Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Trustees Knake Jefferson, Scott did not review Title IX certification, report says

November 4, 2022
<p>Vice Chair Dan Kelly listens to remarks at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022.</p>

Vice Chair Dan Kelly listens to remarks at the Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 28, 2022.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

Trustees Renee Knake Jefferson and Brianna Scott said they did not complete the reviews of the Title IX reports assigned to them during the 2021 Title IX compliance certification, according to the board's external investigation report released Friday. 

The investigation of the 2021 Title IX compliance certification, completed by the Honigman firm, was released unanimously by the board.

In a statement accompanied by the report, vice chair Dan Kelly said the findings of the investigation confirm president emeritus Samuel L. Stanley Jr. has done little to address issues in the certification process over the past two years.

“I remain troubled by the inaccurate certification submitted by the President in 2021, which clearly demonstrates the internal administrative failures and lack of procedures which were allowed to exist for too long,” Kelly said in a statement. “The Board remains committed to improving our Title IX processes to avoid a repeat in the future and will take seriously the recommendations contained in the report. We look forward to the Interim President’s commitment to improve communication and our mutual goal of exemplary Title IX enforcement.”

Stanley responded to the report with a statement saying this report confirms what he has said the whole time. He said, contrary to Kelly’s statement, efforts had been raised to improve the certification process and that improvements continued to be made since he learned of the issue in June 2022.

“Let’s be clear – MSU was only out of compliance in that submission because two trustees intentionally did not do the job required of them to review reports,” Stanley said in the statement.

The report said Knake Jefferson stated she reviewed 1 of the 5 reports she received and Scott stated she reviewed 0 reports of the 3 reports she received.

Knake Jefferson said to the firm she “did not open the files to view them” because she felt improperly trained to review them. She said she expressed concerns with the process to administration and to the Title IX coordinator, but she did not hear back in a “substantive manner.” The report said Knake Jefferson assumed her reports were assigned to another trustee for review because she did not hear back from the Title IX office.

In a written statement, Knake Jefferson said she felt she could not continue to review the reports until the Title IX office provided a "satisfactory process" for review.

"I was especially concerned about the Board’s fiduciary duties relating to reports that did not contain a formal adverse finding but included corrective actions or recommendations, and also about the lack of a process for ensuring uniformity, tracking, and enforcement related to the reports with corrective actions/recommendations," Knake Jefferson said in a statement.

While Knake Jefferson believes she wasn’t trained sufficiently, Stanley disagrees. He said training was provided to the trustees in February 2021 and it was one of multiple efforts raised to address concerns about the process, prior to the 2021 certification issue.

“Each semester when reports were provided, the Title IX Coordinator openly offered for trustees to contact them with any questions or concerns,” Stanley said in a statement.

Scott said her concerns for the review process began in 2019 and by 2021 had still not been addressed by the Title IX office. She said she stated at more than one work session that she would not review the reports because of her concerns.

Contrary to Scott’s statements in the report, Stanley said he was not informed the reviews were incomplete until June 2022. According to the firm’s report, Scott and Knake Jefferson “disclosed to the full board and president” they had not reviewed the reports assigned to them on June 22 and 23.

Scott said the report speaks for itself and did not provide further comment.

The firm spoke with the Title IX coordinator, who remained under a pseudonym in the report. The coordinator said board chair Dianne Byrum reviewed all of the 2021 Title IX reports, according to the firm’s report. 

The coordinator said even though she believed Knake Jefferson and Scott had not completed the reviews, the reports did not need to be redistributed “because Byrum had read all of the reports and the University was therefore in compliance with state law,” according to the report.

The state requirement is that only one trustee along with the president need to review all of the reports. However, Byrum did not read all of the reports so some went unread.

At the conclusion of the interview, the firm told the coordinator that Byrum said she did not tell the coordinator she had reviewed all of the reports. The coordinator said “Uh-oh” and provided no further substantial comments, the report said.

What did the firm recommend

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Following its investigation, which included the review of over 24,000 documents and interviews of 18 witnesses, the firm gave 13 recommendations to improve the certification process. The recommendations were as followed:

  1. Establish a single point of contact responsible to ensure proper certification.

  2. Create consistency in the manner in which the trustees and president receive and review reports.

  3. Create consistency in the manner in which the trustees and president certify the reports.

  4. Make the reports more readable.

  5. Create a mechanism to track repeat offenders.

  6. Establish regular and recurring training for trustees.

  7. Create a standardized referral process for a second look at serious allegations.

  8. Conduct regular audits of the Title IX process.

  9. Maintain and distribute tracking data related to investigation findings.

  10. Improve the timeliness of reporting.

  11. Transmit the certification to the proper locations.

  12. The university may consider punitive actions in the event of future failures to properly certify.

  13. Require university business to be conducted on university e-mail accounts.

The report recommends an electronic portal be created to view the reports and who they are assigned to with a reminder system that works with the portal. 

In its conclusion, the report said the board took proactive steps in the 2022 certification to ensure accuracy, the university has begun steps to improve the process through the use of an electronic portal and the 2022 certification and 2021 re-certification were both accurate.

How does it compare to MSU's own report?

An internal review of the certification process was completed by the Office of Audit, Risk and Compliance on Sept. 13 and released by the board on Sept. 30. The review found similar issues with the process as the external investigation.

  • The investigation found there was not a comprehensive workflow process in reviewing the files over time.

  • Communication from the Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, was inconsistent with the board during the review process.

  • Documents sent to the board were large and sent without instruction on what to look at and there was no designated return location identified in some emails.

  • The OCR did no follow up on the reviews during the process until June 15, in a sentence "buried near the end of a routine email".

  • Training on the certification process was provided to the trustees in Feb. 2021 but was not made required by the OCR Resolution Agreement.

  • There was inaccurate information in the certification form provided to the trustees, stating that the certificate of review they sign may be provided to the state of Michigan.

Both reports recommended that the review process should be simplified and that a portal system should be created. They also both recommended required regular training for the trustees. 

Stanley said there were “no surprises” in the external firm’s report. In an exclusive interview with The State News yesterday, Stanley said the board had seen the reports before they were released to the public, and before he was able to view them.

“(This) raises questions in my mind about the process for that and how independent the report really is if the board members have seen it,” Stanley said in the interview. “I’ve not seen it. I’ve not been allowed in the rooms when they’re discussing it.”

In the interview, Stanley said he is still “not convinced whether that was an error or not, whether we actually certified it correctly or not in 2021.” In his statement, he said he is unsure about the board’s intentions with the report.

“While I have been focused on solutions, I am concerned the trustees have not pursued this review in good faith,” the statement said. “Some board members were in the media drawing their own conclusions about the Title IX certification process while the review was still underway. I hope the Honigman report and my statement close this matter and allows the university to continue to build on the progress we’ve already made to further improve our performance on relationship violence and sexual misconduct.”

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