‘A culture of silence’: Students respond to WilmerHale report of Philbert’s misconduct

Monday, August 3, 2020 - 8:43pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

Friday morning, the University of Michigan community awoke to an email announcing the release of the WilmerHale report, sent to students, University officials, the Board of Regents and the public simultaneously. The investigation, conducted by the WilmerHale law firm, uncovered decades of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against former University Provost Martin Philbert, as well as numerous instances in which University administrators were made aware of allegations prior to when the investigation opened in January.

Many students have reacted to the findings of the investigation with anger, frustration and disappointment — but many are not surprised, they told The Daily. 

Public Policy senior Nora Hilgart-Griff referenced a string of alleged abusers from the University’s recent past — from the late athletic doctor Robert Anderson to former Music, Theatre & Dance professor Stephen Shipps — as she discussed her own lack of surprise at the contents of the report. She said the years of allegations against Philbert reassert the University’s disappointing progress toward creating an environment free of sexual harassment and violence on campus.

“We want to see these things as maybe part of an ugly past or part of a different culture,” Hilgart-Griff said. “Colleges and universities have maybe come a long way, but they’re still by and large institutions of privilege … (and of) wealth and whiteness and maleness, and I think that can’t help but show. So I am horrified and unsurprised at the same time, which I think is a really frustrating conjunction of emotions.”

The report arrived six months after University President Mark Schlissel first announced the University had received allegations against Philbert and had placed him on leave. Some students saw the public release of the WilmerHale report as a step in the right direction, while others pointed to inconsistencies between the claims to transparency and the contents of the report itself. 

 LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Andrew Gerace voiced skepticism about the University’s efforts toward transparency.

“The University is very comfortable using the term ‘transparency’ when they’re saying things like, ‘Oh, we have sent this report to you … as part of our commitment to transparency’ — however, everything that the report documented was non-transparent,” Gerace said.

LSA junior Emma Sandberg similarly noted that other institutional barriers to transparency remain. Sandberg is the founder of Roe v. Rape, a nonprofit advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault on campus that works to challenge several of the University’s existing sexual misconduct policies.

“I really appreciate the University’s transparency in this case; it’s so important that they made the WilmerHale findings public,” Sandberg wrote. “What I am deeply concerned about, but not surprised about, is OIE’s (Office of Institutional Equity’s) failure to adequately investigate the sexual harassment complaint against Philbert in 2005. A proper investigation would have prevented him from ever becoming the provost and from continuing to harass women over the next 15 years. This should be alarming to all members of the U of M community, as there are certainly other similar cases that haven’t yet come to light.”

OIE is the administrative body at the University that investigates whether reports of student or faculty behavior violate the University’s sexual misconduct policies, and the WilmerHale report found in 2005, Anthony Walesby, the then-director of OIE, determined the office would not further investigate allegations of sexual harassment against Philbert. According to the report, Walesby’s reasoning was that two women refused to speak with him. The women’s reasoning was that they feared retaliation from Philbert.

Upon reading about OIE’s failure to investigate in 2005, Hilgart-Griff said it made her wonder what the purpose of OIE really is.

“I understand that, you know, especially at a large university … at least to some degree, you have to be thoughtful about what you pursue … or at least I’m sure they feel that they have to be thoughtful about what they pursue,” Hilgart-Griff said. “But … like, that’s their job … to ensure that there’s a safe and equitable working environment. And they were hearing about one person repeatedly and then dismissing it. And I’d love to know that if taking care of that is not their purpose here, I want to know what they see their purpose as.”

LSA junior Annie Mintun, a member of Roe v. Rape, said she thinks this failure to investigate demonstrates that OIE has an obligation to to live up to in the future.

“OIE has an obligation to initiate investigations, regardless of whether or not survivors of sexual assault want to come forward,” Mintun said. “Because the reality is, for every … survivor of sexual assault that comes forward, I mean, we have no idea how many other women and men aren’t able to come forward, and it’s the job of OIE to investigate that.”

LSA sophomore Ceciel Zhong, a fellow member of Roe v. Rape, said the report debunks the notion that victims of sexual assault are to blame for refusing to come forward with allegations. Instead, she emphasized that threats of retaliation — as seen throughout the Philbert case — prevent survivors from coming forward, echoing the “culture of silence” Hilgart-Griff alluded to at the University.

