OTL: MSU paid $4 million to Title IX investigators

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In February, Michigan State University interim president John Engler hired global investigative agency Kroll to assist the school with a growing number of Title IX reports and to help bring stability to the university’s Office of Institutional Equality, which handles such cases.

“We are taking active steps to make MSU a shining example of Title IX compliance,” Engler said on Feb. 13 about Kroll’s hiring. “… We owe it to all those who have been assaulted and had the bravery to step forward to have a safer MSU be their legacy.” Further, Engler said, Kroll would help the university bring down the average length of MSU’s Title IX investigations, which had grown to an average of 80 days: “[That is] not only far too long for a response to a complaint, it’s totally unacceptable.”

According to the most recent records made available to Outside the Lines, MSU has paid Kroll $3.9 million since February. Just 25 investigations were completed in 2017-18 — down from 74 the year before. The average investigation length in the year Kroll came on board? It is 120 days — a 50 percent increase.

Buoyed by the publicity surrounding former MSU physician Larry Nassar and a few highly publicized sexual assault and violence allegations involving MSU athletes, Title IX reports at MSU spiked 63 percent from the 2016-17 academic year (718 reports) to the 2017-18 academic year (1,168 reports.) This summer, MSU also hired two additional outside firms to investigate such cases — Detroit-based law firm Miller Canfield and INCompliance Consulting out of Columbus, Ohio. Those firms have billed the school $177,000 and $167,000, respectively, to date.

Ten days after the announcement about Kroll’s hiring, Engler trumpeted the move in an email he sent to tens of thousands of students, alumni and faculty, listing various ways the university was working to improve the handling of sexual assault reports. Within the next 24 hours, five individuals responded to Engler separately, noting that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed at MSU in years prior, according to public records obtained by Outside the Lines as part of a July records request. Though other emails were acted upon in the same time frame, Engler did not respond to the five people, nor did he forward the information, even though university policy requires administrators and others to immediately report such allegations to campus police and the OIE. The emails weren’t forwarded until Nov. 9, several days after Outside the Lines asked university spokeswoman Emily Guerrant whether Engler, the former governor of Michigan, had done anything with the information.

Guerrant said a “staffing oversight” led to the lack of action on Engler’s part: “All of the incidents that qualify for MSU’s mandatory reporting policies have since been reported to MSU’s OIE office.” She confirmed that three of incidents are in OIE’s system at varying levels of investigations.

“We continue to work on improving our processes related to sexual assault reporting and the university’s commitment to creating a safe campus at MSU for all students, faculty and staff,” Guerrant said. She also added that “nearly 40 of the reports” that OIE received this year overall have been a result of someone writing to that same Engler email account.

MSU attributes the increase in the filing of Title IX reports to its efforts to raise awareness of Title IX issues and increased efforts to hold perpetrators accountable. Of the increased investigation time, Engler said through Guerrant: “We owe it to all parties to thoroughly investigate and are working hard to make those investigations fair and timely.”

In all, 17 Kroll employees have worked for MSU since February, Guerrant said. All three consulting firms continue to work for MSU.

According to records, the majority of the services Kroll employees provided for MSU was for Title IX and sexual misconduct investigations; for those, Kroll billed MSU about $2.2 million from February through June. Kroll also billed MSU $314,356 to have one of its employees, MaryAnne Donaghy, serve three months as interim OIE director; in 2017, according to public records, MSU’s OIE director was paid an annual salary of $160,000. The firm also conducted two employee surveys in April and June for two departments at MSU, and it billed $219,471 for what is stated on the invoice as “conducting climate survey interviews.”

The actual number of cases that ended up being handled by third-party investigators was far fewer than the total number of reports. MSU officials said that occurred because the consultants primarily handled only the cases that MSU staff members had determined warranted a full investigation, which was about 200. The majority of the other reports closed without complete investigations for a variety of reasons, such as if the alleged victim didn’t want to cooperate or if the report fell outside MSU’s jurisdiction.

The hiring of Kroll drew criticism from some people because of Kroll’s association with former Hollywood film executive Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of multiple instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Weinstein had hired Kroll to do background research on the women who had accused him of acting inappropriately.

MSU interim OIE vice president Rob Kent told Outside the Lines that Kroll came in at a time of “extreme need and in the middle of the #MeToo movement. They came in and were able to provide us with assistance in a time of need, and they have provided us that assistance. … They were able to allow us to actually start actively working on every file as it came in.

