An investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct by former University of Michigan physician Robert E. Anderson found that Anderson engaged in a “pervasive, decades-long, destructive pattern of sexual misconduct” involving hundreds of U-M students.
The report said university officials knew about the misconduct as early as 1978, yet it continued for decades. Anderson worked at U-M from 1966-2003. He died in 2008. The report also offered several recommendations for U-M to implement.
The report from the law firm of WilmerHale, released May 11 to the public and the university at the same time, found that Anderson’s misconduct “occurred across his various roles at the university and throughout his University career — with patients who sought treatment from him at (University Health Service), with student-athletes who were sent to him for required pre-participation physical examinations, and with medical students he was responsible for teaching.”
In a statement signed by the U-M Board of Regents and President Mark Schlissel, the university offered its “heartfelt apology for the abuse perpetrated by the late Robert Anderson.
“We will thoughtfully and diligently review and assess the report’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations; and we will work to regain the trust of survivors and to assure that we foster a safe environment for our students, our employees, and our community,” the statement said.
The university is currently engaged in a confidential, court-supervised mediation process with Anderson survivors who have filed suit against U-M.
WilmerHale said it collected information from more than 800 people, including nearly 600 former patients who came forward to share their experiences. Half of those former patients agreed to interviews.
“Although some of Dr. Anderson’s patients expressed support for him or reported favorably on the care they received from him, the vast majority of his patients who contacted us reported experiences that they found inappropriate and, in many cases, deeply upsetting,” the report said.
WilmerHale said it also investigated the university’s awareness of and response to information suggesting that Anderson engaged in inappropriate conduct in his various positions at the university.
“We interviewed approximately 200 current and former university employees, including administrators, faculty members, and coaches, as well as additional UHS, Athletic Department, and Michigan Medicine personnel. We also collected more than 2 million documents from the archives housed in the University’s Bentley Historical Library,” the report said.
WilmerHale said no restrictions were placed on its work. “No one on the Board of Regents or at the university directed, inhibited, or sought to influence us in any way,” the report said.
In addition to many patients who received unnecessary or inappropriate sensitive examinations from Anderson, a smaller group of patients described clinical experiences in which Anderson engaged in overtly sexual conduct.
The report said that over his 37-year career at U-M, “Anderson’s misconduct ranged from performing medically unnecessary hernia and rectal examinations on patients seeking treatment for wholly unrelated issues, to manually stimulating male patients … to quid-pro-quo arrangements in which he provided medical services in exchange for sexual contact.” Some of the descriptions in the report share graphic details of encounters with Anderson.
WilmerHale said Anderson’s misconduct had a profound impact on the students he treated.
His misconduct “prompted some student-athletes to quit their teams; it caused some students to question their sexuality; it caused some students to seek counseling; it affected some students’ academics, including some who left the university; and it undoubtedly affected other students in myriad ways.
“The trauma that Dr. Anderson’s misconduct caused persists to this day.”
The report also detailed instances where the university was told about Anderson’s misconduct, yet failed to take action to stop him.
According to the report, in or around 1979-81, senior university administrator Thomas Easthope received complaints regarding Anderson’s misconduct on at least three separate occasions. Easthope, now deceased, who was associate vice president for student life and supervised UHS, was told “directly and explicitly” about Anderson’s misconduct and failed to take proper action to address it, according to the report.
Easthope told investigators he had fired Anderson after hearing the report of misconduct. However, WilmerHale said its team found paperwork, signed by Easthope, that reassigned Anderson from director of UHS to a position as senior physician at UHS.
Anderson’s approach to physical exams was well known among U-M student-athletes, the investigation found. Investigators heard from more than 100 former student-athletes and identified at least eight instances when a student-athlete recalled voicing concerns about Anderson’s conduct with athletic department personnel. WilmerHale interviewed nearly 50 current and former athletic department employees, and none reported receiving complaints about Anderson.
The report makes a number of recommendations:
- Enhance training programs to promote a culture of awareness and reporting. Training should address the different ways misconduct is reported, address athletic department culture specifically, and ensure employees understand their reporting obligations.
- Enhance resources, training, and policies relating to sensitive examinations. Health care providers and anyone who might serve as a chaperone during medical examinations should complete mandatory training. The university should consider ways to inform patients what to expect during an examination and should ensure that students are encouraged to report any violations of the chaperone policy or physician misconduct.
- Assess how individual departments respond to sexual misconduct issues to increase their accountability. The university should periodically assess the climate within individual departments or units with respect to sexual misconduct.
- Enhance certain diligence procedures to ensure that concerning information about physicians is adequately investigated. Michigan Medicine should continue to require providers to self-disclose during the credentialing process any recent or pending legal proceedings and ensure that self-disclosed matters receive appropriate attention and inquiry.
- Improve communication and coordination between and among OIE, DPSS, and the Prosecutor’s Office. The Office for Institutional Equity and the Division of Public Safety and Security should adopt a written process related to “law enforcement holds” on OIE investigations, and the process for communicating when those holds are lifted. DPSS should submit all cases it refers to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office through that office’s online notification system.
- Ensure that OIE has sufficient resources to carry out its important responsibilities. The university should fill an empty OIE position promptly and re-evaluate the sufficiency of OIE’s resources, now and on a regular basis going forward.
The investigation into reports about Anderson began with a July 18, 2018, letter sent by former U-M student-athlete Thomas “Tad” DeLuca to Athletic Director Warde Manuel.
In his letter, DeLuca, a wrestler from the 1970s, described a series of interactions with Anderson when he sought treatment for cold sores. “During those visits Anderson examined his penis, did a hernia check, and conducted a digital rectal examination without explaining why such examinations were necessary.”
That letter led to an initial U-M Police investigation, which concluded in February 2020 when the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office determined that no criminal charges would be authorized.
According to DeLuca, these types of examinations were standard operating procedure for the physician some athletes called “Dr. ‘Drop Your Drawers’ Anderson.”
The WilmerHale report also acknowledges that the university has significantly changed in the nearly two decades since Anderson’s retirement.
“The university of today has greater understanding and awareness of what constitutes sexual misconduct, additional reporting obligations, centralized processes for responding to reports, and stronger support systems for those affected. Our recommendations should enhance the university’s policies, procedures and practices to prevent this kind of misconduct from happening again,” the report concludes.
See something, say something. If your gut tells you something is wrong, please report it. Your mental health is more important than someone’s doctoral degree or position. Your colleague, superior or physician with credentials is not excuse for them to cause such demeaning and lifelong damage. I am grateful, though long overdue, that someone finally listened. Being an ally of those who feel they don’t have a voice, is crucial. I will always stand up, stand by and stand with those who need support.
The sexual assault and abuse of power by Anderson is deeply disturbing. I hope that the University will implement the recommendations and do more to help ensure that this does not happen again. The sad fact is that many people — particularly young students — trust those with authority, including doctors, faculty, and administrators. This trust is violated by criminals, including Anderson, in every profession. We need to call Anderson and others like him criminals. It’s critical to make it clear that sexual assault is a crime, regardless of the stature of the criminal.