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UM to pay $9.25 million in settlement with Philbert accusers

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Less than a year after a letter started the end of former University of Michigan Provost Martin Philbert's career, the university has reached a settlement with several women who accused him of widespread sexual misconduct. 

UM and lawyers for the women said Wednesday the university will pay $9.25 million to eight women allegedly victimized by Philbert, formerly the second-highest ranking UM official. An anonymous letter alerted President Mark Schlissel to Philbert's alleged behavior in January, prompting an investigation and Philbert's temporary — then permanent — departure. 

Martin Philbert

It's not clear how much each of Philbert's accusers will get. But the amount that UM agreed to pay is an average of $1.15 million each — and, on that basis, comparable to the settlement reached between Michigan State University and the women who were sexually assaulted by the now-incarcerated Larry Nassar.

In that historic 2018 settlement, more than 500 women divvied up $500 million. The exact amount for each was confidential and varied. But the first wave of women, 333, split $425 million, for an average of $1.27 million each. 

The agreement, which does not include Philbert as a party, calls for UM to work with the women in implementing new guidance on sexual harassment outlined in an investigative report by the university-hired WilmerHale law firm released July 31.

"The complainants recognize the university has committed to implementing the WilmerHale recommendations and is currently hiring consultants to assist in the process," according to a redacted copy of the six-page settlement, which The Detroit News reviewed. "The university values the input of the complainants, and agrees to provide the complainants an opportunity to meet with the selected consultants for the purpose of providing their input on the implementation of the WilmerHale recommendations."

The settlement was not linked to a court case, but UM agreed to the deal after some staff members alleged years of inaction regarding Philbert. 

 WilmerHale report found numerous allegations of sexual harassment and multiple sexual relationships within the UM community for most of Philbert's tenure as a professor and administrator.

UM still has to hire outside experts to assist the university to "create a culture where reports will be heard and lead to appropriate action" — a move the Board of Regents said it planned to take in August after it apologized to those affected by Philbert's behavior and acknowledged failure.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald repeated that apology in a statement about the settlement Wednesday.

"The sexual misconduct of the former university provost that has been detailed in a report from the WilmerHale law firm is abhorrent and unacceptable," he said. "The University of Michigan failed on many levels, as this individual advanced through the administrative ranks. 

"We recognize how difficult it was for these eight women to come forward to share their experiences," he said. "We thank them for their courage and we apologize to each one of them and to all survivors."

Fitzgerald added it was not yet clear where the funds will come from to pay the settlement, but it would not be from UM's general fund, which is made up of tuition, state appropriation and indirect costs of sponsored research.

Sarah Prescott, a Northville-based lawyer representing the women, said the settlement is “an important step forward in the reckoning that needed to happen at the university related to Martin Philbert’s well-known history of abusing women."

"My clients were indelibly harmed, but they also truly want the university to succeed and to be better," she said in an email. "They want any future victims to have better recourse. Under the terms of this agreement, they have a chance to seek justice from Philbert himself individually, and to participate in ongoing efforts with the university to completely erase and correct his awful legacy.

“Power, money and connections didn’t save Martin Philbert, and they won’t save the next harasser. This case ought to put others like him on notice.”  

Prescott said the settlement did not release Philbert from liability. The options left open for his accusers are to sue Philbert directly or pursue settlement. Prescott said she was directing inquiries on the options to Philbert's lawyer, Richard Soble of Ann Arbor.

Soble could not be reached Wednesday on his office phone or by email.

Silke-Maria Weineck, a UM professor of German studies and comparative literature, said she was glad the women were being compensated, and though it sounds like a lot of money, "the university got off easy here."

"What a lot of faculty would like to see is the people whom we know knew about Philbert's sexual assaults removed from their leadership positions," Weineck said. "There is no accountability."

She pointed to the WilmerHale report that named several people who were aware of allegations against Philbert, yet didn't share the information or prevent him from rising to the provost's position. She also pointed to a faculty senate vote of no confidence in Schlissel that was taken in September.

"The motion of no confidence in President Schlissel passed in large extent because people were disgusted with the Philbert history," Weineck said. "And there is also an open question as to what President Schlissel knew. He denies he knew anything but the evidence is a bit inconclusive."

Philbert, who earned $570,340 annually, worked at UM for 25 years.

He started in 1995 as a toxicology professor and later served as the dean of the School of Public Health. He ascended to the provost's job in 2017, also held the title of executive vice president for academic affairs, and was responsible for UM's academic and budgetary affairs.

Though an outside investigative report by the WilmerHale law firm showed complaints about Philbert starting in 2005, his downfall didn't start until after a woman sent an anonymous letter to Schlissel on Jan. 17.

In the letter, obtained by The News, the woman said she spoke on behalf of others who had connected with one another and compared "emotional and sexual abuse" allegedly perpetrated by Philbert over 20 years.

