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.
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.”