Schlissel says UM 'failed' in handling allegations against ex-provost

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel issued an apology Monday for how the institution handled allegations of rampant sexual misconduct over the 25-year tenure of former Provost Martin Philbert.

The reported behavior, which included sexual harassment and multiple sexual relationships within the UM community for most of Philbert's tenure as a professor and administrator, emerged on Friday in a 94-page investigative report by an outside law firm UM hired.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

"Our institution failed to properly and effectively address earlier reports of Philbert’s misconduct despite our often-stated values," Schlissel wrote. "I apologize to everyone who has been affected by Martin Philbert’s misconduct and for our institution’s failings."

"The university has fallen far short of creating a culture that rejects harassment and misconduct and ensures that no one in our community fears retaliation for reporting," Schlissel continued. "What kept coming through to me was how many people were badly hurt by Philbert’s behavior, but also how afraid they were about coming forward."

Philbert's behavior emerged publicly in January when Schlissel received an anonymous letter from someone writing on behalf of a group of women who connected and shared their stories of abuse by Philbert, according to the report. 

The letter prompted Schlissel to put Philbert on administrative leave less than a week later and hire the WilmerHale law firm to investigate. Schlissel has since removed the former provost from his administrative position and Philbert retired as of June 30 and relinquished his tenure.

"The highest priority for our regents and leadership team is to make our community safe for all," Schlissel wrote. "The regents have been stressing with campus leadership the importance of diminishing sexual harassment and misconduct for many years. To achieve this, we will need an environment where it is safe to report, free from the fear of retaliation. It is appalling that we have been unable to accomplish this."

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 behavior was never made known to UM officials and the university did not attempt to cover up any allegations, according to the report.

But the heart of the report's findings say that UM, "should have done more to investigate an early, credible allegation that Philbert had engaged in sexual misconduct in 2005." Had UM done more then, it likely would have turned up more evidence that might have impacted Philbert's ascension to leadership positions, which included the dean of the School of Public Health and provost, which is UM's second-highest position.

The 2005 allegation came from two people: a graduate student and a research assistant who worked in Philbert's lab. They told a public health professor that year that Philbert had kissed their necks. The research assistant also told the professor that Philbert propositioned her for sex, asked her to marry him, run away together and make "caramel colored babies" together. He also spoke of "chocolate syrup sex" with her.

The school of public health 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.

The alleged behaviors by Philbert in 2005 emerged at other times throughout his UM career, which began in 1995 when he was hired as an assistant professor of toxicology in the UM School of Public Health.

The 2005 allegations emerged in 2010 when Philbert was a finalist for dean of the School of Public Health.

The allegations came up again in 2013, when the research assistant who made the initial complaint 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 was experiencing anxiety, fear, and panic attacks, the report says. The university granted her request.

The 2005 allegations did not emerge when he was the favored candidate for provost in 2017. However, the WilmerHale report says Dr. Lori Pierce, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs, was aware of Philbert's past but did not bring them to the attention of the provost search committee.

The report includes numerous recommendations for the university to prevent similar failures in future in identifying and investigating employee sexual misconduct.

Schlissel wrote that he and the Board of Regents, along with the appropriate university units, are reviewing the recommendations and will report soon with a way to move forward.

"We will also have to look beyond these recommendations at additional ways we can make our environment safe for all and free from sexual misconduct and harassment," Schlissel wrote. "Additionally, we will determine what we need to do to address the fear of retaliation in our community and build a culture that does not accept misconduct or harassment at any level."

"It is clear from the report that our institution must work to support and empower individuals to report misconduct," he continued. "The university also needs to develop ways to better capture and, when appropriate, act on anonymous reports and information we receive from those who do not wish to file a formal specific complaint."