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UM hires firm to reform culture around sexual misconduct

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Guidepost Solutions' involvement in Michigan State University's plan to hire an independent investigator into the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. Guidepost Solutions was among the firms considered by the university.

The University of Michigan on Thursday hired an expert consulting firm to help assess and change the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding numerous accused faculty members, including former Provost Martin Philbert.

President Mark Schlissel announced the hiring of Guidepost Solutions to collaborate with the university in implementing recommendations made in July by the WilmerHale law firm after it investigated sexual misconduct allegations against Philbert.

"This is one important step in our ongoing comprehensive work to prevent and address sexual misconduct and create an environment and culture where everyone in our community feels they can report misconduct without fear of retaliation," said Schlissel. "The firm will help us ensure that we will implement the recommendations as quickly and effectively as possible while leveraging the considerable work that UM has done at this point."

The University of Michigan will hire a firm to help assess and change the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding faculty members.

Guidepost Solutions —  which offers investigations, compliance, monitoring, and security and technology consulting — will help the university create "meaningful policy reform and cultural change at UM," said board Chair Denise Ilitch.

"We recognize that outside accountability and perspective is critical in identifying and creating meaningful policy and cultural reform," Ilitch said. "The hiring of Guidepost will provide us with experts — independent from the university — who will help this institution do better than it has in the past and better than it could do on its own."

Asha Muldro, senior managing director and co-leader of the Los Angeles office of Guidepost Solutions, is a former federal prosecutor who is going to lead the work at UM. During the virtual UM meeting, she said the firm will work closely with the university, and reach out to all students, faculty, staff, administrators, victims and regents.

"Our focus will be to understand institutional needs, challenges and cultures, to find solutions that are impactful and sustainable over the long term," Muldro said. "We recognize the mission here is to have a program with integrity that is owned by the university, with accountability as the highest value and where sexual- and gender-based misconduct and retaliation are not tolerated." 

UM will pay Guidepost $400,000, according to the contract, which ends at the end of 2021. But it may be extended.

Guidepost will provide public reports at a mutually agreed time but "at a minimum the Regents regularly scheduled board meeting on June 17, 2021," the contract states.

Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault, called the move at UM important and hopeful.

"My hope is that in the coming months and years, (the) UM Board of Regents will stay committed to the type of cultural and policy change, the type of outside transparency and accountability that is necessary for a university, and UM will eventually become the standard for how this will be handled," Denhollander said.

She said what sets Guidepost apart is the staff does not come in as attorneys, and create attorney-client privilege. Rather, they come in as compliance specialists. 

 "A firm like Guidepost that has a top-down approach to culture and policy reform is the type of firm and multi-faceted approach that is desperately needed at UM," Denhollander said. "The multiple sexual abuse scandals they have had from the provost to Dr. (Robert) Anderson, there are both policy breakdowns and there are cultural breakdowns at the UM level, including things that happened in the administration."

In fall 2019, MSU was poised to hire a consulting firm to conduct an independent investigation into the Nassar sex abuse scandal. Guidepost Solutions was the firm favored by victims of the abuse. But MSU board members ultimately looked to another firm, couldn't agree on the scope of the work and eventually scuttled the idea and hired no one.

UM'smove comes weeks after  the university announced a $9.25 million settlement with eight women allegedly victimized by Philbert, formerly the second-highest ranking UM official.

It also comes after a July report by the WilmerHale law firm that 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. The report alleged Philbert sexually harassed staff and graduate students, made sexual comments and remarks about women's bodies, insisted on hugs and engaged in sexual relationships with several women on staff.

UM hires firm to reform culture around sexual misconduct

The 94-page report made numerous recommendations to the university, such as ensuring that information reaches UM's Office of Institutional Equity and appropriate university officials, creating a policy addressing consensual relationships between faculty and staff, and requiring all employees to take annual training on reporting sexual misconduct.

Soon afterthe report, the Board of Regents apologized for Philbert's behavior, acknowledged its failure and vowed to hire outside experts to assist the university to "create a culture where reports will be heard and lead to appropriate action." 

"In reviewing what happened with our former Provost, and the lives he altered forever, the WilmerHale law firm provided recommendations on steps the university should take to make sure nothing like what happened ever happens again," Ilitch said. "The recommendations must be followed. Our standards must be established at the highest level. That’s why we are accepting counsel from those with the most relevant experience and perspective so that this time of change is as effective as possible."

UM also 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. 

The university is also in the midst of litigation resulting from hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by former students and athletes against Anderson, a sports doctor who worked at the university from the 1960s until 2003. 

"We must now begin to create a culture where reports will be heard, and action taken without fear of retaliation," Ilitch said. "To be clear — sexual misconduct will not be tolerated."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com