Campus policy review

Committee formed to review sexual misconduct procedures

NMU President Fritz Erickson

MARQUETTE — Sexual misconduct has been in the news a lot lately, and understandably so, judging from victims’ statements in a variety of cases ranging from ex-Hollywood studio executive Harvey Weinstein to Larry Nassar, formerly a physician for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

Northern Michigan University President Fritz Erickson talked with The Mining Journal in a recent interview about the sensitive subject and how NMU deals with potential problems.

Erickson said that handling issues of sexual misconduct is a priority for him, with a heavy emphasis on prevention that includes student-athletes listening to former ones.

“We pull all the athletes into a room in the fall and, you know, have a pretty frank discussion with them,” Erickson said.

The other part, of course, deals with what happens when there is an incident of possible sexual misconduct.

The NMU Board of Trustees has formed an ad hoc committee to review university policies to ensure that they reflect current best practices. The first priority will be NMU’s sexual misconduct policy, which was updated in 2016 and amended in 2017.

The ad hoc committee will be chaired by Trustee Alexis Hart, a senior human resources executive at Daimler Chrysler. Committee members will be Trustees Tami Seavoy, a Marquette attorney, and Jim Haveman, former director of the Michigan Department of Community Health.

“The well-being and safety of all of our students has been and will continue to be our top priority,” Hart said in a news release.

Many academic institutions are taking a closer look at their related policies and Michigan lawmakers have proposed several bills that may impact universities.

In fact, according to an Associated Press story, bills introduced Feb. 26 would lengthen certain time limits for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue. They also would add college employees and youth sports coaches, trainers and volunteers to Michigan’s list of people who must report suspected abuse or neglect to Children’s Protective Services.

Other measures would eliminate or lengthen the statute of limitations to give prosecutors more time to bring charges in cases of second- and third-degree sexual misconduct, the AP story said.

“Northern is committed to maintaining a safe learning and working environment, and in light of recent events at Michigan State University, it’s prudent that we be proactive in this area,” said NMU Board of Trustees Chair Robert Mahaney in a news release. “While we have every confidence in our existing policies and the exceptional team of professionals on this campus overseeing efforts in this area, we feel a review is appropriate at this time. We want to make sure we have strong sexual misconduct policies in place and that such policies are being followed to ensure to the fullest extent possible that an environment free from sexual harassment exists for the entire NMU community.”

MSU has been the subject of much scrutiny following the Nassar scandal that involved the sexual abuse of female athletes at MSU as well as national-caliber gymnasts. Nassar was given lengthy prison terms, with MSU now facing many related lawsuits.

NMU’s policy states that all reported incidents of sexual misconduct are investigated and that the university must take steps to remedy the situation. Faculty and staff are required to share reports of sexual misconduct with the Title IX coordinator or NMU Public Safety and Police Services.

Erickson is apprised of all allegations, and individuals reporting sexual misconduct are advised of available university and community resources for support and, if desired, receive help accessing these services.

He said NMU will make an immediate review of a situation and decided if the individual being investigated should be placed on administrative leave.

“I hope people don’t read into it that because we put someone on administrative leave that we’re making a determination of culpability,” Erickson said. “What it is, is we determine that it’s in the best interest of the investigation to be able to remove the person and to be able to do a comprehensive investigation that doesn’t get clouded by other kinds of things or other kinds of issues.”

He also pointed out that when people are put on administrative leave, they are paid.

“It’s part of the due process, because when we make the decision at the end of the day too we want to know that it was the best decision that we could make, and for lack of a better term, that it sticks, that it’s the right decision and it’s fully defensible,” Erickson said. “The last thing we want to do is lose on an appeal or be in a position where we would thought we would lose on appeal.”

Policies a top priority

Erickson, who was named NMU president in 2014, said that when he took on that position he wanted a group to perform a comprehensive analysis of sexual misconduct policies. That group took about a year and a half to come up with recommendations.

In 2017, those policies were looked at again.

“One of the things that happens is laws change and standards change, so when there’s new administration in Lansing, so too comes the new ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the secretary of education,” Erickson said.

Also, the rules for Title IX are constantly changing, he said.

Erickson acknowledged that people often think of sports when they think of Title IX, and they do play a part.

“What Title IX is really about is equality,” Erickson said, with equality focused on the way students are treated.

For instance, he said if a student makes an accusation, an NMU Title IX coordinator conducts an investigation, sometimes parallel with what’s happening with university police.

Other times, Erickson said, a survivor might not want to take the legal route — which he favors — but NMU always presents that person with options.

“We’re deeply committed to empowering victims and survivors,” Erickson said.

The NMU Student Code of Conduct also can be used.

“There could have been an event that doesn’t rise to a criminal standard but rises to a Student Code of Conduct standard, so there may be times where we’ll remove the student from the university — suspend them — that didn’t have a legal process,” Erickson said.

That standard, he said, involves a preponderance of evidence, which means more likely than not an offense occurred.

That’s different from the criminal “reasonable doubt” benchmark, he said.

NMU recently handled a case in which a former professor’s dismissal was recommended.

In an Oct. 6 letter obtained by The Mining Journal through a Freedom of Information Act request, Dale Kapla, Ph.D., associate provost for academic affairs at NMU, told Harry Whitaker, Ph.D., former professor of psychological science, that the “facts, factors and circumstances surrounding your violation of the university’s Sexual Misconduct Policy constitute egregious behavior and are just cause for dismissal.”

Those behaviors, according to the letter, included asking a female student who was also a secretary in his department about her personal dating relationships and repeatedly commenting on her appearance, and asking another female student for sex while he was intoxicated.

Kapla wrote in his letter to Whitaker: “I met with the former female student employee in-person and it is difficult to put into words the impact your conduct has had on her emotional well-being and education. Your conduct has severely eroded the respect and reverence she had for you as a professor and role model. Your conduct has raised questions about the real reasons behind your work with students.”

Whitaker wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to Kapla that having “vigorously denied” any wrongdoing, he decided to retire from the faculty in the interest of “expedited closure.”

He also addressed one of the alleged incidents, which he said occurred a decade ago, in which he was accused of asking for sex during an off-campus funeral celebration. He admitted to drinking excessively and wouldn’t have remembered the incident except for the fact that the woman showed up in his office a few weeks later to ask if he recalled the event.

Whitaker said he did not, whereupon she told him that he also had asked her to his hotel room.

“I interpreted this as light banter and replied that the offer still stands,” wrote Whitaker, who added the woman then became annoyed. He also pointed out that although the woman returned to the psychology department as a graduate student after the alleged incident, she didn’t take classes from him, nor was he in a supervisory role over her.

Whitaker also addressed claims concerning another female student in two distinct events, the first in 2016 and the second during the winter semester of 2017. He wrote that during the spring semester of 2016, the student came to work in the psychology department in tears, giving “plausible evidence” she had been jilted by a long-term boyfriend.

Whitaker then said he attempted over the next seven or eight months to restore her self-esteem. At the end of the fall semester of that year, he invited all the students in his graduate seminar to his home for a celebratory party, noting that there was “clear written evidence” his comments on her appearance and self-worth were received in the way he intended.

Whitaker also said that in 2017, he extended an invitation to the woman, as well as a male student in the same class, to discuss turning their class paper into a publication over lunch or dinner. He said he met the male student for dinner on campus at the student center and later during the semester at his home, but the woman didn’t express interest in meeting with him.

“We don’t wait, but we make sure everyone is afforded due process,” Erickson said. “That’s a very important part of it.”

The MSU effect

The MSU scandal got many people thinking about possible situations on their home fronts.

“Given the situation that happened at Michigan State, that clearly had the impact of raising everybody’s antennas and our board asking, and appropriately so, ‘What are we doing?'” Erickson said.

The board then decided it wanted a policy review group whose duties would include looking at how the university handles sexual misconduct.

It wasn’t that NMU was mishandling matters, he said, as much as it wanted to be proactive.

“Let’s make sure, in this day and age, that we have all the appropriate policies, and I expect there will be some things we need to work on,” Erickson said.

He said staff will meet with the NMU Board of Trustees to determine a timeframe on the new policy.