Students concerned about U of M transparency in provost sexual misconduct investigation 

University of Michigan | Andrew Horne photo via Wikimedia Commons

University of Michigan Provost Martin Philbert, executive vice president of academic affairs, was placed on administrative leave Wednesday following several allegations of sexual misconduct. But there is some skepticism from students about how the university has handled similar investigations in the past.

U of M President Mark Schlissel wrote to students and staff in an email Wednesday detailing the timeline of events from when the allegations were reported and when the investigation started. 

Martin A. Philbert | University of Michigan photo

“The U-M Board of Regents and I are committed to a full and thorough investigation, and we will continue to work to ensure the integrity of the process, following the same policy and practices that apply to all employees at U-M. It remains early in the investigation, and no findings or conclusions have been reached,” Schlissel wrote in the letter.

However, a number of students and organizations have raised doubts about the way the university handles allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct or assault.

“What I’ve encountered with the university’s response to our concerns that we raise is they don’t seem to understand the seriousness of sexual assault,” said Emma Sandberg, a U of M sophomore and founder of Roe V. Rape, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization that advocates for survivors of sexual violence. “They’ll sometimes say things that are problematic that survivors find disrespectful, and they have a total misunderstanding of the trauma that victims go through.”

One of the biggest issues Sandberg raised is how the university withholds information for victims and the public throughout the investigation process. 

“I’m glad that the provost is on leave, but I’m just concerned about transparency in the process. With the students who have gone through these processes they know there is a lack of transparency in terms of what goes on during the investigations,” Sandberg said. 

U of M Provost under investigation for sexual misconduct allegations

When asked about the university’s plans to publicly release records or results from the investigation or about plans to ensure transparency throughout the process, Rick Fitzgerald, U of M Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs, said, “It’s too early in the investigation to decide what we will do down the road.”

Provost’s previous statements contradict current allegations against him 

In September 2019, the university’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) began reporting directly to Philbert instead of the University Human Resources and the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in efforts to increase efficiency.

Following this change, Philbert faced doubts from concerned students about the effectiveness of the investigative process for sexual violence survivors. 

The university’s student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, reported that at a November 2018 Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting, Philbert defended the OIE’s investigation process.

“I’ve heard concerns about the length of time it takes to complete some OIE investigations,” Philbert said. “We’re always working to ensure that those investigations are fair, thorough and timely.”

ACLU calls for revisions to University of Michigan’s student sexual misconduct policy

Fitzgerald says there isn’t an estimation for how long this investigation will last, but referred to the university’s sexual misconduct policy which states, “the University will strive to complete the investigation, meaning the period from commencement of an investigation, through to completion of an investigative report, within fifty-five (55) calendar days.”

The Daily also reported Philbert was proud of the university’s mandatory sexual misconduct training for all faculty and staff at a September 2018 university Board of Regents meeting.

“The university’s mission of education, research and service requires that every member of our community feels welcomed, valued and able to work free from the threat of sexual misconduct,” Philbert said. “Sexual misconduct is a very serious matter, something that we seek to prevent and that we are committed to addressing immediately and effectively should it occur. Our work to prevent and address such misconduct begins with education.” 

The allegations got the attention of U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who tweeted Wednesday in reaction to Philbert’s investigation and the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Philbert joined U of M as an assistant professor in the School of Public Health in 1995. He was promoted to full professor in 2003, and continued to work his way up the ladder until he was approved as provost in June 2017.

The provost was put on administrative leave Tuesday after “several” allegations came in on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17, and the internal investigation began Jan. 17. 

The OIE would typically handle investigations into cases of sexual misconduct, but the reporting line for all investigation matters surrounding Philbert’s case has been moved to Associate Vice President for Human Resources Richard Holcomb.

Fitzgerald told the Advance that based on the current allegations, no one that has come forward against Philbert is a student, but it is unclear if university employees are involved. 

“I would like to see after this incident that the university starts being respectful when they speak about survivors and the needs of survivors,” Sandberg said. “And I hope they actually take what we say seriously, instead of just thinking that we all don’t know what we’re talking about, and that they somehow know better than we do about what we would find more less traumatic.”