After more than two years of back-to-back misconduct scandals involving senior leaders and faculty, the University of Michigan announced its latest step to prevent future crises: It’s creating a new ethics office.
The university’s new president, Santa J. Ono, unveiled the plans last Thursday while speaking to the Board of Regents. The new “independent” ethics and compliance office covers Michigan’s three campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint. It “examines trends, processes, problem areas and general ethics, integrity and compliance issues,” according to written version Ono’s speech.
The ethics unit is separate from the Ann Arbor campus Title IX office, which investigates complaints of sexual misconduct under the federal Gender Equality Act, which the university restructured last year. It reports to Ono and Timothy G. Lynch, vice president and general counsel. In the case of a complaint filed against the president himself, the ethics office reports to the board.
“We want people to feel safe reporting, no matter who the person is,” said Denise Ilitch, a businessman and Michigan regent who has championed the ethics office idea. “I have a lot more confidence in the process and the resolution of the issues we face through an independent office.”
Most of the 65 members of the Association of American Universities — the top universities in the United States and Canada — have a separate ethics unit that reports to the board, according to April. Faculty Senate Resolution which prompted the university to create it.
The creation of an ethics office was also a key recommendation of a consulting firm Michigan hired to help it deal with the fallout from recently publicized incidents, including revelations that the former provost had sexual misconduct reports for decades. harassment and a lawsuit involving more than 1,000 students who say they were sexually abused by a deceased Michigan sports doctor. (Michigan settled the suit.)
Foreign experts were more skeptical. At best, they say, the idea could work, but time will tell if it can bring real change. Many details of the office’s work are still being worked out, including the budget, staffing levels and staff reporting responsibilities, but the office is not authorized to investigate. Inside statement Last Thursday, Ono said, “I need to hear from the community about how best to build this office. Over the next few months, I will be listening to deans, chief executives, faculty and the wider university community to help make my decisions.”
At worst, some experts said, it would be impossible for such a bureau to truly operate independently and make a difference.
Independent compliance offices can help colleges assess whether they are meeting their ethical and legal obligations regarding student safety in a “forward-looking and proactive manner,” Bradley Dizik, executive vice president of Guidepost Solutions, wrote in an email.
Michigan leaders hired Guidepost, a consulting firm, to advise them on preventing misbehavior on campus. Dizik was among the staff working with the university, though he was only authorized to speak about what Guidepost recommends to colleges in general.
Guidepost always recommends an ethics office, Dizik said. Such an office, he wrote, would differ from the Title IX department, which can conduct internal reviews, because it would be expected to look to the future and provide an outside perspective. And that’s different from a general lawyer, a top university lawyer. “The solicitor general will advise you on what you can do,” he wrote. “Ethics and compliance officers will advise you on what you should do.”
Elizabeth Abdnour, an attorney representing survivors of college harassment and discrimination, was one expert more optimistic about the ethics office’s prospects.
Prior to starting his company, Abdnour was a Title IX researcher at Michigan State University. His tenure coincided with the sexual abuse investigation of sports doctor Larry Nassar, who is currently serving decades in prison. In Abdnour’s experience, people in civil rights and Title IX departments at colleges don’t have the time or expertise to think about “proactive philosophical or structural changes in procedures and policies,” he said. An external office could help.
To ensure the office’s true independence, he suggested its staff not be at-will employees, as most college administrators are, meaning they can be fired for any reason (except illegal ones like discrimination). More job protections “could at least help to ensure independence and make sure that no one is afraid of losing their job,” he said, “if they say something the president or the board doesn’t like. “
‘It’s a joke’
Other experts did not believe that any office in a college could be independent of the institution’s leaders.
“There is a structural problem with discrimination and abuse at this institution. It’s deep in the DNA,” said Ann Olivarius, a gender discrimination and sexual assault attorney, referring specifically to Michigan. “So to create another office unless there is independently paid, has access to all the institution’s books and records, access to the student body, and no fear of retaliation or punishment because it actually does its job, then it’s a joke. It does not work.”
Some experts considered the pros and cons of the fact that Michigan’s ethics office does not have the authority to investigate. Olivarius thought it useless.
Who would independently fund an ethics office at a public university? Olivarius suggested that for a big-name college like Michigan, alumni donations could work. To ensure accountability even beyond the president and board, he suggested public transparency.
John C. Manly, a lawyer who represented some of the survivors of Michigan doctor Robert E. Anderson and more than 300 survivors of Nassar’s abuse, said he wants to see a measure of accountability for college officials brought before lawmakers. The total value of the Anderson and Nassar settlements is nearly $1 billion. “It’s public money,” he said. “Why isn’t anyone holding hearings?”
Whether they thought the Michigan Office of Ethics had a chance to work, every expert Chronicle who spoke independently highlighted their biggest fear: that the ethics and compliance office ends up as a PR stunt — something University of Michigan leaders could point to as doing something without achieving real change.