Systemic Silence

U-M is confronting disturbing instances of sexual misconduct, wrestling with how to revamp systems and procedures for reporting, punishing, and preventing similar behavior — and to rebuild the trust of students, staff, and alumni.
By Amy Crawford


Read time: 12 minutes

A doctoral student in LSA’s Department of Sociology, Nicole Bedera studies sexual violence on college campuses. For her dissertation, she spent a year embedded at a large public university in the western United States, observing the official procedures triggered by accusations of sexual misconduct and helping survivors find campus resources. Through in-depth interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and officials, she gained a deeper understanding of a problem that was increasingly in the national news.

“I talked to everyone involved in these types of cases, to really get this multidimensional view of how decisions were made and what was happening,” Bedera says of her time at the institution. (As is standard practice in her field, she does not name it.) “One of the things that I kept seeing over and over was that there was ample evidence of what was going on, but it was uncomfortable, and so administrators would ignore crucial evidence.”

Some of the patterns Bedera traced in the field have since emerged closer to home. In 2020, according to reporting on legal proceedings by The Detroit News, more than 800 U-M alumni came forward to report that the late Robert E. Anderson, who served as a physician for the Athletic Department for more than 20 years, had assaulted them during medical examinations. Meanwhile, multiple women accused Martin Philbert, then the University’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, of harassment dating back decades. (See the sidebar below for details.) In both cases, some University officials reportedly knew at least some details yet failed to act.

As these and other stories have become public, U-M administrators have not only had to contend with the legal fallout but also undergo a sort of institutional soul-searching. It’s a process that many universities across the country, rocked by their own high-profile scandals, are each experiencing in their own way as they wrestle with how to revamp systems and procedures for reporting, punishing, and preventing similar behavior — and to rebuild the trust of students, staff, and alumni.

Robert E. Anderson

Following is a brief timeline of the Anderson case; an investigation is still ongoing as of press time.

1967 Anderson begins working at U-M, where he will serve in a variety of roles, including director of the University Health Service and athletic team physician.

2003 He retires from U-M and dies in 2008.

JULY 2018 A former student-athlete writes to Athletic Director Warde Manuel to detail abuse during medical exams by Anderson in the early 1970s. The information is shared with the U-M Office for Institutional Equity and U-M Police. During the police investigation, detectives interview dozens of people and identify several individuals who describe incidents of sexual misconduct, including unnecessary medical exams. Most of those exams took place in the 1970s, with at least one reported incident as late as the 1990s.

APRIL 2019 U-M turns over the case to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office.

FEB. 18, 2020 Based on a review of the U-M Police investigation, the prosecutor’s office determines that no criminal charges would be filed.

FEB. 19, 2020 The University issues a public announcement asking any former patients of Anderson who believe they were subjected to sexual misconduct during a medical exam to contact a dedicated call center. U-M also announces that it will offer free, confidential counseling to former Anderson patients.

FEB. 20, 2020 During a board of regents meeting, U-M President Mark Schlissel apologizes on behalf of the University to those harmed by Anderson.

FEB. 27, 2020 Three former wrestlers hold a press conference detailing misconduct by Anderson.

MARCH 5, 2020 The University offers free, confidential counseling to former Anderson patients.

MARCH 24, 2020 U-M announces that it has hired the law firm WilmerHale to replace Steptoe & Johnson, which had previously launched an independent investigation into the allegations. The firm will have no role in defending the University against any lawsuits filed in the matter.

APRIL 7, 2020 The University announces it is reaching out via mail and email to most of the 6,800 former student-athletes who were on campus between the mid-1960s and the early 2000s. The message asks them to share any information that may help in the investigation.

APRIL 28, 2020 U-M announces it will develop an alternative resolution process outside the court system to address claims of sexual misconduct. Since the public announcement in February, U-M engaged with a number of attorneys representing former patients.

JUNE 16, 2020 U-M announces a second wave of outreach to more than 300,000 former students who were on campus between the mid-1960s and early 2000s, asking them to share any relevant information.

Martin Philbert

1995 Philbert joins the faculty of the U-M School of Public Health (SPH) as an assistant professor of toxicology, becoming a full professor in 2004 and dean in 2010.

2005 An SPH colleague tells Anthony Walesby, U-M’s Title IX coordinator at the time, that two women who worked in Philbert’s lab had complained about his behavior. Fearing retaliation, the women decline to make official reports, so Walesby never opens an official investigation.

2017 Philbert is named provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. The position oversees the Office for Institutional Equity (OIE), which is responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints against faculty.

JAN. 16-17, 2020 The University receives several allegations of sexual misconduct by Philbert.

JAN. 17, 2020 The University launches an internal investigation of the allegations. In subsequent days, it engages the Division of Public Safety and Security and retains the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an independent investigation.

JAN. 21, 2020 U-M President Mark Schlissel places Philbert on leave. The OIE will, for this investigation, report to the associate vice president for human resources.

MARCH 5, 2020 The University announces it will offer free, confidential counseling to anyone affected by Philbert’s alleged misconduct.

