WilmerHale investigation finds two decades of Philbert misconduct, several ‘U’ officials knew

Friday, July 31, 2020 - 10:34am

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WilmerHale released its 88-page report of its independent investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct by former University of Michigan Provost Martin Philbert Friday. The report found “significant evidence” that Philbert violated the University’s Sexual Harassment policy. It identified numerous times when University personnel and administration received information about Philbert’s sexual misconduct. 

“Two things are clear: First, there is significant evidence that Philbert engaged in a wide range of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, for at least fifteen years,” the report reads. “Second, neither OIE (Office of Institutional Equity) nor the senior leadership of the University understood the seriousness or the pervasiveness of Philbert’s misconduct.”

WilmerHale began its independent investigation in January 2020. After six months, WilmerHale investigators interviewed 128 people, some multiple times, including current and former employees, former students and current and former University administrators. 

The report finds that Philbert normalized his inappropriate behavior and intimidated women who may have sought to report him. 

“Philbert had expressly threatened some of them—one witness, who in fact was in a relationship with Philbert, told us that he said: ‘If you ever tell anyone about us, I will make sure you go down. I will destroy your career,’” the report reads.

The report alleges Philbert sexually harassed multiple members of the University community while he was an assistant professor, an associate dean, School of Public Health dean and provost. In his early years at the University, Philbert allegedly harassed women who worked in his research lab, making comments about their bodies, redirecting conversations toward sex and insisting on getting hugs. The report found Philbert engaged in simultaneous sexual relationships with at least two University employees, and sometimes more, during his tenure as Provost. He stored nude photos of these women on University-owned devices and had “sexual contact” with them in University offices often. 

The report was released to both the University and the public at the same time. In an email to The Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University is reviewing the results from the report.

“We have just begun to carefully review the full report and take all of its findings into account,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Yet, it is clear in the executive summary that the WilmerHale report – released publicly today at the same time it was shared with university officials – contains a shocking description of improper and unacceptable behavior by a university officer as well as failings by this institution. We will do everything in our power to prevent such misconduct from ever happening again at the University of Michigan.”

In 2003, a male lab employee, Tom Komorowski, was terminated by Philbert. He reported to University officials he was fired over a female lab employee because of her and Philbert’s close, personal relationship. A senior Public Health School faculty member questioned Philbert about the alleged relationship and did not find any indication of an improper relationship. A 2004 lawsuit by the male employee also did not find any such evidence. 

In 2005, specific allegations of sexual harassment against Philbert arose in the Public Health School. One of Philbert’s research assistants reported Philbert had “asked her for sex, to marry him, to run away together and to ‘have caramel colored babies’ with him.” The alerted Public Health professor relayed the information to multiple University officials, including the then-Public Health dean Ken Warner; Lori Pierce, vice provost academic and faculty affairs and Anthony Walesby, director of the Office of Institutional Equity. 

As the director of OIE, Walesby was responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints against faculty. According to the report, when he tried to speak with the women, however, both declined for fear of retaliation from Philbert. Another member of the Philbert’s lab — a graduate student — reported Philbert had a “bad reputation with women” and that he asked another student for sex. Walesby determined OIE could not investigate further since women would not speak with him, the report says. 

In 2010, Philbert was in the running to become the Dean of the Public Health School. During the process, Paula Lantz, the chair of the Search Committee, became aware of the 2005 allegations and informed the Provost’s Office of the allegations. After meeting with Warner, Lantz did not inform the committee because “the investigation revealed no wrongdoing.” At the same time, then-Provost Philip Hanlon also learned of the 2005 allegations and had more information than Lantz, after meeting with multiple people to further question. 

Both Lantz and Hanlon, along with the Search Committee were aware of a confidential survey in which a participant said “I was subject to inappropriate and unwanted sexual comments and suggestions,” according to the report. The report concludes that both Lantz and Hanlon should have turned the survey results to the OIE for further investigation.

In 2017, Pierce was a member of the Provost Search Committee, which was chaired by University President Mark Schlissel. The report finds that the committee and Schlissel did not learn any information about Philbert’s alleged mistreatment of women during the search process, even though Pierce was one of the University officials Walseby reported the 2013 incident to. According to the report, Pierce did not alert the committee to her knowledge of allegations against Philbert because, in her memory, there had been no evidence to support them. 

Between Philbert’s selection and his appointment as Provost in 2017, a Board of Regents member told Schlissel that Philbert may have been named in a sexual misconduct lawsuit — the 2004 suit filed by Philbert’s male employee. Schlissel determined facts from the lawsuit did not show an improper relationship, and he did not see a need to reverse Philbert’s appointment to Provost, the report says. 

In April 2019, Schlissel received a comment alleging Philbert was a “notorious sexual predator” from a University faculty survey evaluating his leadership.

“President Schlissel’s survey, which included 161 comments totaling 27 pages, included a comment stating, in part, ‘Re: your administrative appointments: Martin Philbert was/is a notorious sexual predator, physically cornering and emotionally coercing his female graduate students in his toxicology lab,’” the report reads. “President Schlissel did not recall having reviewed the comment, and there is no indication that he (or anyone else at the University) did.”

In conclusion, the report recommends the University establish policies to streamline sexual assault allegation information to Unviersity officials. Additionally, the report recommends the University thoroughly evaluate the OIE practices for pursuing investigations even when clients decline to undergo formal investigations. And third, the report recommends implementing procedures during the hiring process, especially for the decision making process for when sexual misconduct allegations arise. 

“We conclude that the University should have taken further steps to investigate Philbert in 2005,” the report reads. “The women were entitled to decline to participate in an investigation, but the University was still obligated to take all reasonable steps to investigate sexual harassment reports in order to provide a nondiscriminatory environment.” 

The University Board of Regents released a statement to The Daily, extending their commitment to taking action to prevent situations like this in the future.

“As a Board, we will carefully review the findings and recommendations presented by the independent investigators,” the Board wrote. “We are committed to taking the specific actions necessary to address the past and move the university community toward a future that prevents situations like those described in this report.”

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu and Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.