“It’s not women that don’t report,” Zhong said. “Reading the WilmerHale report, it may be (made) clear that Philbert … used his power to move up the ladder and which then accumulated more power that he could use to coerce more victims into being compliant.”

In addition to expressing disappointment with Philbert’s long history of misconduct, several students have also wondered how several hiring committees responsible for promoting Philbert — notably, to dean of the School of Public Health in 2010, and provost of the University in 2017 — were either unaware of the allegations made against him as early as 2005, or dismissive of them. According to WilmerHale’s investigation, Schlissel had received notice of possible allegations against Philbert by a Regent in 2017 and in an anonymous faculty survey in 2019.

Rackham student Sheira Cohen speculated as to what kept the University from taking action earlier in an interview with The Daily.

“There’s no interest in learning uncomfortable truths,” Cohen said. “And as the WilmerHale report shows that if you actually look, there is an abundance of information on this … It’s there. It wasn’t hidden … They simply went and looked at reports that had already been made and talked to people who had already reported and assessed all of that information.”

Zhong was also critical of University administrators’ years of inaction, even as allegations were made.

“I personally am very confused why he (Schlissel) didn’t see the report and had no previous knowledge about Philbert’s behavior before this year,” Zhong said. “His inaction … also had a large influence. It’s very telling to me that things have to really escalate to this point for the University to take action.”

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald referred The Daily to a statement Schlissel addressed to the campus community Monday after multiple requests for comment. In it, Schlissel identified areas for improvement in the University’s sexual misconduct reporting and investigation processes in light of the report.

“Additionally, we will determine what we need to do to address the fear of retaliation in our community and build a culture that does not accept misconduct or harassment at any level,” the statement reads. “It is clear from the report that our institution must work to support and empower individuals to report misconduct. The university also needs to develop ways to better capture and, when appropriate, act on anonymous reports and information we receive from those who do not wish to file a formal specific complaint.”

Schlissel also expressed regret at having missed the anonymous allegation from the 2019 faculty survey. If he had seen it, he would have reported it immediately to OIE, Schlissel wrote.

As provost, Philbert’s office oversaw investigations by the OIE. Fitzgerald told The Daily in January that it “would be a mistake” to think Philbert had influence over OIE investigations, despite the supervisory role of his office. However, in the future, some students, whose trust of OIE has been diminished by the report, are calling upon the University to revisit cases investigated while Philbert was in office.

“I’m almost questioning whether OIE needs to reinvestigate … allegations students have made against faculty members because how can we trust the office of somebody like Philbert at the time to properly investigate these things, when their own office was a proponent in some of these students not not getting justice?” Gerace asked.

Mintun said although she was overall disheartened by Schlissel’s email Monday, she hopes he and the Board of Regents takes the recommendations made in the report seriously, including strengthening avenues of reporting sexual misconduct.

“I think what you see throughout the report is that individuals tried to alert the University of Philbert’s actions since 2003,” Mintun said. “Every time … the information never made it to the right person, or the right person failed to collect information from all the other relevant sources. And so I think that that’s the biggest thing the University really should focus on, is making sure that students know students and staff know … that the information will get to the appropriate person because that hasn’t happened.”

Cohen, who is also a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, has been at the bargaining table with the University in the past calling for change to how sexual misconduct is handled. As a member of the bargaining team negotiating a new three-year contract with the University in the winter 2020 term, GEO successfully passed several proposals, including updates to what constitutes “harassment.”

“Many of the things, for example, that the (former) provost did would not have necessarily been counted as … harassment under this definition that existed in the contract,” Cohen said.

The updated definition accounts for threats of retaliation and unwanted verbal communication of a sexual nature (such as sexual jokes), both of which WilmerHale found Philbert subjected female employees to. However, Cohen said there is more progress to be made, especially in terms of making the University’s policies more survivor-centered.

“It’s (OIE) just very much focused on protecting the University’s bottom line, rather than on supporting survivors and putting a survivor-centered framework in place,” Cohen said.

Zhong added that, ultimately, whatever the University does or doesn’t do to amend its sexual misconduct policies will have implications for everyone on campus.

“Having a system that deters reporting and doesn’t take quick action when it receives allegations is ultimately hurting itself,” Zhong said. “Many victims, they lose work productivity, and the environment is hostile. Students will lose access to education.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.