UM provost's many sexual liaisons suggests need for relationship policy, report recommends

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan should create a policy addressing consensual relationships between faculty and staff and require all employees to take annual training on reporting sexual misconduct, according to an investigative report released Friday by university officials.

A report into allegations against the University of Michigan's former provost, Martin Philbert, recommends the university create a policy for consensual relationships between employees and increase training on reporting sexual misconduct.

The recommendations from the WilmerHale law firm aim to prevent failures in identifying and investigating employee sexual misconduct after the probe found Martin Philbert, UM's former provost, sexually harassed women throughout his career at the university and had sexual relationships with colleagues.

"Much of Philbert’s conduct toward women, as well as his sexual relationships with subordinate employees, did not come to the attention of University officials," the report says. "Our findings demonstrate the importance and challenge of ensuring that information about sexual misconduct and other inappropriate behavior reaches University officials."

More:Ex-UM provost harassed women, had sex with employees, investigation shows

The report urges clearer policies for consensual relationships between employees and greater communication on how to report sexual misconduct and who is responsible for doing so.

"We appreciate all who courageously shared their voices to aid in the investigation," the UM Board of Regents said in a statement. "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."

The investigation recommends the university create a standalone policy focused on consensual relationships between employees in positions of unequal authority that requires the superior to provide notification of the relationship and develop a recusal or mitigation plan to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

The university's nepotism policy prohibits favoritism and discrimination in the context of "close personal relationships" between employees, according to the report. And while that policy requires management plans for relatives working at the university, "the policy does not state a clear course of action when employees in unequal positions of authority enter into a consensual relationship."

The investigation also suggests UM provide greater visibility to the system the university has in place for reporting and investigating sexual misconduct. It recommends the university require all employees to receive annual online training on how to report sexual misconduct, which employees are mandatory reporters for such behavior and the reporting obligations for those designated "responsible employees."

"This approach also ensures that all employees — even those who are not mandatory reporters — understand the alternative means for reporting sexual misconduct," the report says.

Categories of employees who are mandatory reporters also should be listed on UM's sexual misconduct website and that of the Office for Institutional Equity, which is charged with investigating sexual misconduct, according to the report.

The OIE typically reports to the provost's office. The report recommends designating an alternative reporting line for matters involving the provost's office and communicating that online too.

It recommends designating an alternative reporting line for the OIE that reports to the provost's office in matters involving that department, and publish notice of that online, too.

The report did find two Office for Institutional Equity investigations into Philbert that ended up incomplete in 2005 after potential complainants declined to participate. When similar allegations surfaced in 2010 and later, university officials erroneously relied on that earlier outcome, according to the investigation.

The report recommended the university evaluate the office's investigative practices and consider adopting formal guidelines, including additional investigative steps in cases when complainants decline to participate. The office also should conduct routine file reviews for quality assurance, according to the report.

"Philbert was a professor and principal investigator in his lab — he was therefore in a position to harass multiple students and employees," the report states. "This heightened the importance of taking additional investigative steps to ensure that students and employees working with Philbert did so in a safe and nondiscriminatory environment."

The university should make clear the reporting channels that are not proper, such as anonymous surveys and other methods of feedback about faculty and staff, according to the report. Allegations about Philbert appeared in three such surveys, but those go exclusively to the person who is being reviewed and are not sent to anyone else at the university. Such tools should provide notice of proper channels.

The study suggests the university should conduct a climate survey of faculty and staff about their experience with sexual misconduct on campus, their understanding of the university's policies and procedures, and whether they fear retaliation for reporting. Similar surveys of students were done in 2015 and 2019, but none have been performed for faculty and staff.

The report also recommended that for hiring purposes, the university establish a formal written process by which decision-makers can obtain findings of policy violations from the Office for Institutional Equity and human resources. It also suggests a pilot program for requiring reference checks from external candidates with their permission to solicit similar information from previous places of employment.

These measures likely would not have prevented Philbert's appointments to dean of the university's School of Publish Health in 2010 and provost in 2017, the report notes, due to the incomplete investigations in 2005.

"We nevertheless believe that these recommendations would improve the quality of the University’s vetting procedures and, in turn, enhance the integrity of its personnel decisions."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble