Sexual misconduct complaint about U professor goes unanswered for more than a year

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 4:30pm

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Design by Christine Montalbano

A former student of School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor Stephen Shipps emailed Melody Racine, the interim dean of Music, Theatre & Dance, in October 2017 alleging she had been raped by Shipps in the 1970s, prior to his employment at the University of Michigan. University policy compels certain employees, such as the dean, to immediately report allegations of this nature to the Office of Institutional Equity. However, this former student’s email went unanswered for more than a year. And 19 days after emailing the interim dean, the former student emailed Shipps himself — another email that sat unanswered for more than 11 months. It is unclear if either Racine or Shipps reported this former student’s emails to OIE. If they did report this email to OIE, it is unclear when that happened.

Though the causes of these delays remain unclear, they call into question multiple aspects of the University’s sexual misconduct policy.

The Daily communicated with Shipps’s former student prior to publication of a Dec. 10 article regarding alleged misconduct by Shipps, but her allegation — an interaction in the late 1970s she believes constituted “statutory rape” — was not included in that article, as she was concerned about her privacy. For this same reason, the former student has requested anonymity. In this article, she will be referred to as Jane.

In communicating with The Daily, Jane has declined to delve into greater detail about the alleged assault, instead preferring to focus on her communications with University personnel and the responses she did and did not receive. She has provided The Daily with copies of emails between her and the University — emails that point both to an initial year-long delay and a further slow-moving response to serious allegations of reportedly criminal conduct.

Despite the University’s long-standing policy of refusing to comment on “personnel matters,” The Daily has also been able to confirm that both the University Division of Public Safety and Security and OIE were conducting investigations into Shipps as of Dec. 7, 2018. At this time, the status of these investigations is unclear.

Racine  declined to comment on the specifics of this article.

“As is our policy and in keeping with my past and current duties as a responsible employee, I have referred your inquiry to our UM’s Public Affairs Office,” Racine wrote in an email to The Daily.

Shipps did not reply to multiple emails requesting his comment on this article. His lawyer, David Nacht, similarly did not reply.

The Daily contacted Public Affairs for comment on this article. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen declined to comment on the specifics of this article.

“While we cannot discuss specific matters, the university takes action whenever it receives information regarding alleged sexual misconduct, which can include investigations or other actions through UMPD and the Office of Institutional Equity,” Broekhuizen said.

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The timeline of The Daily’s investigation into Shipps provides some useful context for Jane’s communications with the University.

On Nov. 2, 2018, The Daily contacted a potential source for information about Shipps. Soon after communicating with a Daily reporter, the source made OIE aware of The Daily’s investigation into Shipps. The source also made OIE aware of the nature of some of the allegations against Shipps known to The Daily at the time.

The Daily contacted multiple University officials, including representatives of Public Affairs, on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, seeking comment for the Dec. 10 article about Shipps. OIE first contacted Jane on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. It is unclear if OIE had already been made aware of Jane’s email, or if The Daily’s numerous emails to University personnel, including Public Affairs sent Nov. 30, 2018, provoked this response the following Monday.

Starting in early December, Jane began receiving frequent communications from Elizabeth Seney, the assistant director and deputy Title IX Coordinator for Investigations in OIE. These communications indicated to her that the University had begun to take her complaint seriously.

“Elizabeth Seney has called me several times (I can’t say for sure how many, but I have a voicemail from her on 12/8/18), and she has emailed many times,” Jane wrote to The Daily in an email. “In her phone messages she was polite and just asked that I call her back, and that she would explain more once I spoke to her.”

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When President Richard Nixon signed The Higher Education Amendments of 1972, he created a section commonly referred to as “Title IX” law. Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of this law has evolved over time to include specific provisions regarding sexual violence and mandatory reporting of such violence. Under recent interpretations, the Department of Education has stipulated that certain employees be designated as “Responsible Employees,” employees required to “report incidents of sexual violence to the Title IX coordinator or other appropriate school designee.”

In 1990, the federal government passed the Clery Act. The Clery Act places separate requirements on school employees regarding mandatory reporting, such as requiring certain employees classified as “Campus Security Authorities,” or CSAs, to report other serious crimes not covered by Title IX policy.

University of Michigan policy combines these various reporting obligations into two discrete employee categories: “Responsible Employees” and “Non-Responsible Employees.” Responsible Employees include deans, associate deans and chairs of departments. They are commonly referred to as “mandatory reporters”. Many students will recognize these employees for the “RE” stickers they often place on their doors.

Responsible Employees are required to share allegations of “sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, sexual or gender-based harassment, retaliation (and) violation of interim measures” with the University, specifically with OIE.

They are required to report these allegations in a timely manner, “as soon as possible” according to a training document on the University Human Resources website. They must turn over “all of the details known to (them), including the names of the persons involved, when (they) were told, precisely what information was shared, and (their) contact information.”

