Fixing Sexual Misconduct Investigations of Faculty, Staff, and Other Non-Students at Michigan State

Several months ago, I wrote memo to higher-ups at MSU detailing my experiences with the Title IX investigation process and the institutional response once a finding was made against the man who was found to have physically harassed me. Responses were mostly positive and affirmed my sense that some of the systemic issues with MSU’s response to sexual harassment were recognized and fixable. I have decided to post the text of the memos (with names and details redacted) in hopes that this can encourage deeper conversation both here at MSU and in other institutions where small changes could have big impact on sexual misconduct investigations and outcomes.


Feb 9, 2018

To MSU Administration:

Based on my recent personal experience with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) in filing a sexual harassment complaint (after being sexually [harassed] by an Emeritus Professor at a retirement event on campus), I have identified several reforms that would improve MSU’s sexual harassment complaint procedures.

I am hopeful that now is an opportune time to make sure my voice is heard as MSU works for positive reform. The negative effect of the sexual harassment itself was compounded by MSU’s current investigative process; in many ways, the investigation prolonged and added to the stress and trauma of the incident itself. While these negative impacts are ongoing, I chose to wait to send this memo until I felt that MSU was in a position to address my concerns. MSU’s reaction to sexual harassment complaints should incorporate a realization of the full impact sexual harassment can have on personal and professional lives, and I hope that MSU’s dedication to reform the sexual harassment investigative process will include changes in protocol, policies, and procedures. I offer six recommendations based on my experience:

  1. After my [harassment] was reported to OIE, I received an email from an investigator asking if I wanted to file a complaint. When I did meet with the investigator, the meeting focused entirely on the steps that would be taken in filing a complaint.
    • At the time, I was still traumatized by my [harassment] even though it had occurred several years earlier. Rehashing the [harassment] , even non-verbally, caused significant emotional trauma that might have been lessened if a support person trained in sexual harassment/assault had been provided.
      • Recommendation: Provide complainants with a support person to assist them through the process. These should be trained individuals who are either volunteers or are independent of the university. This would mirror recent legislation passed by the US House of Representatives to establish an office for victim advocacy.
  1. The availability and nature of the two types of procedures for Title IX investigations at MSU – informal and formal – was and remains unclear, even upon careful review of the written OIE Complaint Procedures.
    • In my case, the investigator did mention the informal and formal processes, but did not clearly: 1) explain that an informal or formal process was available; 2) ask if I wished to pursue an informal or formal process; and 3) explain what the outcomes of an informal or formal process would be.
      • Recommendation: Develop clear written guidance to explain the availability of informal and formal processes at the beginning of a meeting with an investigator, including what will and will not happen within the context of each process. This should include a clear question asking claimants which process they are interested in initiating.
      • [Note: I have since learned that the informal process was truly informal and did not exist in policy until after I filed my complaint. The recommendation stands, however, as it is still unclear what an “informal” process would look like and result in.]
  1. Anonymity was not maintained in my case after the report was sent to Academic Human Resources.
    • During the investigation, the investigator indicated that OIE had informed my Dean’s office that a complaint had been filed. At that time, I was assured that my name was not shared and that no one other than the Dean’s office was aware a complaint was being investigated.
    • Although I was notified when the report was finalized that it would be sent to Academic Human Resources, there was no further information about what this meant. As a Professor with a dozen years on campus, I was able to track down an appropriate contact in Academic Human Resources.
    • By the time I was able to identify and contact the appropriate person in Academic Human Resources, the entirety of my report had already been distributed to my Dean and my Chair[1]. This included my name as well as personal details about my health, and I was unaware that the report would be shared in this way.
    • Academic Human Resources and OIE offered conflicting information about who should have been contacted, with what information, and by whom. This resulted in additional stress on my part as my Chair and Dean were brought into the conversation.
      • Recommendation: Establish clear guidance for how OIE documents move through the university system, including procedures for notifying complainants and respondents when and to whom materials are distributed after an investigation is completed.
  1. The sanctioning process relies on unit administrators who are inexpert at handling sexual misconduct and who will have an inherent conflict-of-interest.
    • There are no procedures in place to protect complainants when they are housed under the same unit administrator as respondents. It is unlikely that a unit administrator can adequately and simultaneously protect a complainant and sanction a respondent. In my case, my Chair was in an impossible situation of being asked to protect a Professor while simultaneously needing to sanction an Emeritus Professor with significant name recognition (e.g., there is an Endowed Chair named after him). The Dean’s office was thankfully able to step in and offer a sanction that ensured I was protected; until it did, it was difficult to understand how the process was avoiding bias.
      • Recommendation: Move decision-making around sanctions out of the hands of the unit administrator. Sanctions should be determined by an impartial entity, and impartiality cannot be maintained within a unit that has a vested interest in protecting the complainant, or the respondent, or both. Sanctions can be determined by a panel, as occurs with students, or by the appropriate HR office, or through some alternative impartial entity.
      • Recommendation: Encourage complainants to articulate sanctions that they feel would be effective for their physical and emotional well being. Incorporate this perspective into decision-making. It is unclear in my mind how complainants are included, if at all, in most of the decision-making around sexual harassment findings.
  1. The limited sharing of information around the sanctioning process places complainants in unnecessary danger.
    • In my case, I was not informed when a letter detailing sanctions was sent to my [harasser]. My [harasser] showed up outside of my home and engaged my spouse (who did not know my [harasser]) in conversation while I fled the scene and notified the police. I later learned that this invasion of my privacy occurred close in time to the sending of the sanctions letter.
      • Recommendation: Provide complainants with notification whenever action is taken on the case.
  1. Finally, the lack of transparency around sexual harassment findings means that the community at large is not being protected from continued sexual harassment. In addition, colleagues unaware of sexual harassment incidents may unwittingly trigger their colleagues or students. In my case, [redacted] I am continually faced with reminders of the assault [redacted] (including at a faculty meeting this week). In other cases, serial sexual harassers may not be identified because 1) complainants are not informed of prior investigations and 2) individuals often come forward with complaints only after they learn of an ongoing investigation. Certainly, I have no way of knowing if my harasser engaged in sexual misconduct towards others and other potential victims have no way of knowing that a formal complaint was made against my harasser.
    • Recommendation: Establish mechanisms for alerting the community when an individual is found to have committed sexual harassment. Alerts might contain the harasser’s name and the specific violation under the sexual harassment policy. Transparency is the first step towards equity.

Implementing any of the above recommendations would improve the current system, and implementing all or most these recommendations would go a long way in protecting victims. I am hopeful that MSU will find space to support students, faculty, and staff who have been victimized by sexual, racial or other harassment. We as a community should honor lived experiences and incorporate experienced voices into the decision-making process.

[1] Guidelines for Issuing Disciplinary Sanctions: Faculty and Academic Staff became effective on April 26, 2017. This document explains that unit administrators are responsible for disciplinary action when faculty/staff are respondents in a complaint. This information was not available at the time of my complaint. Note that this document still does not provide information about how sanctions will be imposed on members of the MSU community who are non-employees (in my case, an Emeritus Professor).