Search committee member did not reveal past harassment claims against UM provost, report finds

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Correction: This story was updated to say that Dr. Lori Pierce is vice provost for academic and faculty affairs at the University of Michigan.

A member of the search committee assembled to find the University of Michigan's next provost in 2017 knew about sexual harassment allegations against Martin Philbert but did not notify other members or the school's president before Philbert was selected, according to an investigative report released Friday.

The report, issued by the university-hired WilmerHale law firm, alleges a lengthy and pervasive history of sexual harassment and misconduct by Philbert before and during his time as UM's second-highest official, which ended in January when he was put on leave and subsequently removed from his administrative post.

More:Report says UM should create consensual relationship policy, require employee training

Among its findings: Philbert sexually harassed staff and graduate students, made sexual comments that included references to "chocolate syrup sex" and engaged in sexual relationships with several women on staff.

According to the report, Dr. Lori Pierce, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs and a member of the search committee that vetted Philbert and other candidates, knew allegations of sexual harassment had been lodged against him in 2005, though an official investigation was never launched.

Pierce also knew UM had allowed a student who accused Philbert of harassing her to withdraw and receive a tuition refund after she re-enrolled in the School of Public Health in 2013, the report states.

But Pierce, who did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment Friday, never mentioned the incidents to the other 10 members of the search committee or UM President Mark Schlissel, who was chairing the panel. Schlissel ultimately recommended Philbert to the Board of Regents for the provost job.

"Pierce 'did not think about it,' in part because, to her recollection, there had been no evidence to support the allegations," according to the 94-page report.

The report's account of Pierce's inaction is among numerous findings that document UM's failure to prevent or stop Philbert's misconduct during his 25-year tenure as a UM professor and administrator. 

"We did not find evidence that university personnel intentionally hid allegations about Philbert’s misconduct," the report says. "Rather, the heart of our findings is that the university should have done more to investigate an early, credible allegation that Philbert had engaged in sexual misconduct in 2005."

According to the report, Philbert engaged in a wide range of sexual misconduct at the university that included sexual harassment for at least 15 years. Philbert talked about wanting to see below women's tan lines, insisted on hugs from some women, and engaged in sexual relationships with several women on staff, sometimes at the same time and in campus offices, the report says.

"Much of Philbert’s conduct, as well as his many sexual relationships, never came to the attention of university officials," according to the report.

But several university officials were aware of some of Philbert's alleged behavior, including, including former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, during his rise to prominence, the report states. 

"We found that the university received information about Philbert’s conduct at various times over the course of more than 15 years, including during key periods when he was under consideration and later selected for senior positions within the university," the report says.

Attempts to reach Coleman and other current and former UM officials named in the report were unsuccessful. Philbert also could not be reached by phone or email Friday.

Martin Philbert, former University of Michigan provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, speaks during commencement exercises in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

The report says UM's failure to pursue the 2005 allegations was especially critical: "Had (the Office of Institutional Equity) conducted a meaningful investigation at that time, it may have identified at least some additional evidence, as we did in our investigation. That evidence in turn could have informed the consideration he received for leadership positions."

According to the report, a graduate student and a research assistant who worked in Philbert's lab told a public health professor that year that Philbert had kissed their necks.

"The research assistant said that Philbert had propositioned her for sex, asked her to marry him, to run away together, and to 'have caramel colored babies' with him, and that he had talked to her about 'chocolate syrup sex,'" the report said.

The professor alerted many UM officials, including Anthony Walesby, director of the Office of Institutional Equity, which was responsible for investigating sexual harassment complaints against faculty, the law firm found. Walesby tried to speak with the women but both declined out of fear of retaliation. An Office for Institutional Equity investigation was not opened.

Ken Warner, then the dean of the School of Public Health, "assumed the conduct had happened as alleged — later 'read (Philbert) the riot act' and counseled him," the report says. 

The report includes a review of millions of documents, Philbert's university phone and more than 100 interviews. Philbert did not participate. The report also includes recommendations for UM to prevent failures in identifying and investigating employee sexual misconduct.

It comes as the university has coped recently with other allegations of sexual misconduct among high-profile faculty members, including the firing of music Professor David Daniels, a renowned opera singer. 

UM is also dealing with litigation resulting from hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by former students and athletes against longtime sports doctor Robert Anderson, who worked at UM from the 1960s until 2003. WilmerHale is also conducting that investigation.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in a statement Friday that the university is just beginning to review the report's findings on Philbert.

"Yet, it is clear in the executive summary that the WilmerHale report — released publicly today at the same time it was shared with university officials — contains a shocking description of improper and unacceptable behavior by a university officer as well as failings by this institution," Fitzgerald said. "We will do everything in our power to prevent such misconduct from ever happening again at the University of Michigan."

