as possible and then gathering those thoughts and presenting to the provost some recommendations and an analysis. The panel won’t make decisions. They’ll capture opinions, analyze them and present some recommendations, but then it’s really up to the provost and the deans and, to an extent, myself to decide how to move forward with these recommendations.

TMD: Some faculty members we’ve talked to said they think it would be helpful if lecturers and younger faculty are included on the panel because they’re often asked for letters of recommendation.

MS: Although (the esteemed professors) are very senior now, they weren’t senior for their whole lives and they’ve taught over decades in many different capacities so they do bring a lot of different types of expertise. But the criticisms are fair. 

TMD: Earlier this month, Mohamed Soumah, a University custodian, took refuge in an Ann Arbor church to avoid being deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Due to a genetic kidney disease and a lack of adequate treatment in his home country of Guinea, Soumah has said: “If I get deported, I will die.” Is Soumah still an employee at the University?

MS: We don’t discuss information about employees with the media, with anybody in general and particularly if there are issues around status, oh my goodness, we just wouldn’t do that.

TMD: How does the University work to assist employees like Soumah who are at the risk of being deported?

MS: It’s similar to the situation with undocumented students. We obey the law, we don’t do law enforcement work on behalf of outside agencies, but when making legal requests for information that we’re obligated to provide, we provide it, but it has to be something that we’re legally obligated to provide. We want to be supportive of our employees, and we have to be in compliance with the law.