The University of Michigan illustrates why organizations must be more thorough when there are multiple claims of harassment.
You may have recently read that the University of Michigan removed president Mark Schlissel following a complaint that he "may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a University employee." It made national news.
What you may not have seen is that in 2020 dozens of students and faculty complained to then President Mark Schlissel that they didn’t trust the school to handle sexual harassment complaints. This is not surprising given that Provost Martin Philbert had been accused of sexually harassing people for over a decade and in 2020 an independent investigation found that the administration knew about it.
You may also have missed that University of Michigan Professor Walter Lasecki resigned in the summer of 2021 over allegations of harassment. Tellingly, according to The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan did not find the claims against him credible, but the Association for Computing Machinery, a respected industry group, did find that he violated the ACM’s policies.
Of course, Lasecki wasn’t the only one. Also over the summer of 2021 Computer Science Department Chair Peter Chen was arrested for of sexually assaulting a young woman in 2017. Professor Bruce Conforth also had multiple allegations made against him.
What is to be made of all this? It is true that sometimes there is a single bad apple. Just because someone in an organization, especially one with tens of thousands of people, is bad, doesn’t imply that everyone is bad.
The apple idiom, however, is, “one bad apple can spoil the barrel.” In a barrel of apples if you see a bad one, you immediately check those around it. When one of the early bad apples is a senior member of the administration, you can’t just stop after finding the one apple.
To my knowledge there’s no secret organization of people who sexually harass others, such that during an interview they give a secret handshake and hire their own. What there does seem to be is a pattern where someone who has no problem crossing a line for himself seems to be blind to the transgressions of others. If a district attorney is found to have soiled the judicial process, say through evidence tampering, all prior cases of that prosecutor need to be revisited in the interest of justice. When someone senior in an organization is found to have harassed someone, it behooves the organization to review all of the units he managed to see if perhaps he wasn’t the only one spoiling the barrel. At the very least, prior complaints all need to be reviewed in this new light. By the same token, if uncovered harassment was a pattern, and not a recent occurrence, the organization should look upward as well and ask: why was this not detected and corrected sooner?
The repeated offenses at the University of Michigan serve as an example of institutionalized malfeasance. Unfortunately, such an organizational culture is far more common than we as a society should accept.
Disclosure: I was invited to speak at the University of Michigan on March 13, 2020. My lecture was delayed due to covid, and I did two virtual lectures later that semester. I also did a virtual talk for the University of Michigan College of Engineering in April 2021.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.