Three women speak out about alleged sexual misconduct by Martin Philbert

Monday, July 13, 2020 - 2:10pm

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Danyel Tharakan/Daily

This week, multiple women have spoken about former University of Michigan Provost Martin A. Philbert’s alleged sexual misconduct for the first time since the investigation began. University alum Emily Renda spoke to Michigan Radio about her interactions with Philbert dating back to 2012. Renda, who worked as a global health and student life coordinator at the School of Public Health where she was previously a student, is one of the first of alumni to publicly accuse Philbert of sexual misconduct. 

Additionally, one of Philbert’s former lab employees allegedly told Anthony Walesby, former senior Director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX coordinator, that Philbert sexually harassed her. 

Philbert, also the executive vice president of academic affairs, was placed on administrative leave on Jan. 21 following a string of allegations of sexual misconduct. In addition, after being removed from his role as provost in March, Philbert retired from his position at the University on June 17. 

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Daily in an email that the University condemns sexual misconduct and wants to promote a safe community, but noted they are not able to comment on specific allegations due to the ongoing investigation. 

“At the University of Michigan, we condemn all forms of sexual misconduct,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Whether it takes place now or took place in the past, it is unacceptable. All members of our community deserve to feel safe and supported. The university has taken extensive measures to combat sexual misconduct...Because of the independent WilmerHale investigation, we are not able to offer a specific response to the allegations you outline in your email.”

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In 2012, Renda said she was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend and Philbert began offering her rides home from the office, according to Michigan Radio. The car rides turned into a six-month physical relationship with Philbert, which ended in 2014, Renda alleged. After Philbert ended the relationship, however, Renda said he continued to make sexual advances.

“(One day) he came into my office and hugged me for a very long time, and then started to put his hands down my pants,” Renda said. “And I was like, ‘whoa, whoa, what are you doing? I thought you said that this was over. We're not doing this anymore.’”

Renda decided to leave the University after changes with their professional relationship, including reassigning a large project from Renda to another staffer. Renda said she started experiencing panic attacks as a result of this shift in Philbert’s behavior. 

“I left (the University) in complete shame,” Renda said. “I felt like a complete professional and moral failure. I felt like I had engaged in an affair with a married man, who was also my boss, and that I ruined my career and that that was my fault for making such a poor choice.”

Renda told The Daily in an email she decided to come forward with her allegations now because she feels it is important for the University community to know the details of Philbert’s alleged misconduct. 

“I feared that the University would decide to not provide any details about the kinds of predatory behavior he was engaging in for over two decades,” Renda said. “The investigation has been ongoing for over six months without any substantive updates provided to the University community. The survivors and the broader University community deserve transparency from the University about what happened, how it was able to happen, and the steps they plan to take to ensure such gross abuses of power are not able to persist within the University’s ranks.”

After Renda’s departure, a University senior staff member who was close to Philbert spoke to Michigan Radio on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution from the University. This staff member told Michigan Radio that Philbert attempted to disparage Renda after her departure. 

“And Philbert said, ‘She has severe mental problems,’” the senior staff member recalled. “(He continued,) ‘I’m going to tell you something and I know you’re going to treat it with confidence. But she was suicidal, and I was mentoring her through a tough time.”

The senior staff member also spoke about Philbert’s demeanor in the professional workplace setting. 

“Martin Philbert acted like he was on the same level as anyone he came into contact with,” they said. “He acted in the same manner with everyone. Which might sound nice, except when you’re inappropriate … He’d say, ‘I’m at the maturity level of an 8-year-old boy,’ and we’d all laugh, and at first you’re like, ‘Wow, this is kind of fun, laidback, lots of joking.’”

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Two other women, who both spoke anonymously to Michigan Radio, said they had reported Philbert for misconduct in the past —  once in 2005 and once in 2010. 

In 2005, a woman who worked in Philbert’s research laboratory alleged that Philbert harassed her while she served as an assistant. 

“He started asking me for hugs anytime I saw him,” the former lab employee said. “He made comments about the way I looked, during embraces, he would act like he’s gonna kiss me and then quickly divert to kissing my cheeks and my neck … one time he said, like, ‘Let’s have sex on the desk.’ And he also asked me to run away with him and have his ‘caramel colored babies.’” 

The former lab employee confided in another faculty member who passed along the complaint to Anthony Walesby, then senior director of the Office of Institutional Equity at the University, who met with the former lab employee. 

“(Walesby) said he’d get into specific details with dates, and then go to Philbert and say, ‘Did you do this on this date?’ And I knew (Philbert) would know it was me. Everything was such an outrageous thing that he said, and they were very specific things. So I was scared to give (Walesby) any information,” the former lab employee said.

Shortly after her meeting with Walesby, the former lab employee worked to limit time spent in Philbert’s lab, she told The Daily. She spent a few hours every week in the lab, seeking to minimize her interaction with Philbert. Calendar notes obtained by The Daily from 2007 show that she went to Philbert to get her last time sheet signed before leaving the lab. 

Philbert refused to sign her timesheet, according to the former lab employee, so she left the lab without her final paycheck.

She then chose to return to the University as a student in 2012. However, by the winter 2013 semester, she was too anxious about running into Philbert to continue taking classes. She decided to file a petition for tuition reimbursement and removal of withdrawals on her transcript –– and she asked Walesby to submit a statement supporting her petition. 

In an email obtained by The Daily, SAPAC employee Heather Colohan told the former lab employee that she was not the first member of the University community to raise concerns about “this individual.”  The former lab employee told The Daily and Michigan Radio that Colohan was referring to Philbert, but The Daily is unable to independently confirm to whom “this individual” refers to. 