“I don’t think we have a problem at all with what they’ve done so far,” Kent said. “It’s hard to place a [dollar] number on the value of our students and our employees on campus.”

Kroll’s managing director in charge of the MSU project, Nicole Lamb-Hale, did not respond to email or voicemails from Outside the Lines.

Title IX offices at universities handle a variety of complaints regarding harassment and discrimination, whether they involve students, faculty, athletes or administrators.

Michigan State’s office has been under federal oversight since 2015, after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — prompted in part by a complaint about the handling of a sexual assault investigation involving two men’s basketball players — found several problems with how university officials investigated sexual violence and harassment complaints, and how those same officials educated students, faculty and administrators.

After the OCR findings, MSU restructured its Title IX office and later formed the Office of Institutional Equity. Kroll was hired in part to help shore up the OIE, which has had problems keeping staff in recent years. The school’s Title IX coordinator, Jessica Norris, left in June for reasons not known publicly. From 2015 to present, two directors and four investigators have come and gone. Also in July, Shelley Applebaum, deputy Title IX coordinator for athletics and executive associate athletic director, resigned. Neither Norris nor Applebaum responded to emails or voicemail messages left by Outside the Lines.

The OIE office likely will have a permanent leader by spring, Guerrant said.

With Kroll’s help, MSU’s Office of Institutional Equality staff closed out 973, or 83 percent, of the reports last academic year. MSU officials would not say how many violations were found from the 25 completed investigations last academic year, other than that there were at least six findings of violations against students. In 2016-17, there were 44 violations total out of 74 investigations; of those, 26 were against students.

Despite the outside help from Kroll, the other two firms and additional MSU staff — now totaling 10 investigators and two deputy directors — the average number of days for a formal Title IX investigation to be completed has moved up from about 80 in 2016-17 to 120 in 2017-18, according to the school’s annual report.

One student, who spoke to Outside the Lines only on the condition of anonymity, said she has been frustrated with how long it has taken for the school to investigate her report of sexual assault, harassment and dating violence against a male student, especially because she has had to remain in class with him this semester. She said the school offered to let her drop the course, but that would have delayed her graduation.

Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators and of The NCHERM Group, which consults with universities on conducting Title IX investigations, said MSU’s 120-day time frame, “feels a little long to me. … But their investigation volume and/or complexity of cases might justify it. We always tried to complete within 90 days, and usually met that goal, unless outside forces dictated a longer timeline.”

In fall 2017, the U.S. Department of Education abandoned its recommended 60-day timeline for finishing Title IX investigations in favor of general guidance to complete them in a “prompt time frame.” Proposed new rules released this month issued by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos do not mandate a certain number of days, and they allow for time frames to be extended “for good cause with written notice.”

Earlier this year, MSU Title IX investigators expressed concern to MSU human resources investigators and each other that they were being told to avoid telling parties involved in complaints how long their Title IX investigations might take or why they were taking so long to complete, according to documents Outside the Lines received as part of a public records request and interviews with former MSU staff.

A March 7, 2018, letter from former Title IX investigator Liz Abdnour to MSU’s human resources director obtained by Outside the Lines states that former OIE interim director Jayne Schuiteman told investigators not to tell parties involved in the complaints that investigations were going past the targeted 60-day timeline because of the office’s heavy caseload, “thus putting investigators in the situation where they were forced to misrepresent information.”

Abdnour had previously complained that Schuiteman had a history of mistakes, omissions and delays in investigating Title IX complaints and was contributing to the growing backlog while also failing to comply with federal rules. MSU fired Abdnour in May after an investigation determined she used improper and intimidating tactics to try to get Schuiteman in trouble. Abdnour declined comment when contacted by Outside the Lines.

An investigation this spring by an outside labor law expert determined that Abdnour’s allegations were “unfounded,” Guerrant said. But the investigation, as well as the need for Schuiteman’s skills in another department, nonetheless resulted in the removal of Schuiteman as acting director of OIE, and she was replaced in April by MaryAnne Donaghy, an employee from Kroll.

Nicole Noren is a producer in ESPN’s investigative unit and can be reached via email. Paula Lavigne is an investigative reporter in ESPN’s investigative unit and can be reached via email.