MARCH 11, 2020 Schlissel fires Philbert as provost based on information that has come to light in the investigation. Philbert remains on paid administrative leave from his duties as a faculty member while the investigation continues.

JUNE 7, 2020 Philbert submits his retirement and surrenders his rights to academic tenure, effective June 30, in a letter to Schlissel.

JULY 31, 2020 WilmerHale releases an 88-page report of its investigation, which shows that Philbert sexually harassed multiple members of the University community for two decades, including his six years as SPH dean — when he had sexual relationships with at least three school employees — and after he was appointed provost. The report also says its investigation found instances where the University could have taken more action to investigate Philbert, but it found no evidence that Schlissel learned of Philbert’s alleged misconduct before his selection as provost.

AUG. 3, 2020 Schlissel apologizes to those affected by Phil-bert’s misconduct and the University’s failings.

SEPT. 17, 2020 Schlissel states at the board of regents meeting that the University has begun to implement the recommendation in the WilmerHale report.

NOV. 18, 2020 The University announces a settlement agreement with eight women who reported abuse by Philbert. The settlement includes payments totaling $9.25 million.

DEC. 3, 2020 U-M hires the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions to implement the recommendations in the July 31 WilmerHale report.

The movement that would become known as #MeToo began in 2017, with the publication of graphic allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Similar stories of powerful men abusing their positions soon roiled the worlds of entertainment and politics, the media and Silicon Valley — and higher education.

At Harvard, a vice provost for international affairs was accused of harassing his junior colleagues for decades. A former Stanford student said that when she reported to administrators that a prominent English professor had raped her, they allowed him to return to work following a two-year ban from the department without pay. At Dartmouth, students and alumni filed a class action lawsuit against the college, alleging that a trio of psychology professors had created a culture of licentiousness. Universities vowed to do better, pledging new structures for reporting incidents, better training, and more accountability, even as they settled lawsuits for millions of dollars.

While the individual stories were shocking, the broader trend was less of a surprise; in 2015, the Association of American Universities conducted a survey of students at 27 U.S. research campuses and found that 10% of female graduate and professional students had been sexually harassed by faculty. Clearly, the reckoning was long overdue.

“Universities are not somehow different from the rest of society,” the association’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, told The Washington Post in 2018. (Coleman also served as U-M president from 2002 to 2014.) “We’re talking about culture — deeply embedded culture.”

The question universities nationwide are now confronting is whether they can change that culture.

“This isn’t an issue where there’s an algorithm that will Google Map us there, unfortunately,” says Elizabeth Seney, U-M’s Title IX coordinator in the Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). “Change is hard even when you have everyone in agreement as to the goal.”

Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972, protects people from sex-based discrimination at any public or private educational institution that receives federal funds. But while it lays out requirements for equal access to sports, scholarships, courses, and other aspects of education, in recent years its enforcement has centered on preventing and punishing sexual harassment and assault. A lawyer with a background in family practice, Seney oversees sexual misconduct investigations that involve violations of Title IX.

The University has been revising its sexual misconduct policies since 2011, after the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance about investigations and the standard of evidence related to Title IX (see sidebar below). The current Interim Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct, which took effect last August, covers the entire campus community and includes definitions for Title IX misconduct and other prohibited sexual and gender-based misconduct. An accompanying Interim Student Procedures and Interim Employee Procedures manual covers reporting and handling violations. The policy names “individuals with reporting obligations” (IROs), who are required by their positions of authority to report anything they hear. These mandated reporters help establish that complaints against employees will be handled by a dedicated OIE investigator.

Sexual Misconduct Policy

Long before the allegations against Martin Philbert and Robert E. Anderson became public in 2020, the University had been reexamining its sexual misconduct policies.

2011 U-M revises its sexual misconduct policies after the U.S. Department of Education issues guidance about investigations and the standard of evidence related to Title IX.

2014 U-M is one of 55 institutions that the U.S. Department of Education places under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. That leads to a revised policy meant to be more sensitive to survivors.

2018 A ruling in Doe v. Baum by Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals requires U-M to better ensure due process for accused students.

2019 In response to the 2018 case, a working group staffed by representatives from U-M’s three campuses and Michigan Medicine begins developing an umbrella policy that will apply to the entire University community.

2020 The Interim Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct takes effect in August.

2021 In January, the University announces a new round of community engagement sessions to collect feedback before a final version of the policy goes into effect July 1.

Through mid-March of this year, OIE collected feedback on the interim policy in a series of community engagement sessions before the final policy goes into effect on or around July 1. U-M is also working with the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions to implement recommendations from the law firm WilmerHale, which conducted an independent investigation into the Philbert case last year. The firm is still investigating the Anderson case.

“We want to get lots of community feedback,” Seney says. “What do people want reporting obligations to be? Does our community want to focus on any particular issue? … There are certainly going to be things that we might have put lots of thought into, and it just is not perceived the way that we thought it would be or in line with what we intended. And that’s really important for us to hear, because we’re not going to always be 100% perfect.” If part of the process isn’t working well, she adds, then OIE wants to know so it can adjust.