Schlissel removed Philbert from his administrative post in March, and Philbert retired from the university as of June 30, relinquishing his tenure. He was paid $570,340 annually.

Philbert's sexual misconduct began early in his career at UM while he was a toxicology professor in the School of Public Health, and continued throughout his years as dean of the School of Public Health and provost, the report said.

"For nearly his entire tenure as provost, (Philbert) was in simultaneous sexual relationships with at least two university employees, sometimes more," the report says. "He pressed some of these women to send him explicit photos, which he stored on his university-owned devices. And he engaged in sexual contact with them in university offices, including with one woman on a near-daily basis for a time. These relationships took a toll on the environment in the provost’s office and created uncomfortable dynamics among some staff."

Philbert joined UM in 1995 as an assistant professor of toxicology in the UM School of Public Health. In 2004, he became a full professor and the associate dean for research in the School of Public Health. By 2010, he had become the school's dean.

Philbert also was the subject of a sexual misconduct complaint in a 2004 lawsuit filed by Tom Komorowski, then an employee in Philbert’s lab. Komorowski alleged an inappropriate relationship between Philbert and a female researcher who also worked in the lab as one of many reasons he was laid off. 

Schlissel learned about the lawsuit after Philbert became provost in 2017, according to the report. Schlissel reviewed the facts from sworn testimony, which the report said did not show improper relationships, and the president "found no reason to reverse Philbert’s appointment."

The 2005 allegations emerged five years later when Philbert was a finalist for dean of the School of Public Health.

Former UM Provost Philip Hanlon — who was responsible for recommending a final candidate — and Paula Lantz, the chair of the Dean’s Search Committee, learned of the allegations, the report states.

Hanlon sought out more information, including a summary of the allegations by Walesby and a meeting with him. He let Coleman know about the allegations and did a reference check in the School of Public Health. But the report said Coleman did not remember the email from Hanlon regarding the 2005 allegations or being otherwise aware of any allegations regarding Philbert’s conduct toward women.

"She acknowledged that she may not have weighed or viewed this information in 2010 in the same way that she would today," the report says.

Hanlon also asked Pierce — who had been aware of the allegations in 2005 — to speak with women in the School of Public Health about Philbert, the report says. "Pierce informed Hanlon that, apart from her conversation with the (School of Public Health) professor who had reported the allegations to OIE in 2005, she learned nothing negative about Philbert." 

Philbert then became the next dean of the School of Public Health.

During his tenure, he was in sexual relationships with at least three staff members and promoted a woman with whom he was in a relationship for a year and a half, according to the report. 

In 2013, the 2005 allegations against Philbert emerged again.

The research assistant who had told the public health professor in 2005 that Philbert had propositioned her for sex re-enrolled. But she then sought to withdraw from her classes, get a tuition refund and have her withdrawal removed from her transcript because "she had previously been subjected to sexual harassment by Philbert that was causing her to experience 'anxiety, fear, and panic attacks,'" the report says.

UM granted her requests.

Walesby met with the student but she declined to report Philbert, and Office for Institutional Equity did not investigate her allegations, according to the report.

But Walesby did inform other UM officials, including Hanlon and incoming Provost Martha Pollack, of the student’s tuition refund and transcript amendment petitions.

"He also informed Vice Provost Pierce — who had learned of the allegations in 2005, and who in 2010 had, at Hanlon’s request, reached out to women in SPH to learn more about Philbert’s conduct," the report says.

University officials received information about Philbert's behavior on at least three occasions while he was provost.

In fall 2017, a School of Public Health employee expressed hesitation about accepting a job in the provost's office while meeting with Liz Barry, the special counsel to the president. The hesitation about working for Philbert was “insinuate(ing) something around Me Too,” the report says.

In April 2019, the results of a survey in which UM faculty submit anonymous feedback to high-level university leaders regarding their performance reached Schlissel. It included a comment stating, in part, “Re: your administrative appointments: Martin Philbert was/is a notorious sexual predator, physically cornering and emotionally coercing his female graduate students in his toxicology lab.”

"Schlissel did not recall having reviewed the comment, and there is no indication that he (or anyone else at the university) did," the report says.

On Jan. 16, Schlissel received an anonymous letter.

“I am writing on behalf of a group of women who have recently connected ... to corroborate and share our stories of emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated on us within your university by your provost Martin Philbert over the past twenty years,” the report quotes the letter as saying.

The letter prompted Schlissel to put Philbert on administrative leave less than a week later and hire WilmerHale to investigate.

Fitzgerald said many people have worked at UM for decades to eliminate sexual misconduct.

"But this report makes it clear that we have much more work to do," he said.