While each woman's story had nuance, they all contained the same pattern, beginning with sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace, followed by a "grooming period" that included songs, texts and pictures to engender trust, according to the letter. The next phase allegedly included physical contact on university grounds, including in the School of Public Health's dean's office and the provost's suite, the letter said. 

"Philbert would like to say these relationships are consensual, but we as victims know this to be untrue," the letter said. "He uses the university campus as his hunting ground, with his position and power as weapons, and he moves from woman to woman with recklessness and speed."

He asked for intimate photos from the women, shared detailed fantasies and then moved on to the next victim, the letter said. When challenged or confronted, he allegedly intimidated the victims in various ways such as threatening to ruin their careers or saying "something might just 'happen' to them."

The letter asked Schlissel to "do the right thing" and remove Philbert; otherwise, victims would come forward and share explicit details with the Michigan Daily, the UM student newspaper.

"It is our understanding that the president's office was previously warned about this predator and did nothing to investigate or stop him," the letter said. "This cannot continue and we will not wait 'to see what happens.'"

UM President Mark Schlissel

UM retained the WilmerHale law firm a day later on Jan. 18 to conduct an investigation, according to the redacted settlement agreement.

On Jan. 21, Schlissel placed Philbert on administrative leave and banned him from campus while WilmerHale launched its investigation. Susan M. Collins, an economics professor and former dean of the UM Ford School of Public Policy, was named UM's acting and interim provost then approved as permanent provost in July.

UM publicly announced its moves on Jan. 22, five days after the anonymous letter arrived.

Schlissel removed Philbert from the provost's position in March. Philbert retired from his faculty position and relinquished his tenure as of June 30.

WilmerHale's 94-page investigative report alleged Philbert sexually harassed staff and graduate students, made sexual comments and comments about women's bodies, insisted on hugs and engaged in sexual relationships with several women on staff.

The report showed complaints emerged in 2005 against Philbert when he was associate dean for research at the School of Public Health. A graduate student and a research assistant who worked in his lab told a professor that Philbert had kissed their necks. The research assistant alleged 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 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.

One of the women, however, told The News that she did speak with Walesby, on the phone at least one time and in person.

The report also noted several high-ranking officials became aware of allegations about Philbert's behavior. Chief among them was Dr. Lori Pierce, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs and a member of the search committee that vetted Philbert and other candidates for the provost's job.

She allegedly knew allegations of sexual harassment had been lodged against him in 2005 but did not notify other members or Schlissel before Philbert was selected.

Several university officials were made aware of some of Philbert's alleged behavior, including former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, according to the report.

Former UM Provost Phil Hanlon said he sent Coleman an email about the 2005 allegation against Philbert when Philbert was a candidate for dean of the School of Public Health in 2010. But Coleman said she did not remember it, according to the report.

"(Coleman) acknowledged that she may not have weighed or viewed this information in 2010 in the same way that she would today," the report said.

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.

Schlissel was the recipient of a survey in April 2019 in which UM faculty submitted anonymous feedback to high-level university leaders regarding their performance. 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.

Rebekah Modrak, a UM professor in the School of Art & Design, said she was pleased these eight women reached an agreement and that their claims are being acknowledged but urged for further openness. 

"If the university truly recognizes the value of full disclosure and continued work towards more accountable, transparent reporting and investigative systems, these women should be able to tell their stories as publicly as they choose," Modrak said. 

Prescott said the agreement states the women "are not to disparage, but they can comment on issues of public concern."  

"They are not wanting to comment," Prescott said. "It's not that they can't.  It's that they are wanting to move forward."  

Modrak added the financial settlement is only part of the picture.

"The other part is more accountability for those administrators, staff and lawyers who chose not to pay attention to evaluations, who chose not to investigate reports, and who had knowledge of Philbert's history of abusing women and did not come forward with that information when it would have made a difference," Modrak said.

The settlement with the women who accused Philbert comes as the university has coped recently with other allegations of sexual misconduct among high-profile faculty members, including former music Professor David Daniels, a renowned opera singer, and former violin Professor Stephen Shipps, who was recently charged with two counts of transporting a minor girl across state lines to engage in sexual conduct. 

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

The settlement was not the first that UM reached a settlement in a case involving Philbert.

Fifteen years ago, UM paid nearly $200,000 to settle a 2004 lawsuit that alleged Philbert, then a professor in the UM School of Public Health, wrongly laid off an employee partly because he preferred to keep on a female researcher with whom he allegedly had an inappropriate relationship. 

"A senior SPH faculty member questioned Philbert about the alleged relationship with the female lab employee," according to the WilmerHale report. "The faculty member did not find any indication that Philbert had an improper relationship with the female lab employee, and subsequent litigation brought by the male employee in 2004 did not uncover any such evidence."

"It does not appear that the university questioned Philbert about his conduct toward any other woman."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com