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Feds probing MSU for mishandling, retaliating in Title IX case

September 22, 2023
<p>Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity is located in Olds Hall on campus.</p>

Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity is located in Olds Hall on campus.

Photo by Jillian Felton | and Jillian Felton The State News

The federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, is investigating Michigan State University for mishandling a 2022 report of sexual harassment.

The accuser alleges that after making the report, MSU discriminated against her because she is disabled and attempted to retaliate against her for speaking out, according to a letter alerting the university to the OCR’s investigation. 

The letter — which was obtained by The State News through public records requests to MSU and the OCR — is heavily redacted, leaving many details of the case unclear.

It does reveal that the claimant is an MSU student and the person accused of sexually harassing her is a "male staff member" of the university.

MSU is empowered to investigate reports of sexual harassment under the federal Title IX statute. If someone alleges the university is misusing that power, the OCR can intervene with investigations like this one, and potentially sanction the university with a resolution agreement which makes requirements for how it can improve going forward. 

The State News requested a copy of the complaint being investigated from the OCR, but they only provided a completely redacted copy, citing privacy exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act.

This investigation isn’t the only time MSU has recently tussled with the OCR.

The university has entered into two major resolution agreements in the last decade, and isn’t finished adopting the dozens of recommendations made in the most recent one, which examined MSU’s nationally criticized handling of sexual abuse by disgraced ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar.

This new investigation — which began in November 2022 — seeks to learn if MSU responded promptly to the report of sexual harassment, if it denied benefits to an accuser because of her disability, and if it somehow retaliated against the accuser “for the purpose of interfering” with the harassment claims.

The letter, which was addressed to interim-President Teresa Woodruff, asks that the university provide copies of dozens of documents and communications relating to the case, and warns that it may need to interview the individuals involved.

MSU deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen said Friday that the university was cooperating with the OCR, but would not share MSU’s response to the accusations leveled, saying he “cannot comment while the investigation is ongoing.” 

MSU’s handling of Title IX has also been a source of recent tumult outside of matters where the federal government intervened.

MSU’s last two presidents resigned after issues with Title IX; in fall 2022, faculty and student groups lost confidence in MSU’s board over its issues with Title IX; in athletics, the university recently settled a years-long Title IX lawsuit with members of its former swim and dive team; and, three MSU deans resigned in the last year over issues with MSU’s Title IX process. 

MSU’s head football coach is also currently under investigation for his alleged sexual harassment of a rape survivor and advocate who was consulting for his team. 

She has said she was forced to publicly come forward about her allegations after her identity was leaked, despite MSU’s investigations being confidential. That accusation prompted MSU’s administration to order an independent investigation into who at the university took part in the leak.

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