SMTD hosts panel on sexual misconduct policy as allegations stack up

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 11:53pm

The School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan hosted a forum for students and faculty Tuesday night, shedding light on University sexual misconduct policies. The forum also offered a space for students to voice concerns, and included a panel of representatives from University offices dealing with cases of misconduct. Despite the discussion, some students said they still left the event with more questions.

The event came amid piling accusations against Prof. David Daniels, a world-renowned countertenor singer, and the University’s alleged inaction in addressing them, as well as The Daily’s account of an Music, Theatre & Dance student’s experience navigating a painful investigation process.

 

Jason Corey, associate dean of Graduate Studies at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, opened up the event by citing the need for transparency between students and the offices that handle sexual misconduct allegations at the University.

“We heard from many of you that there was a need for face-to-face opportunities for students to voice concerns and ask questions about how sexual misconduct incidents are handled,” Corey said. “We thought it best to have offices that handle these cases and support all students to speak directly about the policies and procedures of our University.”

Elizabeth Seney, assistant director of the Office of Institutional Equity then described the role of OIE as a neutral party addressing concerns of discrimination violating University policies. She walked the audience through OIE’s general process of reaching out to the complainant to hear what next steps the complainant wants, whether that be an investigation or a disciplining of the respondent.

Seney said the reports OIE receives are often from a third party sharing information about an incident with a complainant and respondent. If the parties involved in the incident are anonymous, she said, OIE is restricted in what they can accomplish.

“We are limited in our ability to follow up based on the anonymity of that,” Seney said. “So I want to be totally transparent and I don't want to sugarcoat this and say it's fine to report anonymously because we can address it in the same way. We are limited. We don't know who to reach out to get more information, we don't know what the person wants to see happening with the information."

Margie Pillsbury, a detective in the Division of Public Safety and Security, talked about the department’s reporting process, noting DPSS’s close ties to OIE in cases of sexual misconduct within the University.

“If a survivor decides to make a report to us, we work closely with OIE trying to reduce the implication of contacts and make it easier for survivors,” Pillsbury said.

Kaaren Williamsen, director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, and Emily Hyssong, the Counseling and Psychological Services worker for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, spoke about how their organizations are confidential for survivors. SAPAC and CAPS focus mainly on support and giving people immediate help, they said.

Associate Dean of Students Sarah Daniels said the Dean of Students Office becomes involved in these matters because their goal is to ease the impact of anything that interrupts the lives of students, including matters of sexual misconduct. Daniels spoke of the supportive and protective measures the office offers to students involved in OIE investigations.

The majority of the event was devoted to audience questions. One audience member asked the panelists what they are doing to help students focus on educational opportunities or simply get through their days in spite of a sexual misconduct investigation. Seney responded, emphasizing her wish to make conditions for students better, but noting the limitations of the University.

“I don’t know that we can ever — just in full being realistic and transparency — I don't know that any part of the University or the University as a whole can fully eliminate any negative impact for any sexual misconduct,” Seney said. “What we are trying our absolute hardest to do is to number one prevent it, and number two do the best we can on that second part.”

Seney also said this kind of work becomes more difficult in small environments such as the Music, Theatre & Dance School. Upon some pushback from the audience, Daniels explained the difficulty in accommodating students in a school where class options are limited.

“Measures can get more complicated when we have a smaller environment and a smaller community and fewer options,” Daniels said. “What I mean by that is when we’re looking at a school like LSA that has 15,000 students and a whole lot of majors and a whole lot of options, we’ve got choices."

Multiple audience members asked about what the panelists’ offices could do to discipline faculty members making comments on cases or siding publicly with a respondent over a claimant. Williamsen said in these cases, students feeling uncomfortable about a faculty member’s comments could come to SAPAC to discuss their concerns.

“We do work with people confidentially with things like that all the time to figure that out and to figure out what do I do with this,” Williamsen said. “This doesn't feel right, I don’t want to go to that class anymore, I don’t want to go to that space anymore, and I don’t have a word with this, but this is getting in the way of participating in my life.”

Toward the end of the question-and-answer session, Seney highlighted her willingness to hear out concerns, questions and suggestions from students and faculty regarding the effectiveness of OIE’s system.

“I know that I can’t fix everything and for me, I recognize that, but I really encourage people to share their feedback and any concerns and ask any questions,” Seney said. “And I can assure you that I will always do my best to address those concerns.”

Mark Clague, associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, echoed this sentiment, describing the school’s next steps in addressing student concerns. Clague announced the formation of a faculty and staff ally group, plans for a symposium centered on sexual misconduct in the performing arts and workshops with SAPAC relating to these issues.

“We want to talk to you about these issues,” Clague said. “We are mandatory reporters so when things are brought to us they go directly to OIE through the reporting forms. But we can help finesse this to the best of our abilities. We’re not perfect either … but we're really trying hard to make a difference”

LSA freshman Andrew Gerace said he attended the event because of the prevalence of these issues within the University, something he became more aware of after reading The Daily’s articles on sexual misconduct issues within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He said he felt the panel was a step in the right direction, but there are still questions to be answered.

“I have more questions walking out than I did walking in,” Gerace said. “Me personally, I felt like many of the questions had to be re-asked because some of the answers seemed to be sliding off … Often people trying to slack away or avoid questions … Effectively, the question was more obvious than the answer we were given and so I feel concerned that there’s still more hidden in the shadows that I really need to learn more about whether it's in this panel format or other situations, we really need to keep this dialogue going.”

Gerace said he looks forward to going to more events on this topic. He aims to hold the panelists and their offices to their words in order to better establish trust, he said.

“In the hope that more happen, I really am planning on working to hold the people that spoke here today accountable to their words because I think that they're now, from a position of trust, telling us what their roles and responsibilities are, and I think that in the situations that occur where what they've told us is not the way it's happening, it's breaking our trust even further,” Gerace said. “I hope we all can work together to reform what's been broken and move forward in a better light.”