From The Daily: Inquiry deserved a timely response

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 8:38pm

For the past two years, the University of Michigan has been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its handling of allegations of sexual violence. Documents released in the Detroit Free Press this weekend indicate that the OCR initially asked for documents pertaining to the investigations of sexual misconduct on campus in February 2014, and the University has repeatedly requested extensions on the deadline to deliver those documents. While the University says that at this point in time it has delivered over 36,000 documents, emails uncovered during the Detroit Free Press' investiation call into question the University's commitment to being completely cooperative. While it is reasonable that the University would need additional time to comply with added document requests, we are concerned about the University’s lack of transparency in this investigation process given their repeated requests for delays and requests for a lesser burden throughout the process.  

Recently, the University has made a show of support for survivors of sexual assault. Michigan is one of 200 colleges in the United States taking part in the “It’s on Us” campaign — launched by the White House in September 2014 in an effort to end sexual violence on college campuses — and, this past winter semester, it rolled out a newer and more thorough sexual misconduct policy. Unfortunately for the University, these steps forward might be forgotten in the face of its current situation, as the student body is once again reminded of how the University has repeatedly failed individuals who reported claims of sexual assault. Take, for instance, the case of Brendan Gibbons, whose punishment for sexual misconduct came nearly four years after the incident occurred. Or the case of Drew Sterrett, who successfully had a finding of sexual misconduct by the University reversed after he sued in federal court alleging a lack of due process during UM's investigation, and charging that lack of due process led to an erroneous finding. The University and Sterrett agreed, in a settlement, to vacate the finding of sexual misconduct in exchange for Sterrett dropping his lawsuit.  If a few campaigns and an updated policy are all the University has to offer to negate a slew of failures toward the student body, the campus is forced to view any new mistake as business as usual.

A seriously concerning point revealed by the Detroit Free Press’ investigation is the fact that the University is requesting fewer cases to be reviewed. When this investigation began, the federal government initially focused on only three cases, but the OCR is now requesting to view about 180 cases, a relatively standard practice as these investigations proceed. Though this request for all 180 cases was only sent in October 2015, it is disappointing that the University is continuing with this pattern of uncooperative delays, even after the situation became more serious. In an email disclosed in the Detroit Free Press report summarizing a conference call on the issue in December 2015, Patricia Petrowski, Associate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, wrote: "We then asked again why it is necessary for OCR to have all documentation regarding 180 different complaints, as opposed to 100, 90, 75, 50, or some lower number in order to determine whether the University is apporpriately handling student sexual misconduct allegations." One would think that a university that acknowledges the seriousness of this situation, as this institution claims, would appreciate the additional insight a large sample size provides to investigations, but this seemingly simple principle of statistics remains moot in this case. Though these documents may be damning towards the University’s reputation, for the sake of its students, this institution should hand over all of the documents that have been requested in a timely fashion.

One problem with the nature of this investigation is that repercussions for the University are unlikely. The only punishment that the OCR can inflict on the University is the restriction of federal financial aid funds for programs, such as Pell Grants and federal student loans — which would make it nearly impossible for students on financial aid to attend the University. Such a threat is widely regarded as ineffective, as the impact of such a decision would be so devestating that the Department of Education would only use it in the most extreme circumstances. In other words, nobody thinks this is a threat the Department of Education would reallistically follow through on. This has therefore seemingly given the University freedom to respond in a timeline it sees fit, a responsibility that it has not used in its students' best interest.

By continuing to kick the can down the road, the University is failing to protect its student body. The University is certainly concerned that negative practices may become public during the course of such an investigation, which would no doubt harm the reputation of this institution. In the long run, however, transparency in this serious investigation should be prioritized over all else — including reputation. The campus climate and Association of American Universities studies released last year confirmed to students that the University has a large-scale problem with sexual misconduct. Continuing to delay the OCR’s investigation process only continues to affirm fears that the University does not have a legitimate interest in solving the campus sexual misconduct crisis. This issue impacts everyone and, as such, it deserves urgent transparency.

Updated: This editorial was updated to reflect the number of documents submitted by the University, and to more accurately reflect Drew Sterrett's case.