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Students, faculty slam UM's handling of sex misconduct cases

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Dozens of University of Michigan students and faculty told President Mark Schlissel this week that they've lost trust in school leaders who handle sexual misconduct complaints.

The sentiment was outlined in a letter sent Thursday to Schlissel that highlighted allegations involving a faculty member. The letter also called on the UM president to make changes to protect the campus.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.

"We do not have faith in the University of Michigan's institutional processes for addressing sexual misconduct," said the letter. "Therefore, we believe you are the only one who can make the immediate and structural changes necessary to protect survivors — and the broader university community."

Sixty-six students and faculty members from the departments of Computer Science and Engineering and School of Information signed the letter, which was obtained by The Detroit News. 

They said they came to their position after experiences interacting with UM's Office for Institutional Equity, which handles complaints of sexual misconduct.

The letter said that the group's position was also shaped by the recent suspension of UM Provost Martin Philbert, who is under investigation following allegations of sexual misconduct that emerged in January. 

"Based on experiences interacting with OIE, as well as recent news about Provost Philbert (who oversaw OIE), we do not have faith in the University of Michigan’s institutional processes for addressing sexual misconduct," the letter states.

In a statement, UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university’s normal practice is to not confirm when an investigation is underway, although there are exceptions to that general practice. 

"This letter certainly will be turned over to OIE for further review," said Fitzgerald. 

The Michigan Union, on the campus of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

During a telephone interview, Fitzgerald said that this is a "tough situation" that may appear as though information is lacking on behalf of the university. But he said officials work to respect the privacy of students, faculty and staff.

Fitzgerald added: "The university has great confidence in the Office of Institutional Equity, and the work they do."

Ron Weiser, chair of the UM Board of Regents, said that the letter was sent to him by the board secretary, but he has seen several letters in the past that were signed by numerous people.

"I don’t know enough facts," said Weiser. "We will ask that it be looked into ... I have confidence in our executive leadership that they will look into it and see whether it has merit or not."

The letter summarized a case allegedly involving an assistant professor in the UM Computer Science and Engineering Department and the School of Information.

At least six women from four institutions, including UM, alleged sexual misconduct by the faculty member since 2016, the letter stated. Most were students at the time of the alleged incidents.

The letter outlined allegations involving the assistant professor and students at other universities and a UM student who filed a formal complaint with UM's Office for Institutional Equity. Passages in the letter implied that the complaint from the UM student was under investigation.

"The University of Michigan's institutional response to date has been unsatisfactory and harmful," the letter said. "Repeatedly, the institution has failed to protect its students, and failed to meet its obligations under Title IX."

UM President Mark Schlissel

Attempts to reach the assistant professor named in the letter via phone, social media and email were unsuccessful. The Detroit News is not naming the faculty member because he has not been charged with a crime or faced disciplinary action by the university.

Meanwhile, multiple students and faculty who signed the letter who were contacted by The News did not respond to requests for comment.

The letter stated that the UM student had "significant concerns about her physical safety."

It also said that her fellow students did not receive notification or protection.  

"Due process should not be incompatible with protecting students," the letter said.

Fellow classmates of the student who filed the complaint found out about her alleged complaint through informal networks, the letter said. It also said that most of the students in the assistant professor's lab were women.

"All of the PhD students and several undergraduates have quit the lab as a result," the letter said. "OIE and Engineering leadership have not protected the students."

Faculty also wrote to leaders in the department to share concerns, according to the letter.

Meanwhile, the UM student faced retaliation for filing the complaint, the letter said, since she lost access to her research computer code after the faculty member learned of the of the investigation.

The student also asked for class and research accommodations to continue her work during the investigation, the letter said.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Governor Gretchen Whitmer cheer to the UM fight song at the end of commencement on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

"There is still no memo of understanding between (the UM student) and (the assistant professor) in place, which prevents her from continuing her research," the letter said. "(Officials) have shown a general lack of responsiveness to the several email requests made for this supportive measure... Delay in this process significantly impacts (the student's) academic career."

The student has also been unable to get an academic schedule modification, in spite of numerous requests, according to the letter.

The letter called for the assistant professor to be put on administrative leave, and protective measures for the students in his circles.

It also suggested an overhaul of the university's sexual misconduct process, along with a policy where officials considering sexual misconduct in hiring and tenure proceedings.

 "Many students, including computer science, will remain hostile to women unless the university develops just and equitable processes for handling sexual misconduct," the letter said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com