Denhollander urges UM to be open in sex abuse inquiry

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

An investigation by the University of Michigan into multiple "disturbing and very serious" allegations of sexual abuse against a deceased member of its physician team is an opportunity for the school to become a model in properly reporting and investigating such cases, a prominent assault survivor said Wednesday.

Abuse Survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics and MSU team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, speaks to students at Birmingham Seaholm High School on Jan. 24, 2020.

The Detroit News reported on Wednesday that UM is investigating several sex abuse complaints against Robert E. Anderson, a former director of the University Health Service who spent several years as a top physician for football teams led by former coaches Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr.

The university said it was first alerted to allegations against Anderson when a former student athlete wrote to Athletic Director Warde Manuel to detail abuse during medical exams by Anderson in the early 1970s. 

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse at Michigan State University, said she is grieved by the damage Anderson allegedly did to his patients.

Denhollander also said the case is an opportunity for UM to become a model for higher ed institutions on how to handle allegations of sexual assault and abuse.

"I hope they do they do everything MSU didn’t do," Denhollander said. "We have yet to see a higher ed institution and point and say, 'This is how we do it and how it's done.'"

Specifically, Denhollander said universities should immediately report sexual assault allegations to law enforcement and an independent investigation should be done swiftly.

UM should immediately contact former patients, students and anyone involved with Anderson, Denhollander said.

On Wednesday, UM sent out a news release calling for any victims to contact the university. The university issued the release after The News asked UM about Anderson's alleged misconduct, which included sexual abuse and unneeded or unwanted exams.

Denhollander said UM should commission an independent review with an investigative agency not under attorney-client privilege

"So if misconduct is found and warning signs are found, people can know," she said. "No one should be afraid of the truth."

UM should issue a public report on the matter, Denhollander said.

"That is how you signal a desire for transparency, truth and justice. That’s how you signal to victims, 'you matter more to us than anyone else,'" she said.

Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he molested them under the guise of medical treatment, including while he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

UM student Josiah Walker said Wednesday that he finds the allegations disturbing.

"Sexual misconduct in all its forms, whether sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual assault should not be tolerated," Walker said. "I hope that UM properly responds to incidents that have already occurred and takes a more proactive approach to protect the university community in the future."

Anderson becomes at least the fourth university physician nationwide to be accused of sexual misconduct in the past few years, and the disclosure comes while UM Provost Martin Philbert remains suspended amid sexual misconduct allegations reported in January.

More:UM paid nearly $200K to settle 2004 suit against Provost Philbert

More:UM defended Provost Philbert against sexual misconduct allegations in 2004

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

In response, the university launched an internal investigation, hired an outside law firm, engaged the UM Division of Public Safety and Security and told Philbert not to come to work.

The university "had not received any allegations from persons identifying themselves as students," it said.

Philbert is not the first UM staff member to face sexual misconduct allegations.

Stephen Shipps, a renowned violin professor in the university's School of Music, Theatre and Dance, retired last February, months after a published report outlined allegations of sexual misconduct that spanned four decades.

UM began termination proceedings last summer against another music professor, David Daniels, after a grand jury in Texas indicted the countertenor and his husband, William Scott Walters, in the sexual assault of an incapacitated man in 2010.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, led development of a bipartisan bill package last term to address sexual assault and abuse, including more requirements for reporting and response and accountability for perpetrators. 

Among her bills, Chang said one is focused on providing educational materials about sexual abuse to students in grades six through 12. She hopes that the critical bills will be taken up by the Legislature again this year.

"Making sure that we’re educating people, especially starting with kids, about what sexual abuse is and to know who to call and the available resources is really important," she said. 

Continued assault allegations, she said, speak to the importance of revisiting state laws and the processes around revoking and suspending medical licenses. 

UM freshman Emma Sandberg, a student activist and founder of Roe V. Rape, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual violence heal through activism, said she was not surprised to hear of the allegations against Anderson, considering what she said are systemic failures by UM to address sexual misconduct.

Sandberg, 19, of San Francisco, said she takes issue with a new UM policy that allows cross-examination of victims in sexual misconduct cases during Title IX hearings.

Sandberg said UM’s policy allows accused parties to question their accuser directly, rather than having an adviser or attorney do so. The policy was updated in 2019 in response to a U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Sandberg said.

"The University of Michigan needs to show it takes sexual misconduct seriously and won't tolerate it in the community," she said. "Based on their sex misconduct policies and provost complaints, when we have come forward with our concerns, we were ignored and not taken seriously."

"It's so important they take us seriously," Sandberg said. "Not only with policies themselves, but if others see it, they will believe survivors and so will other community members."

Staff writer Christine Ferretti contributed.