'U' to ban undergrad-faculty relationships, require in-person hearing in new policy revisions

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 10:16am

The University of Michigan released revisions to its policies on student sexual misconduct and faculty-student relationships Monday morning. The new regulations place a presumptive ban on relationships between faculty and undergraduate students, and cases in which a graduate student either works in the same department as, or has academic oversight over, an undergraduate student. 

The policy also now outlines processes for student cross-examinations in the wake of a decision made by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that public universities “must give the accused student or his agent an opportunity to cross-examine the accuser.” The University appealed for a rehearing after the initial case, but their request was denied.

The updates focus on creating two avenues for settling cases, either through adaptable resolution or investigative resolution. In addition to an Office for Institutional Equity investigator, a case manager from the Office for Student Conflict Resolution will be present when meeting with either one of the students involved in the dispute. The case manager will also serve as the main contact for both parties, while the OIE investigator will still be the individual tasked with operating the investigation itself. The changes will be put into place beginning Jan. 9. 

In order to comply with the Sixth Circuit’s decision, the new policy also includes an option for students to question both each other and additional supplementary witnesses in in-person hearings. The hearing officer will also be permitted to question relevant parties.

LSA freshman Kirsten Lam said she felt the changers could make the reporting process more difficult and intimidating for survivors.

“I think that’s a terrible idea. That could cause trauma, like PTSD is a very real thing for sexual assault victims, so just even seeing the person, hearing that voice, can just trigger the bad memory of the whole even happening and cause more emotional distress,” Lam said. “With conversations, people can use that to convince the accuser to back down and drop the charges, because after that happens, a lot of people are already in an emotionally distressed state.”

Students will additionally no longer be able to appeal decisions on the basis of insufficient evidence.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily at the beginning of December, President Mark Schlissel said he felt the OIE had a difficult job, but did it well. He did, however, also say he was worried about how the new Sixth Circuit driven changes to the misconduct policy would impact students going forward.

“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,” Schlissel said. “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.”

In conjunction with changes to the sexual misconduct policy, the University has also updated its policy on faculty and student relationships.

The new policy places a “presumptive ban on romantic, sexual, or amorous relationships” across all three campuses between faculty and undergraduates, with “narrow possible exceptions.” For graduate students, the policy bans relationships for students “over whom the faculty member has, had, or might reasonably be expected to have academic superiority,” or “who are in the same discipline or academic program in which the faculty member is appointed or teaches,” again with “narrow possible exceptions.” The policies for postdoctoral fellows and house students resemble the graduate policies. Additionally, the policy bans graduate student instructor and student relationships, placing a “presumptive ban on relationships with any students (undergraduate or graduate) in the classes the GSI is teaching or grading, or over whom the GSI has academic or supervisory authority.”

This replaces the University’s previous Faculty-Student Relationship guide, which said “Romantic and/or sexual relationships between a faculty member and a student have the potential to pose risks to the faculty member, the student, or third parties,” and “the University strongly discourages romantic and/or sexual relationships between faculty members and students.”

This year, The Daily published multiple investigations of students’ alleging OIE has handled misconduct in student-faculty relationships. In an October investigative piece, The Daily reported on how OIE handled a relationship between an anonymous student, Taylor, and her GSI. In the piece, Taylor said she wanted justice, but was confident of nothing, especially with the impending policy changes.

“I don’t trust any process coming from this school,” she said. “I don’t want to do ‘the cross-examination.’ But I also don't want him to get away free.”

These policy changes are planned to be introduced as interim changes, and may eventually be adapted following feedback from students and others.