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In October 2017, as the New Yorker and The New York Times published allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and the cultural conversation around sexual misconduct began morphing into the #MeToo movement, Jane was reminded of her experience with Shipps in the late 1970s. In mid-October, she decided to email Racine.

“I reached out to Melody Racine in October 2017 because I (had) recently had contact with another victim of Steve Shipps,” Jane told The Daily. “That certainly ignited something in me … I had attended my first Women’s March in January 2017 and I know I was influenced by the growing message of empowerment for women. I felt that it was time to stand up for myself. I wasn’t sure who to contact, but I found Ms. Racine on the University of Michigan website.”

On Oct. 21, 2017 at 11:04 p.m., Jane sent an email to Racine with the subject line “Stephen Shipps.” In the email, she alleged she was raped by Shipps and shared her fears that Shipps had committed similar acts against other students.

“Recent events in the news have sparked memories from my past,” Jane wrote. “Honestly, I’ve written letters/emails in the past but have not sent because I didn’t see the point. I guess I’m emboldened now. Of course I expect absolutely nothing to come from this email. I don’t know you and there’s nothing you or anyone could do at this point anyway. So, here’s the thing … Stephen Shipps raped me when I was sixteen. Over the years, I’ve heard stories similar to mine regarding Mr. Shipps.”

 

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Jane waited for a response from the University.

“My allegations seemed pretty serious, so I was a bit surprised and hurt that there was no response from Ms. Racine, who I felt should have an interest and responsibility to protect both the University of Michigan as well as its students,” she wrote.

After 19 days with no response from Racine or the University, Jane decided to contact Shipps directly.

“I guess I gained confidence after sending the first email, and was angry that I was ignored, so I went ahead and sent an email directly to Shipps a couple weeks later,” Jane wrote to The Daily.  “It was a big step and a bit scary for me to sign my name to that email.”

Jane sent an email to Shipps on Nov. 9, 2017 at 2:58 p.m. A copy of this email was provided to The Daily, though Jane has asked its full contents not be published. In this message, Jane describes her experience with Shipps. She also indicates she has heard he has committed similar misconduct against other students.

“What happened was actually statutory rape,” Jane wrote to Shipps. “I’ve lived with this for a long time. In case you don’t remember, it was probably 1978 or 1979. I’d hope that you didn’t engage in this behavior with other young women, but I’ve heard that you did.”

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On Oct. 21, 2017, the date she received Jane’s email, Racine was serving as the interim dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School — a position classified both as a Responsible Employee and a Campus Security Authority. She held this position until September 2018, though she is currently on leave for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Just before she went on leave, David Daniels, a Music, Theatre & Dance professor, was accused of sexual assault by opera singer Samuel Schultz. An investigation published by The Daily in November found Racine signed off on Daniels’ tenure application in May 2018, despite reports of sexual misconduct against Daniels being filed with OIE against him in March.

On Nov. 9, 2017, the date he received Jane’s email, Shipps was serving as the chair of Strings, a position he held until Dec. 7, 2018 and a position that similarly classified him as a Responsible Employee and a Campus Security Authority. He had previously served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs in the Music, Theatre & Dance School, and the faculty director of the Strings Preparatory Academy, both positions classified as a Responsible Employee.

The incident Jane alleges occurred before Shipps worked at the University. As Shipps was a Responsible Employee, reporting this incident would have been self-incriminatory. While the University’s policy does not cover this specific type of situation, the Haven Training for Faculty and Staff, a training about sexual misconduct reporting all Responsible Employees have to take every year to renew their status, makes Shipps’ and Racine’s reporting obligations quite clear.

“Schools must respond to sexual violence connected to the school’s education programs and activities, including academic, educational, extracurricular, and athletic activities,” the document notes. “If you are made aware of an incident involving a perpetrator from a different school: … if you are a Responsible Employee or CSA, this is a reportable incident. Follow your institution's reporting policy.”

As such, Shipps and Racine were required under University policy to report the emails they received from Jane to OIE “as soon as possible upon learning of the behavior.”

It’s unclear if this happened in the year between when Jane sent her original emails and when she received a response.

Though University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen refused to comment on the specifics of this case, she did describe the general process OIE uses when they learn of these concerns. She also noted that though it might have taken Jane a long time to hear from OIE, this does not necessarily mean an investigation of this complaint has not taken place.

“When OIE receives information about concerns, it assesses the information reported to identify — and take — appropriate next steps,” Broekhuizen said. “This process normally includes outreach to the person reporting the information, to provide them with details about resources and any options that may be available to them, and to gather additional information as necessary to review the concerns. In any instance, we would regret if that outreach didn’t happen, or didn’t happen quickly. But that does not mean a review or investigation of the allegations did not take place.”

