Michigan expects tough recovery from sexual misconduct cases

After firing president for employee affair, top public research university still confronts culture of tolerating abuse and difficult state politics

January 26, 2022
 A woman signs a board in support of survivors of sexual abuse at a vigil in front of the home of outgoing University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to illustrate the story
Source: Getty
A woman signs a board in support of survivors of sexual abuse at a vigil in front of the home of outgoing University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

The University of Michigan’s firing of Mark Schlissel, its president, has left the prestigious public US institution far from solving long-standing troubles with a toxic internal culture and state-wide political dysfunction.

Professor Schlissel was dismissed after Michigan’s governing board of regents investigated allegations that he had engaged in a multi-year sexual relationship with an employee while publicly forbidding such behaviour at the institution. The regents found that Professor Schlissel’s “interactions with the subordinate were inconsistent with promoting the dignity and reputation of the University of Michigan”.

Yet – according to students, faculty, alumni and others – the flagship campus in Ann Arbor still has a long list of debilitating problems that need to be fixed, of which Professor Schlissel’s hypocrisy was just one major manifestation.

They include an ingrained tolerance for hierarchical abuses of authority and broken systems for reporting them; and state laws that give the institution and its faculty exceptionally strong protections from disciplinary repercussions.

Claire Hao, a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and economics, was among those pondering the institution’s reputational strength as they bring their degrees to the job market. “I’m embarrassed for the University of Michigan,” said Ms Hao, currently editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily.

Trust needs to be rebuilt across the administration, the faculty and the community, said the chair of Michigan’s faculty senate, Allen Liu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“I don’t know how long that’s going to take and how that’s going to happen,” Dr Liu told Times Higher Education.

Sexual misconduct and abuse underlies much of what ails Michigan. Two years before Professor Schlissel’s ousting, his provost, Martin Philbert, was fired for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Four days after the presidential purge, the university agreed to pay $490 million (£360 million) to more than 1,000 victims of a long-time campus doctor tied to the most sexual assaults by a single person in US history.

Between those cases, Ms Hao counts more than half a dozen faculty publicly accused of sexual misconduct in just her four years on campus. One of the most alarming to her and others is the case of Walter Lasecki, a computer science professor who faced at least 22 accusations over several years. The university kept him in place as the complaints mounted, and he resigned only last year after an outside professional society, the Association for Computing Machinery, investigated the matter and banned him from its events.

An investigation into Professor Philbert’s conduct found that former president Mary Sue Coleman, who has been brought back to serve as interim leader while the regents seek a permanent replacement, “should have asked questions to understand fully the allegations about [Professor] Philbert’s conduct” and it was unclear whether she had done so, according to lawyers Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Former provost Philip Hanlon, now president of Dartmouth College, took “multiple steps” to learn more about Professor Philbert’s conduct, but “should have turned to trained investigators” to judge whether he was suitable for promotion, their report adds.

Professor Schlissel, meanwhile, retains his faculty position in molecular, cellular and development biology, a sign to reformers of the difficulty of removing academics even when clearly found to have violated sexual misconduct rules.

Some of the university’s failures lie in politics well beyond the campus, said John Manly, an attorney who represents about 100 alleged victims of the four decades of abuse by campus doctor Robert Anderson. It’s not a coincidence, Mr Manly said, that one of the nation’s other notorious sexual abuse scandals involving a campus doctor, that of Larry Nassar, occurred at nearby Michigan State University.

That’s because the state has some of the worst protections for abuse victims, including a one-year statute of limitations for pursuing sexual assault complaints, and sovereign immunity protections that largely forbid criminal lawsuits against universities, Mr Manly said, adding that state Republicans had actively opposed any easing of this rule.

Other shortfalls specific to the University of Michigan, Mr Manly said, include the lack of a system to report complaints directly to the governing board, bypassing top campus officials. Michigan’s office for handling abuse complaints also has been long seen as slow to respond to whistleblowers and as offering them scant protection against workplace retaliation. That office – Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX – in 2019 got a new director, Tamiko Strickman, who is now battling a lawsuit alleging that she showed “deliberate indifference” to a sexual harassment claim while working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Dr Liu, however, saw such lawsuits as part of the job, and regarded Ms Strickman as driving significant improvements in how Michigan handles such issues.

Recent advances in aiding abuse victims at Michigan, Ms Strickman told THE, include new university policies adopted in November to better protect complainants. Yet, she added, “There’s no question that we have more work to do.”



Print headline: Toxic culture proves tough to eradicate

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