University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel on Aug. 3 apologized “to everyone affected by Martin Philbert’s misconduct and for our institution’s failings.”
It was the president’s first public statement since the July 31 release of the independent investigative report from the WilmerHale law firm that detailed nearly two decades of sexual misconduct by Philbert. The former U-M provost was placed on leave in January, was stripped of his provost title in March and relinquished his tenured faculty position in June.
In an Aug. 3 email message to the Ann Arbor campus community, Schlissel said the university had “fallen far short of creating a culture that rejects harassment and misconduct and ensures that no one in our community fears retaliation for reporting.”
He said what kept coming through to him as he spent the last few days carefully reading the report “was how many people were badly hurt by Philbert’s behavior, but also how afraid they were about coming forward.
“The highest priority for our regents and leadership team is to make our community safe for all. 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,” Schlissel said.
The 88-page report says Philbert sexually harassed multiple members of the university community, including graduate students who worked in his lab, and U-M employees beginning in his early years as an assistant professor and including his six years at dean of the School of Public Health. Philbert joined the U-M faculty in 1995 and was appointed provost in 2017.
The report details instances where the university could have taken more action to investigate Philbert, but it found no evidence that information about Philbert’s alleged misconduct was learned by Schlissel in advance of Philbert’s selection as provost.
WilmerHale said the firm collected more than 6 million documents and reviewed relevant emails, handwritten notes, materials associated with the dean and provost search processes and other university records. The firm interviewed 128 individuals, some multiple times. Philbert declined to be interviewed.
Schlissel said he wanted to thank “everyone in the University of Michigan community who spoke with the investigators, particularly those who bravely reported sexual misconduct by Philbert. During review of the WilmerHale report, I was moved by the incredible courage of the individuals who came forward.”
Schlissel also said he and members of the Board of Regents are reviewing the recommendations contained in the WilmerHale report along with the appropriate units on campus. Schlissel said he would soon report back with “a way forward on these important issues.”
The president said university leaders will look beyond the recommendations for additional ways to make the campus environment safe for all and free from sexual misconduct and harassment.
“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.
“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.”
The president also said that, as part of the WilmerHale investigation, he provided access to all of his documents for their review. “It was in those materials where they discovered something I had missed in 2019 — an anonymous allegation of misconduct by Philbert. I sincerely regret that. Had I seen it, I would have reported it immediately to the Office for Institutional Equity.”
Schlissel said the findings in the report are “deeply distressing” and indicate the safeguards, policies and procedures the university has in place are inadequate. Among the recommendations in the report are:
- Establish a standalone policy regarding consensual relationships between employees that requires notice and recusal and/or mitigation of possible conflicts of interest.
- Ensure that students and employees are aware of the avenues for reporting sexual misconduct.
- Enhance the visibility and training of University personnel who are required to report information about sexual harassment that is reported to them or that otherwise comes to their attention.
- Provide alternative oversight of sexual misconduct allegations involving members of the Provost’s office, which is ordinarily responsible for overseeing the Office for Institutional Equity (OIE).
- Conduct a climate survey regarding sexual misconduct for faculty and staff.
- Evaluate OIE investigative practices to ensure that OIE is identifying and, as appropriate, pursuing additional investigative avenues when complainants decline to participate in an investigation.
- Establish a process for formally reviewing OIE investigative files to provide quality assurance and confidence in investigation procedures and outcomes.
- Ensure that findings of policy violations and other misconduct by internal candidates are collected and accessible, and establish a formal written process for obtaining and considering such findings in promotion, tenure, appointment, reappointment, and other hiring decisions involving internal candidates.
- Review its procedures for vetting external candidates for faculty and staff positions, and consider implementing a pilot program that enhances its ability to identify findings by previous employers of sexual or other misconduct.