Rebekah Modrak is a professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design and a member of the Faculty Senate’s Academic Affairs Advisory Committee, which advises the provost’s office on policy and procedures, including the new sexual misconduct rules. The committee also meets regularly with OIE and Guidepost Solutions. She worries that someone like Philbert may still be able to continue misbehavior unimpeded and even to sail through promotions without hiring committees knowing about past misconduct.

In 2010, Philbert was promoted to dean of the School of Public Health (where he had been on the faculty since 1995), and in 2017, he became provost. Ironically, his duties in that position would involve overseeing OIE and the development of a new umbrella policy regarding misconduct.

“The hypocrisy of him discussing this with us is really disturbing,” says Modrak, who recalls sitting around a table with Philbert in the fall of 2019 as the faculty committee learned about the development of the new policy. “I feel very betrayed and really upset for these women. It was clear that there had been enough reports, enough red flags that he should never have been put in a position of such extreme power over people.”

Seney agrees that OIE must keep better track of pieces of information that might reveal broader patterns about an individual’s behavior or a hostile culture within a department, or even a specific office or lab. “We want to make sure that we can connect dots where they’re not connected,” she says, adding that her office “has consistently, over time, increased the types and amount of information that we have tracked.”

Right now, Seney says, every report OIE receives is documented in an internal database, and a record is kept whether or not an investigation takes place. “Upon receipt of a report, that database is checked for prior reports involving the same party,” Seney says. “That database is internal to OIE; however, there are some other mechanisms by which prior concerns would be available during a hiring or promotion process.” Those include when an investigator’s findings result in an employee being fired, leading to a designation as ineligible for rehire in the human resources system. Seney also says that in some contexts, including tenure considerations, OIE could provide information to outside committees.

Reforming institutional sexual misconduct policies may be a messy business, but in recent years researchers have made strides in identifying problems and possible solutions.

Kathryn Holland, PhD’17, who is now an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska, and Lilia Cortina, a U-M psychology professor who leads the Gender and Respect in Organizations Lab, have studied how community norms and institutional policies often keep women who experience sexual assault in college from filing reports with the Title IX office or other campus authorities. Their suggestions for remedying the situation include reducing what to many victims feels like “a quasi-criminal justice approach” and limiting reliance on mandated reporters, a system for which, they say, there is little evidence of effectiveness, but ample evidence of harm.

“The problem of mandated reporter policies is that they essentially take control away from survivors,” Cortina says. “Survivors have already lost control in a profound way, if they’ve been sexually assaulted, and this exacerbates that. And it potentially pulls survivors into unpleasant processes of investigation, hearings, and adjudication. I don’t know anyone who’s gone through formal reporting who hasn’t had an unpleasant experience, even with well-meaning investigators.”

Policies that name mandated reporters — a trend over the past 10 years, including at U-M — might also have a chilling effect on survivors’ willingness to approach colleagues or supervisors for advice, Cortina notes. And that may obscure any dots that could be connected in the future.

Retaliation is another major theme in workplace sexual misconduct research, but there is more evidence about what doesn’t work than what does, Cortina says. While nearly every organization has an official policy against retaliation, it can be nearly impossible to enforce, especially when the risk is less improper termination than social ostracism — failing to include a graduate student or junior faculty member in professional gatherings, for example, or declining to write a letter of recommendation. One promising development is anonymous, third-party reporting software, which allows survivors to create time-stamped reports that can be stored securely until they feel safe submitting a complaint to their employer or Title IX office.

“The control stays with survivor,” Cortina says. “It’s up to them when to trigger it, to actually send it to the Title IX office or to their employer’s HR.”

Researchers have also argued that institutions should rely less on individuals making official reports than on a proactive process of investigating patterns of misconduct — the so-called “open secrets” that are often referred to in the aftermath of troubling revelations. Anonymous climate surveys, which can be universitywide or focused within a school/college or department, may be valuable, allowing administrators to tailor trainings or focus more closely on patterns of misconduct even without the cooperation of survivors.

“That would actually reduce the threat of retaliation, because perpetrators would no longer look at victims and say, ‘This happened to me because you came forward,’” says Bedera, the doctoral student studying sexual violence. “It would be about, ‘The university is concerned about your behavior.’ In the Philbert case in particular, I think this would have made a huge difference.”

Other research, including Bedera’s, has shown that confusing policies also prevent survivors from coming forward. “Victims have a really hard time understanding their legal rights in these cases,” she says. “The policies are really long, they are written in really legalistic language, and they are very difficult for the average person to understand. When we’re talking about barriers to coming forward, making sure that the policies are complete, clear, and concise is really important.”

As a researcher, Bedera is well-versed in the systemic problems that can allow behavior like Anderson’s and Philbert’s to continue in semi-secrecy for decades. Still, like many members of the U-M community, she is outraged and disappointed that these things have happened here. As the University wrestles with the fallout, hers will be among the many eyes watching closely.

“I would like to see the University of Michigan take a proactive response,” she says. “I want them to say, ‘Every school is confronting this right now. How do we do better? How do we lead? How do we make sure we’re doing right by our students?’”

Amy Crawford is a writer living in Ann Arbor. Her stories have also appeared in Smithsonian, HuffPost, and Nature Conservancy magazine.

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