Understanding U of M's new misconduct policies
The University of Michigan is still dealing with a rash of revelations detailing sexual misconduct by employees, shocking the campus and the state.
From allegations of abuse by the late Dr. Robert Anderson from athletes, going back decades with over 2,000 reports against him, to the case of former provost Martin Philbert, who was ousted in 2020.
Amid the turmoil, the university recently made what it calls “sweeping changes” to its civil rights procedures this summer.
But those who are familiar with the university’s old complaint process are skeptical.
When and why did the university do this overhaul?
An investigation from summer 2020 on Philbert reported that university officials knew of the former provost’s misconduct. That following December, the university hired consultant Guidepost Solutions to collaborate on policy changes.
In general, a lot of news outlets — from student newspaper The Michigan Daily to The New York Times — have been uncovering case after case of students, teachers, and staff feeling let down by the complaint process at U of M.
What is the biggest change?
There will be a new office called the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX (ECRT) office. Tami Strickman will be leading it.
“I do think there's a lot of communication now with the parties and with stakeholders across campus who need to know about an investigation,” Strickman said to Michigan Radio. “So that is something that Elizabeth (Seney, the Title IX director) and I have been working on very diligently for the past year. Because one of the pieces of feedback that we received before the pandemic was sometimes, people report something and they don't know what's going on. It seems to kind of be this black hole.”
This office, like the old office, deals with any civil rights complaints. But Strickman said she’s looking to shift the focus from investigations to one of support and prevention.
What does “support” mean here?
U of M is creating two new positions.
An equity specialist, who helps the people involved learn a lot about the different resources at the school. Or helps with personal issues, like exam modifications if a student is stressed by the process. An equity specialist works alongside an investigator — but their roles are different, Strickman explained.
The other one is essentially a deputy for outcomes — someone who keeps track of the results of the investigations and ensures appropriate follow-ups.
It is worth mentioning: the consequences of a bad experience can be devastating. It can make people lose all hope in the university. One student, who asked not to be named, told Michigan Radio that the process — over 200 days and much longer than she was promised — had exhausted her completely. She said she got just the draft of her report around two months past the initial week she was told. And the process overall didn't feel neutral to her.
Elizabeth Seney is the school’s Title IX director. Seney said the process likely has gotten shorter over the years. She said the school is also adding things like the extended appeals process, which could make it longer.
But she and Strickman said they acknowledge student voices as they try to make their investigations prompt and thorough.
“They can be quite lengthy,” Seney said. “And they often are quite lengthy. And it is a situation where there's no, I think, amount of time in a situation like this, where it feels short enough to not be unpleasant or stressful for the parties.”
We know that many people are wary of trusting the University, especially with Robert Anderson in mind. What are some of the critiques of the changes?
Elizabeth Abdnour is a Lansing-based lawyer who specialized in Title IX and civil rights cases. She also used to be a Title IX investigator at Michigan State University, making her deeply familiar with the process.
Her first impression of the July changes was that they seemed like a marketing and rebranding effort.
Abdnour said she didn’t see the most substantive concern being addressed — which is that investigations take too long, and investigators have too much work. She didn’t understand why the school is not hiring more investigators as opposed to creating these new positions.
“My experience is when you add middlemen, that doesn't streamline things. That actually makes things take longer,” she said.
The university has 10 investigators. According to Strickman, they got an average of 250 calls a week, last year (a mix of new and old concerns that their office would handle.)
What do survivors think?
One student activist, Porter Hughes, said to Michigan Radio he’d believe it when he sees it. Anderson survivor Tad Deluca called it "institution speak."
There was a protest mid-October where around 200 people gathered in front of U of M President Mark Schlissel’s house.
Tad Deluca went up and held a clipboard of the university’s new ECRT plan.
“This wonderful, expensive flowchart will not protect you. Don't let them tell you anything else. This won't protect you,” Deluca said.
DeLuca is known for warning his coach about Anderson in 1975. He said to Michigan Radio that changing the process doesn’t work if people in power are willing to protect abusers.
How will the University know if these changes are working or not?
There is a “grievance management system” that keeps track of how long investigations are taking or pending.
There’s also seeing how well the ECRT office’s new training sessions are going. This new department of the office is called Prevention, Education, Assistance and Resources.
Strickman and Seney also emphasize surveying the people involved — after the case, and perhaps even during it. These surveys will ask individuals if they felt the process was neutral and fair.
Editor's note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's license.