Attorney: MSU must resolve sex misconduct cases faster

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Three years after Michigan State University confronted the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and instituted reforms across campus, officials need a faster process for resolving sexual misconduct complaints, an attorney told the board Friday.

The attorney, Elizabeth Abdnour, said she represents a client whose complaint against an MSU professor remains unresolved a year and a half after it was filed with the university's Office of Institutional Equity, which reviews concerns related to discrimination and harassment, including sexual misconduct complaints.

MSU's policy includes timelines for a decision to be made after a complaint has been filed, with a maximum of 120 days barring extenuating circumstances.

An attorney for a Michigan State University employee is upset that the sexual misconduct complaint her client filed against a faculty member remains open after more than 540 days.

But Abdnour said the case involving her client has extended to four times the maximum time frame in MSU's policy.

"This should not be taking this long," she said.

In August 2018, a colleague of Abdnour's client, MSU employee Christie Poitra, reported Poitra's supervisor, MSU Associate Professor John Norder, alleging that he repeatedly told Poitra about his sexual fetishes and experiences  that included bondage, anonymous sex, voyeurism and sex with his wife, said Abdnour.

Norder also allegedly talked about his body parts and asked Poitra how she lost her virginity, promoting her to get a personal protection order even though MSU told him to not have contact with her, Abdnour told the board during its regularly scheduled meeting.

An investigatory report produced a year ago by the university's Information Security department showed MSU officials recovered more than 1,000 sexually explicit video and image files from Norder, some of which included the subject himself, and evidence of deleted files of sexually explicit images and web browser bookmarks for sexually explicit sites, Abdnour said.

But 544 days have passed since the complaint was filed — which is more than four times the amount of time it should take for resolution of a sexual misconduct complaint, Abdnour said.

"And where has Dr. Norder been during this time?" Abdnour said to the board. "He is teaching two undergraduate anthropology classes this semester every Tuesday and Thursday in the Natural Sciences building with full unfettered access to students."

Abdnour said that Poitra, who stood beside her while as she spoke to the trustees, believes in MSU.

"She asks the MSU  Board of Trustees to fix the MSU Title IX process and make sure people like Dr. Norder do not remain on campus," Abdnour said.

Poitra declined to speak after the meeting.

Attempts to reach Norder were unsuccessful.

MSU President Samuel Stanley addressed Abdnour's comments after the meeting, saying he was unaware of this specific case but would be looking into it, MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said. 

The complaint against Norder remains open, Guerrant said. 

A flow chart with a time frame for OIE complaints states that "MSU will conduct a fair, impartial investigation in a timely manner designed to provide all parties with resolution."

Parties can expect an investigation to be completed in 60 days, according to the flow chart. When a hearing is not held, parties can expect a 90-day resolution. In cases involving a hearing, parties can expect a written decision in 120 days after OIE begins an investigation. All time frames include the caveat that good cause could push the time frame back.

"Good cause for extension may exist for a variety of factors, including the complexity of the circumstances of each allegation, the integrity and completeness of the investigation, to comply with a request by law enforcement, to accommodate the availability of witnesses, to account for University breaks or vacations, or to address other legitimate investigatory issues," according to the flow chart.

While Stanley said he didn't know the full details, he added that it is unacceptable for 500 days to pass without a resolution from the Office for Institutional Equity, which investigates sexual misconduct complaints.

Stanley also spoke about his recent appointment of Melody Werner, director of MSU's Office of Institutional Equity, and Tanya Jachimiak, associate vice president of the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance. He has discussed with them concerns over investigations that are taking unusual lengths of time, Guerrant said.     

MSU was inundated with sexual misconduct complaints about Nassar, who is incarcerated after sexually assaulting hundreds of women for decades. The university hired outside officials to help address the complaints.

MSU made many changes on campus to respond to the scandal and make it a safer place, including new positions in the university's Title IX office, which investigates sexual misconduct complaints.

"The (Office of Institutional Equity) has put some new processes in place to address the length of investigations, including a restructuring of the office processes and also adding additional investigators," Guerrant said. "Between 2018 and 2019, the average number of days an investigation took went down from 190 days to 118 days.  The work to provide more timelier, more inclusive and trauma-informed responses to complaints continues." 

Abdnour said a decision involving Norder was expected from the university Sunday but the case has been delayed again. Poitra is hoping Norder will be sanctioned, Abdnour said.

She added that Poitra hoped that her coming forward would help draw attention to the time it takes for MSU to resolve case because she knows she is not the only person involved in a Title IX investigation that has stretched into hundreds of days.

"There is still clearly a lot of work to be done," Abdnour said.