“Like I said, you are not the first person who has stressed similar concerns to me about this individual and I see his behavior as problematic,” Colohan said. “I plan on catching (the SAPAC director’s) ear soon to communicate to her what your experience has been.”

The former lab employee was later given a tuition refund, but the Office of the Registrar, who declined to comment, called it a ‘one time exception.’

“The University Registrar is expressing no opinion with respect to the merits of the claims contained in your request, but is granting the request as he… sometimes does when students file an appeal (not because he has made a factual determination as to the issues you raised),” Taylor wrote. “We encourage you to follow up with the Office of Institutional Equity if you wish to pursue those issues.”

In 2010, a third woman accused Philbert of sexual misconduct, alleging he made sexual comments and touched her inappropriately, according to Michigan Radio. This woman also asked to remain anonymous. 

“As I watched (Philbert) kind of ascend to the provost thing, I’m shaking my head, and being like, I have this piece of info,” the woman said. “And I wonder if there’ve been others … (but) it just felt like it never made sense to say anything more about it, because there was no way one tiny voice (would change things). And I kept thinking, is this man’s time ever going to come?”

Shelagh Saenz, the Public Health School director of Careers Center, told Michigan Radio she was also familiar with this woman’s experiences and said that the unwritten policy in the department was to laugh off his comments saying that Philbert often made jokes that were sexual in nature. 

“He was so charismatic, and we blew it off as it wasn’t a big deal,” Saenz said. “And that was a professional way to succeed, too. Not to rock the boat, just go along with it, not say anything. It was definitely a strange environment at the time.”

All three women shared their accounts of the alleged sexual misconduct with Michigan Radio in a story published July 13. The story says that all three women are being represented by an attorney and are considering pursuing litigation with the University. 

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University President Mark Schlissel sent an email on Jan. 22, 2020, to the University community announcing Philbert had been placed on leave following several allegations of sexual misconduct. He wrote the University had received several allegations on Jan. 16 and 17. 

At Philbert’s hiring reception in September 2017, Schlissel had outlined the search process for a new provost. He explained that Philbert had been the obvious choice.

“We actually did an open search,” he said. “I had no preconceived notion, although everybody was coming up to me with a little whisper ‘You know you should really just hire Martin’ … We did a proper search and we actually looked at outstanding candidates … The best talent and the best fit for the University of Michigan was already here in Martin.”

Schlissel told The Daily in a Jan. 28 interview that Jan. 16 was the first time he was made aware of “any allegation whatsoever.” Schlissel further stated that he did not know how the University received multiple allegations in such a short time frame. 

However, Renda noted she believes high level administrators knew about allegations against Philbert. 

“President Schlissel 100% lied to the Michigan Daily when he told you that he first learned of any allegations against Philbert in January of this year,” Renda said. “He has proven that we cannot trust the University’s leadership to be transparent and work towards correcting the institutional culture that allows for abuse of power.”

The former lab employee also told The Daily she believes University officials were aware of her allegations against Philbert in 2017.

“I do believe they were aware of things,” the woman said. “I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have been aware of my report.”

When asked about Schlissel’s statement, Fitzgerald said that he believed Schlissel was speaking about what he knew at the time.

“I certainly can’t tell you what the President was thinking at the time,” Fitzgerald said. “I have a great deal of confidence that the President was commenting based on what he knew and when.”

 In an email to The Daily, the former lab employee’s attorney, Sarah Prescott, said she was disappointed in Philbert’s promotion given University officials’ knowledge of allegations against him. 

“This community has been told that Martin Philbert was vetted carefully before he was promoted,” Prescott wrote. “Whatever ‘vetting’ happened, UM chose not to consider his sexual mistreatment of women.”

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Fitzgerald told The Daily in an email Tuesday that the University took “decisive actions once allegations of sexual misconduct regarding Martin Philbert were brought to the attention of President Mark Schlissel in January.”

However, in an email to The Daily, Renda said she believes OIE’s process is not effective.

“From what I have learned and experienced, this has been an institutional failure at every level, but the buck stops with the higher ups,” Renda said. “The OIE process is completely broken and of course became worse when Philbert’s office began overseeing sexual misconduct procedures at the University.”

OIE began directly reporting to Philbert in September 2019. In the Jan. 28 interview with The Daily, Schlissel said that Philbert did not sign off on cases, play a role in investigations or assign punishment in any OIE cases. 

In a February statement to the Detroit Free Press, Fitzgerald said it is important that those who come forward with information get the support they need. 

“The university urges anyone who may be aware of prohibited conduct at the university to report it to U-M Police, the Office for (sic) Institutional Equity or a confidential source, such as SAPAC, the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center,” Fitzgerald said. 

Prescott told The Daily the University did not contact her client, the former lab employee, until Prescott brought her into the WilmerHale investigation earlier this year. 

Furthermore, Renda said she has not heard from the University since January despite coming forward with allegations against Philbert. 

“The University says it cares about survivors, but I have not heard one word from them since January when I conducted an interview with WilmerHale, except for solicitations for donations to the University,” Renda said. 

The former lab employee said the University’s handling of her case was not satisfactory — she didn’t feel safe when she first came forward with allegations against Philbert.

“I would like the University to hire people that will have higher ethics and morals and uphold the policies and change the policies that the University has to better serve the survivors of sexual harassment and assault,” the former lab employee said.

Summer Managing News Editor Jasmin Lee contributed to the reporting.

Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu. Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu