Opinion | In sexual assault cases, Michigan universities need oversight

Kat Klawes

Kat Klawes is an educator, advocate, and activist in Michigan. She considers the U.P. to be the home of her heart.

Thirty-two. That is how many reminders of my sexual assault weigh on my mind when I try to sleep at night.

I have met 32 women who were sexually assaulted while in college and who were silenced by their universities. Anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows about the Michigan State University Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. But, the news that isn’t making headlines is other universities also intimidating students into silence. It is an epidemic nationally. 

Michigan colleges have a crisis on campuses and it is not just the number of sexual assaults. The crisis includes how universities are silencing students and that complaints against universities too often go unaddressed. 

I was one of those students. In 2014, I was sexually assaulted for the second time in my life while on a conference trip for the university. I still have the clothing that I was wearing ‒ denim capris that went to my ankles and a patterned tank top. After the assault, I was diagnosed with PTSD. 

When I returned to Northern Michigan University in the fall, I expected support and understanding. What I discovered was that my university wanted to stop me from speaking about it. 

I received an email from the Assistant Dean of Students stating that if I shared any thoughts of suicide or self-harm with other students that I would be disciplined. The wording of the policy was ambiguous and I felt that I was being told to stop talking to others about my assault and the effect it had on me, as well as any other subject the administration felt might cast the university in a negative light.

This gag order imposed by my university made me feel alone at a time when I most needed my friends. I closed myself off from speaking to anyone for fear of retaliation and my grades suffered. From 2015-18, I led an effort to change that policy, which gained national attention. 

NMU settled with the Department of Justice, but the harm to students was already done. Lives like mine were irreparably impacted. Northern Michigan University systematically tried to silence me. In 2018, the Department of Justice finished its investigation into NMU’s policy that threatened students with discipline for discussing thoughts of self-harm.

These were not the rogue actions of an individual. And this isn’t just happening where I went to school. Universities are abusing their power to silence students on many different issues, whether it is sexual assault, criticism of policies, or other issues.  

Christina, 41, is one of the over 300 women women who filed a lawsuit against Larry Nassar and Michigan State University. On a rainy afternoon in May, we talked on the phone like old friends. Although we have never met, we bonded by our shared trauma. She told me how the Nassar movement got started and the obstacles the victims faced, how many of them were silenced by university officials. 

“We want to know that somebody sees this,” she said. “You can’t cover things up like this...but they tried and almost got away with it.”

Christina told me how MSU administrators orchestrated “a systematic cover-up. And others dropped the ball.”

The question that has been keeping me up at night and leaves me with fits of rage so severe that I feel like I can’t breathe is how this can continue to happen. Universities in Michigan have seemingly no state oversight. They collect tax dollars and then perpetuate discrimination and retaliation against sexual assault victims or other victims of wayward policies.

If there is a problem with a university in its handling of an issue, such as sexual assault, poor resources, or other matters, there is little recourse for action besides costly legal action.

“I can think of no incentive for universities to stop this. There seems to be no punishment. No one is watching universities,” a woman who attended another Michigan university told me. Mary, not her real name, was sexually assaulted on campus and felt that her assault was not taken seriously when reported. Now 27, she told me she was left with no other options or recourse. 

Michigan needs to create a law mandating oversight of universities. The oversight would be an independent ombudsman’s office at the state level, which could adjudicate complaints against the state’s 15 public universities.

This ombudsman’s office could help prevent universities from covering up sexual assaults by providing an avenue for sexual assault victims to report to if their investigations have been mishandled by the school.

Additionally, issues such as free speech, hazing, discrimination, and other hosts of other campus-related problems could be handled by this office.

Currently there is an ombudsman for oversight of nursing homes and and the child welfare system in Michigan. I think it is long overdue for oversight of universities.

Allowing universities to police themselves is what led to these publicized tragedies. I implore Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature to create a “University and College Ombudsman’s Office.”


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Fri, 08/23/2019 - 9:46am

If we have to spend limited dollars in staffing another State office, then we have hired the wrong person to be president of that educational institution.

Al Churchill
Sun, 08/25/2019 - 4:15pm

What a horrible, horrible situation. Where were local law enforcement and the Attorney General When this happened? Certainly, they have a responsibility to justice for these women.

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 9:17pm

Each one of these type of events is a tragedy and will change the life of no only the person that is attacked, for whether it is physical or verbal or the environment it is an attack. And it will change the lives of family and friends that deeply care about the target individual.

Simply putting a watcher on the watchers will never be enough, the culture is what has to change so it makes everyone in that culture a 'watcher', a keeper of those around them.

The whether you call it a 'vision', a 'standard', an expectation of behavior or decorum, each organization needs to have a well defined expectation for those within the organization. It must be a working description that is clear and specific for the most private of places in the organizations. It must be written so no one can doubt what is expect. And do not let it be one that sounds good in a Bridge or MLive article with a spokesperson explaining what it means. It must be something so definitive that a lawyer cannot turn it into shades of gray in the closed office of some member of the organization. There also must be a clear and specific protocol for anyone, a targeted person, witness of the targeting, and some that has a concern about the potential for targeting.
The next part is the organization must have a team of at least three, one from the highest levels of the organization, one that is well versed in the human side of the organization and knowledgeable in the process of verification, and one from the department or subgroup being assessed. Each team member needs to have a regular role within the organization to return following the team assessment and report of findings, so they can take what they learned back to their jobs and departments.
The assessment must be done regularly, depending on the size of the organization at least one department a year or multiple, but not the same ones every year. The assessment should only require a few days at most, the findings are to be provided to the head of the department with the expectations they will report actions they will be taking and the schedule for those actions, reporting that to the department and to the head of the organization. Assessment team will also provide their findings to the head of the organization.
After a few years these expectations and protocol will become an integral part of the organization, it will be a culture that will make everyone an owner and watcher to protect those in the organization.
This type of methodology has proven effective for generations in creating and changing organizational cultures.