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Report: U of M officials knew of multiple sexual misconduct complaints against former provost

Dr. Martin Philbert speaking at a 2016 University of Michigan graduation ceremony.
University of Michigan School of Dentistry
Dr. Martin Philbert speaking at a 2016 University of Michigan graduation ceremony.

Several University of Michigan top officials, including former President Mary Sue Coleman, were alerted to sexual misconduct allegations against former Provost Martin Philbert, but ultimately failed to prevent him from sexually harassing and intimidating subordinates and student-employees for more than a decade.

That’s the damning conclusion of a report released Friday by WilmerHale, the firm hired by the U of M in January to conduct an investigation into complaints against Philbert.

“We found that the University received information about Philbert’s conduct at various times over the course of more than fifteen years, including during key periods when he was under consideration and later selected for senior positions within the University,” the report finds.

Read more: For the first time, multiple women speak out about former U-M provost's alleged sexual misconduct

Philbert was put on leave days after the school received the most recent complaints this winter, a spokesperson says, and removed in March. In June Philbert submitted his “voluntary and irrevocable retirement” to University President Mark Schlissel.

“During the entire period that Philbert was a University employee, the University had legal obligations to respond to sexual misconduct complaints against employees, both as an employer and as an institution of higher education that received federal financial assistance,” investigators say in the report.

The report describes years of Philbert making “unwanted sexual comments...physical and sexual advances (including touching, hugging, kissing, and other sexual activity). He also pressured at least one subordinate employee to engage in sexual acts in University offices.”

Some women who did have sexual relationships with Philbert say “he made implicit or explicit threats of retaliation if they told others about the relationship” and they “feared adverse professional consequences after their relationship with Philbert ended.”

On Monday, Michigan President Mark Schlissel sent out a campus-wide email addressing the report, and pledging to consider recommendations made in the report.

"The behaviors uncovered by this investigation are both awful and unacceptable, and our institution failed to properly and effectively address earlier reports of Philbert’s misconduct despite our often-stated values. I apologize to everyone who has been affected by Martin Philbert’s misconduct and for our institution’s failings. The university has fallen far short of creating a culture that rejects harassment and misconduct and ensures that no one in our community fears retaliation for reporting," Schlissel said in the statement. "What kept coming through to me was how many people were badly hurt by Philbert’s behavior, but also how afraid they were about coming forward."

What the school knew, according to the report

A sign of the University of Michigan Central Campus
Credit Anna Schlutt / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

The first report of an inappropriate relationship came in 2003, and was followed by two additional complaints in 2005 of unwanted kissing and sexual remarks involving two separate employees.

In 2003, Thomas Komorowski worked in Philbert’s lab at the School of Public Health. At the time, Philbert was a professor, and Komorowski alleged Philbert had unfairly terminated him. Komorowski also “alleged that Philbert was in a close personal relationship with a female lab employee.”

Komorowski told several administrators and faculty members that Philbert had “boundary issues” and told them he’d shown up “uninvited” at the home of “Jane Doe,” who was a female graduate student in Philbert’s lab.

Komorowski later sued Philbert and U of M for wrongful termination, but the complaint didn’t mention the allegations of an inappropriate relationship. Both Philbert and the employee in question were deposed, and “no evidence of a relationship materialized.”

“Considering all the actions taken by the University during the initial investigation and the later litigation, we did not identify additional steps that the University should have taken to investigate the relationship alleged by Komorowski,” the report says.

“We learned in the course of our investigation that Jane Doe was one of several students who may have experienced sexual misconduct by Philbert while she worked in his lab. However, we did not find evidence that Komorowski reported any sexual misconduct by Philbert involving Jane Doe (or anyone else)...We therefore conclude that it was reasonable for the University not to initiate an investigation based on the limited information it had about Philbert and Jane Doe.”

In 2005, two complaints of unwanted kissing, and a failed investigation

Much of U of M’s missteps stem from two separate complaints that were made in 2005, the report concludes.

“A graduate student and a research assistant, both of whom worked in Philbert’s lab, separately told a SPH professor... that Philbert had kissed them; one of the women also said Philbert had made comments about having ‘caramel colored babies’ and ‘something about chocolate syrup sex.”

That professor brought the complaints to Anthony Walesby, who was then the director of the Office of Institutional Equity, which handles Title IX complaints; as well as “several senior University officials, including Vice Provost Lori Pierce and SPH Dean Ken Warner.”

Walesby also talked with a third graduate student and a professor in the department, who confirmed this wasn’t the first time they’d heard about issues with Philbert’s conduct.

The graduate student “told Walesby that Philbert had a ‘bad reputation’ among female students. This graduate student also reported that a fellow student had told her that Philbert had hugged her twice and said something to her about ‘sleep[ing] w/him if not married.’ Finally, Walesby contacted a male SPH faculty member, who told him that there were rumors about Philbert’s “women’s issues,” but that he (the faculty member) did not know any details.”

But because neither women who initially reported Philbert’s sexual harassment wanted to file formal complaints, Walesby said there was “nothing on which to build an investigation,” the report says. A footnote says Walesby told WilmerHale investigators “that the decision to not investigate was a collective decision” among himself, the then Director of Academic HR, Jeff Frumkin and Office of General Counsel.

“The University failed to take all reasonable steps in this instance. OIE had information from several individuals—students and faculty—about Philbert’s conduct... Indeed, Dean Warner told us he found the allegations sufficiently credible that he ‘read [Philbert] the riot act.’

“But it is clear that—in the absence of an OIE investigation—the University did not put itself in a position to know whether Philbert had sexually harassed students or employees.”

