Former UM VP overruled Anderson's firing despite abuse reports, former official testifies

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A longtime University of Michigan vice president overruled the 1979 decision to fire Dr. Robert E. Anderson over allegations he sexually abused students, allowing him to serve another 24 years, according to testimony revealed Thursday.

Thomas Easthope

Thomas Easthope, the former UM associate vice president for student services, testified in a deposition that his boss, Vice President for Student Services Henry Johnson, overturned the decision to terminate Anderson, according to documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court.

Easthope testified that influential former Athletic Director Don Canham also played a role in keeping Anderson at UM, enabling the physician to continue his abuse of students.

It was predictable that if Anderson "were allowed to stay . . . the number (of abused students) would go up," Easthope said, according to the court filing. 

Canham is deceased. Johnson, who was the first African American administrator at UM and at that time reported directly to the president, said he had a lawyer and declined to comment when reached by The News on Wednesday night.

Easthope’s deposition gives the first explanation of how Anderson, who he recalled forcing out of his job as chief of the student health clinic in late 1979, managed to serve the university and its athletic department for another two decades. Easthope did not immediately respond to a phone message Thursday evening.

Easthope testified that he told Johnson that Anderson was abusing students. “I didn’t just go knocking off people without Henry knowing about it," he said. "(B)ut I did tell him what I knew about (the abuse).”

 Easthope did not take steps to alert others about the physician, he acknowledged.

"While he attempted to fire Anderson, he failed to report Anderson’s misconduct to the proper channels and failed to make sure Anderson’s employment at U of M was in fact terminated," according to the amended complaint by alleged victims of Anderson's abuse that was filed Thursday. Anderson retired in 2003 and died in 2008.

"Easthope never asked University Health Services, the Ann Arbor Police, or the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the extent of Anderson’s abuse. And, he failed to notify Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (“LARA”) — the state professional 'licensing agency' — or the U of M Medical School about Anderson’s sexual abuse of male students."

Similarly, Easthope said he did not inform UM’s Athletic Department about Anderson’s sexual abuse of male students.

Easthope testified that because the Athletic Department was out of his “sphere of influence and nothing that (he) had any input about,” that it was not something he needed to be “terribly concerned about.” 

Easthope was also aware that Anderson, then head of University Health Service, worked with UM's Athletic Department, the court documents show.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined to comment Thursday night, citing an ongoing inquiry by the WilmerHale law firm, which the university hired in March.

"We don't have anything to add, while the WilmerHale investigation remains active," he said.

The newly amended court filing comes as UM and lawyers representing hundreds of alleged victims of Anderson are preparing for mediation to start next week, according to former Attorney General Mike Cox, who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of victims against UM.

Several other attorneys have also filed lawsuits against UM and represent scores of victims.

Cox said he was stunned by Easthope's testimony, which had been sealed.

 "I would call it an 'old boys' club," Cox said. "But it was young gay men and athletes who were paying the price of the old boys' club."

Don Canham

When asked about his failure — despite the power of his position — to do more to ensure that Anderson left campus or was investigated further, Easthope testified, “We live in a different time, and it’s not like that today. To go out and make accusations about people, and ‘this guy is against gays’ or something wouldn’t been very nice to anybody, including myself, so it is wasn’t something you go out and broadcast. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that kind of problem.”

Indeed, Easthope testified he had other priorities more important than ensuring Anderson left campus. “So in retrospect, it doesn’t sound very forgiving of me, but I had to move on, I had a lot of things going on every day, and you know, I suppose you experience having to make a decision and move on. I can’t explain it any other way,” according to his testimony.

Easthope's deposition came this summer after a 2018 UM police investigation of Anderson showed that Easthope said that activists 40 or 50 years ago approached him and told him that Anderson had assaulted many members of the gay community. He told police he "would never forget walking across the campus to Health Services to fire Bob."

Easthope told UM Police Detective Mark West during an investigation that he told Anderson that he knew the doctor was "fooling around in the exam rooms with the boy patients. Anderson just looked at him, but he did not deny it," according to a summary of the police report.

Easthope initially told detectives he fired Anderson "on the spot" but then said he may have allowed the doctor to resign.

Former University of Michigan vice president for student services Henry Johnson.

Easthope was a top UM official who who supervised approximately 1,600 UM employees and acted as “COO” of Student Services, court records show.

In his deposition, which was taken on July 28 and Aug. 4, Easthope referred to Anderson as "authoritarian” and "in a position of supreme authority and power.”

"Firing somebody who has got this aura of being a physician and being the head of Health Services” took “some guts, as [he] recall[s],” according to the court document. "Indeed, Anderson was Vice President Johnson’s private doctor."

Learning about Anderson's alleged abuse "infuriated him," Easthope testified.

He compared Anderson’s sexually predatory actions to the conduct of Larry Nassar at Michigan State University.

“... when the Nassar thing came up . . . I think I may have said, you know, that we had to get rid of Bob Anderson because of that,” Easthope testified. 

Easthope, however, did not remember preparing or seeing any documentation regarding Anderson’s firing, court records show.

Besides the role that Johnson allegedly played, Easthope said Canham was a force that helped Anderson avoid termination.

"Don Canham was a bigger man than Henry Johnson and probably 90 percent of the people on the hill,” Easthope is quoted in the court documents. "Canham was 'a voice to be reckoned with at the University of Michigan.'"

Yet he also expressed sympathy for Anderson's accusers and their plight.

 “If you were a young athlete and you wanted to perform, you didn’t want to get yourself in trouble with anybody, and it’s hard – it would be hard to know that you got yourself in trouble because of some guy screwing around with you," he testified. “I can tell you how I would feel, but I’m not 100 athletes that had their scholarships on the line if they reported somebody who was revered by their coaches.”

Dr. Robert E. Anderson

“Easthope’s testimony confirms that U of M’s most senior administrators were aware of Dr. Anderson’s misconduct yet gave him free rein to continue to abuse thousands of students," said Annika K. Martin, who is court-appointed interim class counsel and filed the amended complaint. "All these victims deserve an opportunity to obtain justice and create lasting change to prevent this type of abuse from ever occurring again at U of M."