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On Oct. 29, 2018 at 11:04 a.m. — one year, one week, and one day after she first emailed Racine — Jane received an email from Margie Pillsbury, the University of Michigan Police Department Special Victims Unit detective within DPSS. In this email, Pillsbury stated she learned of Jane’s complaint that day. She offered to help connect Jane to law enforcement officials in the jurisdiction relevant to her complaint. She also provided Jane with information about confidential resources for sexual assault survivors.

 

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The circumstances behind Pillsbury’s Oct. 29, 2018 email remain unclear. It is unclear why it took Pillsbury more than a year to respond to Jane’s initial email, and if Pillsbury has knowledge of both emails or only one.

It also remains unclear how Pillsbury became aware of Jane’s email on Oct. 29, 2018. University policy for “Responsible Employees,” as referenced above, required Jane’s email to be reported to the OIE, not DPSS. At this point in time, it is unclear if OIE was aware of Jane’s complaint.

When The Daily reached out to Pillsbury for comment, she forwarded the request to UMPD spokesperson Melissa Overton. Overton could not answer questions pertaining to the specific case.

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Jane’s next communication from the University came Dec. 3, 2018 at 1:23 p.m., when she received an email from Seney. This was the first time Jane received communications from OIE. At this point, it had been 13 months since Jane sent her email to Racine, and it had been five weeks since she was contacted by Pillsbury.

“The first emails from Margie Pillsbury (then later Elizabeth Seney) were a year after I first contacted Ms. Racine,” Jane said. “At first I didn’t respond because I was just busy and felt I didn't have the time or emotional energy to talk about the assault. I soon realized that something must have happened to spur them to action, and I wondered whose side they were on. They didn’t gain my confidence when I read ‘The University takes sexual misconduct very seriously …’ I felt like the sentence needed clarification as to what exactly makes them take sexual misconduct seriously, and what the tipping point might be.”

In her email to Jane, Seney asked to meet with her and discuss her concerns surrounding a University of Michigan faculty member. Seney wrote Jane may bring a support person to the meeting, implying the meeting must take place in person. To Jane, who lives outside the state of Michigan, the request was not practical.

 

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“Her email on Dec. 3, 2018 suggested that I might come in to the University of Michigan Office of Institutional Equity and that I could have a support person with me,” Jane wrote. “This obviously wasn’t something I would do since I live in (a different state).”

Seney’s email, furthermore, stated she was aware of the emails Jane received from DPSS.

“You have the right to file a police report regarding possible criminal behavior, and I understand that the University of Michigan Police Department has contacted you in order to facilitate that process if you wish to do so,” Seney wrote.

The circumstances behind this email remain unclear. DPSS became aware of Jane’s complaint Oct. 29, 2018, yet it is unclear how and when Seney was made aware of these emails. It is also unclear if Seney was made aware of this complaint by Racine, Shipps or DPSS.

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The University Student Sexual & Gender-Based Misconduct policy sets a timeline for the completion of investigations, hearings and sanctions in student sexual misconduct complaints at 90 to 120 days. And in a recent discussion with The Daily, University President Mark Schlissel spoke of the University’s need to lengthen this timeline to 100 days in order to more realistically serve the University community.

Jane waited 373 days to get a response from the University after emailing the interim dean of the Music, Theatre & Dance School, and she waited 408 days to hear from the OIE.

In a previous article about Shipps, Maureen O’Boyle, also a former student of his from before his time at the University, accused the professor of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. She knew Jane from her time studying with Shipps, and she expressed concern at the University’s overall response to Jane’s allegations.

“The response from the Office for Institutional Equity (sic) in regard to the allegations against Shipps confirms and reinforces the reasons victims of abuse often never speak out,” she wrote in an email to The Daily. “Reporting and discussing these painful events takes a significant personal toll on those who report, and having those statements ignored reinforces a victim’s conditioning that it is not ok to talk about abuse, and if you do you will be ignored. The actions of the OIE maintain and support an environment where these incidents continue to happen.”

Jane remains upset at how long it took for the University to respond to her emails. She also expressed regret at having not spoken up sooner.

“I contacted U of Michigan last year about an incident involving Steve Shipps,” Jane wrote in an email to The Daily shortly before the Dec. 10 article was published. “There really was no official response until this Monday, (Dec. 3, 2018), when they suggested I come in to speak to them. I live in (a different state), so that’s not happening in the foreseeable future. What he did to me was statutory rape, no doubt. I’ve thought about the incident over the years, marveling at my own innocence and thinking I was really stupid. Then I remember that he was an adult who willfully abused teenage girls. I’ve heard stories about his continued misdeeds and didn’t know how to come forward. I regret not speaking up sooner.”

CLARIFICATION: The first paragraph of this article has been changed to clarify that the allegations brought forward by Jane detailed a time before Shipps was employed by the University of Michigan. Jane was never a student at the University.