In 2010, dean search committee decides Philbert “has learned his lesson”

Those same allegations against Philbert resurfaced in 2010, when Philbert was being considered in the hiring search for a new Dean of the School of Public Health. Repeatedly during this process, administrators “mistakenly relied on the outcome of OIE’s work in 2005 as though it had fully investigated the allegations,” the report finds.

Members of the search committee learned about the 2005 allegations from an SPH faculty member. Then Provost Philip Hanlon (who is now the President of Dartmouth College) received a summary from the OIE office, including that “two women had reported ...that Philbert had kissed them; that one of the women reported that Philbert had made comments to her about having ‘caramel colored babies’ and ‘something about chocolate syrup sex”; and that the other said “Philbert was a ‘bad man’ who did ‘bad stuff.”

Hanlon then alerted then-University President Mary Sue Coleman, describing the allegations in an email, but saying OIE had “had no evidence apart from rumor and the matter was resolved with the Dean having a frank discussion with Martin.”

Former U-M President Mary Sue Coleman
Credit University of Michigan
The investigation found former U-M President Mary Sue Coleman knew of the allegations against Philbert.

“[T]he search committee was aware of these allegations and the investigation but felt that was in the past and that Martin had learned his lesson,” Hanlon also told Coleman, according to the report.

Coleman told investigators she had no memory of this email from Hanlon, or any other allegations about Philbert. But still, investigators say, Coleman should have done more.

“She told us that she would have relied on the judgment of Hanlon and Walesby, both of whose judgment she trusted. She also acknowledged that she—and perhaps others who may have received this information regarding Philbert—likely would not have given it the same weight in 2010 as they would today. We believe Coleman should have asked questions and pressed to gain a full understanding of the allegations about Philbert’s conduct. Absent a complete record regarding any conversations between Coleman and Hanlon (or any other Senior Administrator), we are unable to reach any conclusions about whether she failed to do so.”

Allegations about Philbert continue after becoming Dean

In 2011, Philbert started working as the Dean of the School Public Health.

Two years later, the research assistant who reported Philbert’s sexual harassment in 2005, returned to the SPH to take graduate classes. In the spring of 2013 she requested a tuition refund “based on emotional distress she was experiencing” related to the harassment she’d experienced from Philbert, who was now Dean.

Her request was brought to Walesby’s attention, who in turn “alerted several University officials” including the provost and the Office of General Counsel. Walesby met with the former research assistant, who declined to provide more information about the harassment.

Walesby again concluded he couldn’t investigate, and asked Hanlon if they should let Philbert know about the petition for a refund. They “discussed concerns about ‘possible retaliation if [Philbert] knew,” but ultimately did alert Philbert, without using the former research assistant’s name.

Other employees also reported misconduct by Philbert, the report shows: one in 2010 or 2011, when a staffer told her supervisor at SPH that Philbert made comments that “crossed the line,” including that “her breasts felt good against his chest during a hug.”

That staffer asked her supervisor not to file an official complaint, the report says, although the supervisor says she made a note of it in the staffer’s personnel file. But that and similar complaints should have been forwarded to the Office of Institutional Equity, the report concludes.

Then, in 2017, President Mark Schlissel recommended Philbert for the role of Provost. “We found no evidence that information about Philbert’s alleged misconduct reached the President [nor the search committee] in advance of Philbert’s selection,” the report says.

However, in a 2019 campus survey conducted by President Schlissel’s office, an anonymous complaint was made about Philbert, including that he was “a sexual predator.”

“President Schlissel has no recollection of having read the comment,” the report says. “...Based on the nature of the survey, while the President was not required to read it, we understand he may have been expected to read it. President Schlissel acknowledged that had he reviewed the comment, he would have routed it to OIE.”

A culture of fear

Still others told investigators they were afraid to report Philbert’s repeated misconduct to the university. Philbert “normalized” flirtatious behavior and sexual advances, investigators say, creating the perception that this was just “part and parcel of his usual manner.” But he also “expressly threatened some of them,” including one woman who was in a relationship with him.

“If you ever tell anyone about us, I will make sure you go down,” Philbert told her, according to the report. “I will destroy your career.”

Sarah Prescott, an attorney representing several women who say they were harassed by Philbert, says the report shows the University “harbored and promoted a serial harasser.”

“UM has a lot of soul searching to do. Not spinning. Not PR scrubbing. Honest soul searching. This didn't just ‘happen’ in 2005 or 2010 or even in 2017. In the year 2020 Martin Philbert was on the loose, aided and abetted by his powerful allies who are still there," Prescott said after the report was released Friday.

The Board of Regents also released a statement Friday morning, thanking “all who courageously shared their voices to aid in the investigation. We extend sympathy to those affected and continue to feel outrage about what we are learning about breaches of trust.

"As a Board, we will carefully review the findings and recommendations presented by the independent investigators. 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.”

Emily Renda worked for Philbert when he was Dean of the School of Pulblic Health. Philbert pursued a relationship with her, she says, first as a mentor, then a close work friend, eventually telling her he'd fallen in love with her and initiating an affair. After it ended, Renda says, he pressured her to resume their sexual relationship, and when she didn't, her career suffered to the point that she left the field of public health entirely. 

"I don't believe that Anthony Walesby, Ken Warner, Phil Hanlon, Mark Schlissel and others will ever understand how their actions and inactions have deeply impacted the lives of others," Renda said in an email Friday, after receiving the WilmerHale report. "What an absolute failure on their part to protect me, their students, and those employed by the University. My hope is that after seeing how they failed at protecting employees and students from a serial harasser for decades, the University will do the hard work of making institutional changes that will prevent something like this from happening again." 

Editor's note: The Regents of the University of Michigan hold Michigan Radio's license. This story was last updated on August 3, 2020 at 11 am. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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