Schlissel: UM wants ‘closure’ on fed sex case inquiry

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The federal government’s investigation into the University of Michigan’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints has grown dramatically, and it is taking time to complete, the school’s top official said this week.

President Mark Schlissel said the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights began looking at how UM handled three sexual misconduct cases, but it has since grown to 180 cases. The investigation involves thousands of documents that include personal information that cannot be released, and that takes time.

“Each of the delays in the delivery of documents have been discussed and approved by OCR,” Schlissel said. “We are not thumbing our noses at the OCR. We’re very anxious to bring this to closure. We recognize that sexual misconduct is way more common on college campuses than it should be. We are committed to diminishing it to the absolute lowest extent possible, and by that I mean zero.”

His comments, made Tuesday during an interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board, come as dialogues about sexual assault and punishment have been reignited following the uproar surrounding the case of the Stanford University swimmer who received six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

“These are difficult cases,” Schlissel said. “The bottom line is there’s a problem in our society in this age group at least and certainly on college campuses. There is an intersection between alcohol and sexual assault and we have a lot to work on.”

Schlissel said the university has updated all of its policies for handling and adjudicating sexual misconduct with changes that will take effect July 1, and modifications will be made following any suggestions from the federal government.

“The idea is to make our campus safer and as quickly as we can,” he said.

Schlissel noted that the federal government’s investigation into Michigan State University’s handling of sexual misconduct cases took four years.

“And the three cases that started it were proven not to be a problem,” said MSU President Lou Anna Simon, who appeared with Schlissel before The News Editorial Board.

Emily Kollaritsch, a recent MSU graduate who was the founder and president of Michigan State University Students Against Sexual Assault, said she isn’t surprised that the number of cases that the federal government is investigating at UM has exploded since the issue has become less hidden and the media and federal officials are taking it more seriously.

Additionally, more women are willing to come forward, she said, and take steps to hold others and institutions accountable.

“People are speaking about it and survivors are no longer staying silent,” Kollaritsch said. “We have strength in numbers. It’s a starting point, and a vehicle for change.”

UM, MSU, Grand Valley State University and Alma College have been under federal investigation for their handling of sexual misconduct complaints.

Since 2011, more than 100 other universities nationwide have also faced investigation for how they handled such complaints.

The issue emerged after activists began connecting and sharing concerns that colleges and universities were not taking sexual assaults seriously, sending the message that profits and image were more important than people.

Many women spoke out, and their stories gained traction as others began lobbying federal officials.

In 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued its first report, Not Alone, which said 1 in 5 one in five woman will be sexually assaulted in college. President Barack Obama also spearheaded a campaign focusing on the issue.

Four years after it began an investigation, the OCR issued a report in September that said MSU mishandled two student complaints of sexual misconduct by failing to investigate them promptly, which may have led to a hostile environment on campus.

MSU agreed to a series of steps to change its response to sexual harassment and sexual violence.

But OCR has yet to issue a report to UM, which Schlissel said he hopes will happen soon.

“It would very helpful to us to bring this to closure,” the UM president said, “so we can learn from the OCR what we can do better.”