VP Harper talks disaffiliated frats, new sexual misconduct and felony policies

Monday, February 25, 2019 - 7:25pm

E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life at the University of Michigan, sits down with The Michigan Daily to discuss disaffiliated frats, new sexual misconduct and felony policies Monday morning.

E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life at the University of Michigan, sits down with The Michigan Daily to discuss disaffiliated frats, new sexual misconduct and felony policies Monday morning. Buy this photo
Kayleah Son/Daily

The Michigan Daily recently sat down with E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life at the University of Michigan, to discuss several issues on campus, including disaffiliated fraternities, the sexual misconduct policy revision and mental health resources on campus.

The Michigan Daily: Within the past year, several University of Michigan fraternities have disaffiliated from the Interfraternity Council. They have since joined the Ann Arbor Interfraternity Council, which does not fall under University jurisdiction. As an administrator, what are your opinions regarding these actions and how will the University address issues that arise regarding the fraternities in IFC?

Harper: I’m disappointed for the fraternities that decided to disaffiliate. I think it was unwise. I think that’s pretty shameful. I can’t imagine a national organization knowing that the fraternities started on college campuses, have values related to college campuses and then would be encouraging students to disaffiliate from their University.

I think it’s misguided and it puts our students in harm's way because one of the things that happens is in the disaffiliated groups, (there) is more risky behaviors. In the affiliated groups, they have the support of the University. They’ve got resources related to the University. They are programming and doing mental health safety, all those kinds of issues that ensure when students are having fun and are together, they are safer. And so I worry about that for the disaffiliated groups, I worry about an external organization that's not connected to the University, actually doesn't understand the policies and procedures of the University, trying to provide guidance and support. Not wise on so many levels, and I’m concerned from a health and safety perspective also. And proud of the ones that remained affiliated with the University. They are important. I think fraternities and sororities add value to the University and to the undergraduate experience. But we all know they come with some challenges. The more professional development, leadership training, those kinds of resources that we (the University) can provide, the better it is. … I’m hoping some of those fraternities will decide to re-affiliate with the University.

The relationship, the response, what I believe is the focus and commitment of students in those organizations (IFC and AAIC) and their nationals, is very different.

TMD: After a free speech watchdog group Speech First filed a lawsuit against the University’s use of the Bias Response Team last May, the University has restricted residential advisors and diversity peer educators from removing speech on student doors — including offensive language. Why was this specific decision made and how does the University plan to address potential issues with student climate in the dorms?

Harper: So let me say two things. One, we don’t suppress nor ignore speech … Secondly, we actually didn’t change the policy. One of the things that happens in a resident hall is that there is personal space, which might be space on your door (whiteboards) … there’s sort of community space where anybody can put something up or take it down, and then there’s space bulletin boards that the staff actually controls. And so what we tried to do last summer and what we continue to do is actually clarify the policy to make sure that our staff understood the difference between personal space — you can write whatever you want there — public space, and then the space they’re controlling.

When harm is being done or offensive speech occurs in the resident hall or anywhere, our goal is to respond and to have conversations about it and to invite the conversations. Because that’s what you do at an educational institution. You debate, you talk back and forth, we say, ‘What do you mean?’, ‘Did you intend?’ and so conversations like that happen all the time in housing and in classrooms and other places where there are students. … We have a group that responds to issue of climate. And so they are a response team, and so of course they are both concerned about the student who might have written or said something that was experienced as harmful, and the student who is experiencing it. So we try to actually have a conversation, or relationship or intervention with both sets of students. For us, that’s being an educational institution … we’re an educational institution where members of our community interact, and so we are always engaged in that conversation. But the intent really was to clarify to make sure the staff understood what the expectations were, not a change in policy.

TMD: Recently, the University announced a revision to the student sexual misconduct policy, wherein students take part in an in-person meeting between the accuser, the accused and any witnesses involved. Why did the University amend this policy? How does it aim to improve the general sexual misconduct policy? How does it respond to allegations that the revision benefits financially stable students who have the means to hire counsel?

Harper: We changed our policy and went to an interim policy on direction of a Sixth Circuit Court. So, this wasn’t a decision on the part of the University to even make it more challenging or to re-traumatize or any of the issues that are being talked about in the community. And we share those concerns, actually appealed, tried to help the court understand why this wasn't in the best interest of our students. But in the end, we were told we needed to change our policy. So, we created an interim policy and we started working with student groups and others to figure out who ought to be doing the hearings, how do we minimize the negative impact on the students participating.

Right now, we are looking at having some hearing officers there who will actually help facilitate the discussion and manage the environment and the discussion. The attorneys won’t be asking the questions, but they can be there — both parties can have an advocate with them to help them. Depending on what the student needs, depending on what the complainant needs, they might be in the room, they might be in another setting, so we’re going to try to, on a case by case basis, figure out what’s best in that environment for students. The other thing we are doing, because some students might decide, ‘You know what, I am not doing this,’ we are also increasing and making sure that students understand that they can engage in an alternative resolution process, which would not have a hearing component. Both students have to agree, the idea is to work through what is going on with the students, and to engage in a restorative resolution, which does not include the hearing. We are an educational process, not a court, so you can imagine our concern as more and more the courts and actually the Justice Department right now is having a conversation about that, tried to cause us to look more like a court of law. We’re not set up like that, we don’t have the expertise to be a court of law. We want to make sure that we are fulfilling our Title IX obligations, which is responding and reducing the likelihood that it will happen again, and make sure that the students involved get the support that they need, and the resolution that they are looking for. So, we are concerned about the interim, and about getting it right.

… As an educational institution, we are constantly learning, improving and changing — and we haven’t always gotten it right. … In some ways, this is a kind of pushback to all the activism — much needed activism, on behalf of victims in some cases of sexual assault, survivors of sexual assault — that this is a pushback from that. In the same way, I think we’re seeing a pushback from the #MeToo movement. I think fundamentally as a society, this notion of women, their role and ownership in their body is still contested space. Women are still objectified, there is still this notion of, ‘I get to decide what I want to do to you and you take it (and) like it.’ I think all of that is so ingrained and rooted in our system that that’s also part of what you see. We don’t talk about it, but this notion of agency and women’s agency around their body is contested space… So this idea of consent, of getting permission, all of that I think is contested space in our country, and in the way that we are socialized and raised. I think that that’s part of what we are seeing, a kind of normalizing, or resetting back, or reclaiming of male-dominated space … I think it’s important that we don’t underestimate what this is really about, and it is about power, and who has a right to be in control and set the boundaries in relationships. I think it’s a going back, and it’s actually taking us back to an unhealthy place. It marginalizes women and it marginalizes men. It implies that we are not — any of us — capable of respectful and consenting and healthy relationships, and that makes me angry. I think people have to be responsible and they have to be held accountable. I don’t think demonizing or taking sides in a way that’s unhealthy actually helps us solve the issue. That’s why I have a lot of hope in the alternative resolutions. I think it will give us a chance to have the kinds of conversations and problem solving, and restoration that needs to occur.

TMD: The University recently enacted a new policy regarding felony disclosure among employees, including student employees. The policy requires employees to disclose felony charges within one week. Why was this policy enacted? What does the University hope to gain from it?

Harper: This is really about safety and security. It’s about safety and trust, and it’s about responsibility and accountability. Felonies are serious crimes, usually requiring that you go to prison for more than a year, (such as) drug trafficking, kidnapping, murder, burglaries, embezzlement, animal cruelty. What we’re saying to employees is whether you’re faculty, staff or students, is if you get charges or you’re convicted, you have a responsibility to tell us. You can imagine that we don’t want someone that’s been charged or convicted of embezzlement to be handling accounts. We wouldn’t want someone who has been charged with child molestation to be working with minors. Our Human Resources department will take a look at what you’ve been charged and convicted, and make a determination of what’s the impact of that charge in relationship to where you work. It applies to all three campuses. As an institution, you are expecting me to do reasonable due diligence, but in a place this large, there’s no way I would know. We’re saying, because most of our faculty, staff and students are trustworthy, we should do this added step of ensuring that the community is safe. You also do the employee a disservice when you haven’t checked it out and, in some cases, we understand that this isn’t related to this. I have been in situations where a person is accused and you aren’t able to say, ‘We know, they reported it,’ and it’s been cleared — you actually subject the person to more harm. It’s safety and security.

TMD: A recent Daily article discussed mental health resources on campus regarding seasonal affective disorder. According to the article, most people experience SAD from late fall to early winter. What resources are specifically in place on campus to address these issues? How do you recommend the University works in unison with students to combat these issues and support students during these times?

Harper: It’s a kind of depression that happens seasonally, so it’s interesting the kinds of things we can do, like getting some fresh air or getting light … We have some (vitamin D lamps) in Munger (Graduate Residences) where we have a Wellness Zone. We actually got some of those lamps from when the Union was open. They are not inexpensive, but they are not inordinately expensive. There will soon be a Wellness Zone opening out at Pierpont (Commons). You can do things like I do, which is to make sure my desk is facing the window where the sun is. As it becomes lighter longer, we will begin to see less and less (SAD). There are services and resources out of CAPS, the lamps that are available that students can use, and then there are the kinds of things we can do to maintain our own health. Decompressing a little bit is also what we can do with respect to this type of depression. But, it is a type of depression that’s seasonal.