“I will never be a ‘Go Blue’ girl”: Survivors find it hard to trust UM’s efforts to improve sexual assault complaint process
It was halfway through the 2019 fall semester. A student at the University of Michigan reported to the school’s Office of Institutional Equity that another student had assaulted her.
But the process of trying to get justice through the university was so difficult and drawn out, it left her exhausted. (Michigan Radio typically withholds the names of sexual assault survivors, unless they prefer their name to be used.)
“I will never wear the Block M with pride,” she said. “I will never be a ‘Go Blue’ girl. The ‘Block M’ makes me sick, to be honest with you.”
The student lost her case in the spring of 2020, more than 200 days after she filed her complaint.
“There were weeks when I would spend like 20 or 25 hours on it. Like it was a job,” she said. “I would say I was a very ambitious person. And now I just want to be done. And I don't really care what happens next, as long as I can support myself and I can be out of here.”
In emails shared with Michigan Radio, the student outlined complaints about repeated attempts to get updates, delays, and dropped communication. In the correspondence, she pointed out errors that she tried to get fixed again and again, once reaching out to then-associate director of the Office of Institutional Equity Tamiko “Tami” Strickman. Strickman said in an email to the student the delays were caused by "internal OIE scheduling conflicts." There were also more interviews to be done, she added.
The student said after this email, Strickman did not reply to her subsequent inquiries.
At one point, an advocate for the student wrote in an email an Office of Student Conflict Resolution employee sent the student a form with another claimant’s name — violating that person’s privacy.
“They just work in this totally alternate universe where not only do deadlines not matter, but you don't actually even owe anyone an explanation for why you're not making your deadlines,” the student said.
“Meanwhile, I'm pulling my hair out.”
She is one of many who felt blindsided by the University of Michigan and its sexual misconduct policies. And even as the university makes sweeping changes to its Title IX policy and procedures, legal experts and survivors like this student wonder: Will it make a difference?
Turmoil, and “sweeping changes”
Over the past few years, a string of harrowing abuse stories have shaken the school: The late sports doctor Robert Anderson, accused of assaulting hundreds upon hundreds of students. Former provost Martin Philbert, who has several sexual misconduct complaints against him. Famed opera singer David Daniels, who harassed his students and has been indicted on sexual assault charges in Texas. And computer science assistant professor Walter Lasecki, who resigned after a Michigan Daily investigation was published – even though the school’s Title IX investigation had cleared him.
The university hired consultant Guidepost Solutions in December, after a law firm uncovered the Philbert misconduct and concluded that top officials knew about his actions. During a July Board of Regents meeting, the school outlined the big changes to its policies.
"Let me say today and always to those who may have suffered harm, that we believe you,” U of M President Mark Schlissel said in July. “We value you. And I want you to come forward with trust and confidence in our systems, and without fear of retaliation.".
On Thursday, U of M finalized a sexual misconduct policy, after waiting for new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education. Regent Jordan Acker said part of the changes were made to protect survivors from additional “unnecessary trauma.” The changes, effective October 1, include:
- Giving students an option to use a university-provided adviser – often an attorney from an outside law firm – earlier in the investigative resolution process. (Previously, students were afforded this option during the hearing stage)
- Clarifying reporting obligations for faculty and staff
- An expanded appeals process for employees who violate sexual misconduct policy
- All appeals will be decided by an external reviewer
- A pilot program to use resolution practices “rooted in restorative justice”
Thursday’s Regents meeting was the first in-person session in over a year, due to the pandemic. It was also the first chance the survivors of Anderson’s abuse had to meet the regents face-to-face. Just before the meeting, outside of the U of M Golf Course, a crowd of survivors and supporters gathered with signs that read, "I deserve to feel safe on campus” and shirts that read, “Hail to the Victims.”
“Your apologies aren’t apologies,” Jon Vaughn, a former U of M running back who says Anderson assaulted him on numerous occasions . “You can apologize all you want for what Dr. Anderson subjected us to. But you’ve never taken responsibility for what the university was complicit with, what it enabled, and what it's been covering up for the last five decades. There needs to be accountability.”
In a story reported by MLive, Vaughn called the July policy changes “company speak” and questioned the university’s ability to police itself.
Students came to the Thursday rally to support the survivors. Fueled by his activist nature and the experience of filing his own harassment claim, which he lost, U of M junior Porter Hughes led the protest’s chants. He said he’s glad the school is taking action, but “quite frankly...I'll believe it when I see it.” Students like him are even taking time during game days to hand out flyers and spread awareness about the university’s handling of sexual misconduct.
Regent Jordan Acker thanked the survivors for their words, and said he was limited in what he could say due to court orders and confidential mediation. He pointed to the new measures he says will help the university make sure "nothing like this happens again."
The university announced its first overhaul of its sexual misconduct policies over the summer.
Those changes include replacing the Office Institutional Equity with an Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office. It will be "led with a focus on care, support, education and prevention," according to a presentation made to the Board of Regents in July.
The university also created a Prevention, Education Assistance, and Resources Department within the new ECRT office. The university says that the department will provide "high quality and comprehensive prevention education and support for faculty and staff.”
Elizabeth Abdnour is a Lansing-based lawyer who specializes in Title IX and civil rights.
Abdnour said the effects of the changes will take a while to see – at least a year. But she said the changes announced over the summer seemed more like a marketing and rebranding effort than meaningful change.
“I didn't see anything in their new plan that really addresses what I think are the most substantive concerns,” she said.
Abdnour says she doesn’t see the changes fixing the fact that investigations take too long, and investigators have too much work. She also said it adds another person for parties to keep track of during the process.
She said she didn’t understand why the school is not hiring more investigators, and that the university’s plan to hire “equity specialists” will just add confusion to the process.
“My experience is when you add middlemen, that doesn't streamline things. That actually makes things take longer,” Abdnour said.
“What was I going to do about it?”
The new Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office will be led by Tamiko “Tami” Strickman, who was the associate vice-president of the university’s now-defunct Office of Institutional Equity. Strickman is named in two lawsuits from her time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she was a Title IX coordinator from 2016 to 2019.
The U.S. Department of Justice sent a statement of interest for the first lawsuit. Abdnour is representing plaintiffs in both suits.
Schlissel told The Michigan Daily that the university believes she will becleared of wrongdoing. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald added in an email to Michigan Radio, "We have complete confidence in Tamiko Strickman as the leader of the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office."
But the student from the beginning of this story says Strickman’s record — and her own experience with Strickman’s office — further fuels her skepticism that the university can do better by sexual assault survivors.
Her advice to sexual assault survivors who want to get resolution through the university: Get a lawyer. “No one will tell you that, but it's true,” she said. “You shouldn't do it without a lawyer, because they felt totally comfortable screwing me over the whole time. Because what was I gonna do about it?”
She says she believes all the delays, the lack of communication, was intentional.
“That was the purpose. Everything that they did was on purpose, to make me feel crazy, to make me feel like this wasn't worthwhile, to make me just drop it.”
Editor's note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's license.
If you are a student at the university, you may find this law student-led organization to be useful for advice. It should be noted that they are currently reorganizing this semester.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or abuse, here are some resources that can help:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673)
- RAINN’s confidential chat, or “online hotline”
- The National Association for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence’s hotline chat