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University of Michigan reaches settlement with women who reported sexual harassment by former provost

Former University of Michigan provost Martin Philbert speaks during commencement exercises in Ann Arbor on May 4, 2019. (Max Ortiz/AP)
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The University of Michigan reached a $9.25 million settlement Wednesday with eight women who reported they were emotionally and sexually abused by the school’s former provost, according to the school and an attorney for the women.

The case comes at a time when multiple universities are being confronted by claims that they long overlooked damaging behavior by employees and, in some cases, paying out massive settlements.

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Martin Philbert, the chief academic officer at the school until his dismissal earlier this year, had been at the University of Michigan since 1995, when he was hired as an assistant professor of toxicology.

An investigation found that Philbert had sexually harassed multiple women, including colleagues and graduate students over many years, according to a report released by the law firm WilmerHale this summer.

Philbert did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

“The sexual misconduct of the former university provost that has been detailed in a report from the WilmerHale law firm is abhorrent and unacceptable,” Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the university, said in a statement. “The University of Michigan failed on many levels as this individual advanced through the administrative ranks.”

WilmerHale is also investigating numerous allegations of sexual misconduct by another former University of Michigan employee, the late Robert E. Anderson, who was a doctor at the school for many decades.

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“I’m proud to have been part of real accountability for someone at his level,” said Sarah Prescott, an attorney for the eight women, “because I think that’s still a struggle even now.”

In several of the cases in Michigan and nationally, there were common threads that many people knew in some way of problems but the abuses continued, Prescott said. “These weren’t secrets,” she said. “Martin Philbert was promoted repeatedly.”

Philbert became provost in 2017, and investigators found that inappropriate conduct continued, according to the law firm’s report. In January, several women came forward as a group to complain about his behavior.

The university placed Philbert on leave and launched the independent investigation. He was removed as provost in March and is no longer a member of the faculty.

The report concluded that there was significant evidence that Philbert engaged in a wide range of sexual misconduct — including sexual harassment, sexual relationships with subordinates and storage of explicit photos of women on his university-owned devices — and that neither the senior leadership of the university nor the office charged with investigating such complaints understood the extent or severity of the problem.

The report did not find evidence that university employees intentionally hid allegations about Philbert’s misconduct, but concluded that the school should have done more to investigate a credible allegation of sexual misconduct in 2005. The 88-page report suggested multiple changes for the university.

The settlement includes the opportunity for the women, who were not named to protect their privacy, to work with the university on changes to policy and practice, according to Prescott.

The settlement with the school does not include a release for Philbert.

“We recognize how difficult it was for these eight women to come forward to share their experiences,” Fitzgerald, the university spokesman, said. “We thank them for their courage and we apologize to each one of them and to all survivors.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.