UMN to review some sex misconduct appeals processes

The review comes in response to an audit published earlier this month.

by Ella Johnson

In response to an audit of the University of Minnesota’s sexual misconduct policies, an official says the school will review its sexual misconduct appeals process.

The review, conducted by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor and released earlier this month, came in response to several recent cases of sexual misconduct and a bill introduced last legislative session that called for a similar review. It found that the policies are well-enforced and largely consistent with state and federal laws, but that they lack an appeals process for both the survivor and the University employees accused of sexual assault.

Additionally, the audit compared University policies to the terms of a 2015 settlement between the school and the U.S. Department of Education. The settlement was the result of a complaint brought to the department by a former female student athlete that the University “subjected her and other student athletes to a sexually hostile environment,” according to the OLA audit. 

Though state and federal laws don’t require an appeals process in sexual misconduct cases, the settlement does. University policy outlines an appeals process in cases where students are accused of sexual misconduct; however, in cases where employees are accused of sexual misconduct, they can challenge disciplinary action, but neither party can challenge the decision about whether misconduct occurred.

Because the settlement didn’t distinguish between appeals processes for cases where students are accused and cases where employees are accused, OLA felt it was reasonable to ask that one exist for both, said Joel Alter, the OLA program evaluation coordinator.

Tina Marisam, the University’s Title IX coordinator and director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said University officials will begin looking into the recommendation to create an appeals process immediately. They plan to review other Big Ten schools’ policies, analyze current University policies to understand how an appeals process could affect them and consult with students and faculty.

OLA also reviewed sexual misconduct policy enforcement in the 37 cases of sexual misconduct by employees that the EOAA handled in 2017, considering relevant laws, settlement agreements and discussions with University officials. Jo Vos, the audit’s author, then judged each case based on thoroughness, timeliness and the proportionality of discipline assigned to the crime committed. 

She found that overall, the EOAA had done a good job of enforcement under these criteria, although completing investigations took a long time in some cases. Lengthy investigations were often the result of factors outside EOAA control, like cases where involved parties weren’t available to testify. 

However, the report’s accuracy is limited because many other University offices reviewed cases of sexual misconduct by employees that year, and documentation from those cases was not centrally aggregated. This made it difficult for OLA to review them, according to the report. 

A new policy implemented in 2018 requires that all offices report sexual misconduct cases under review to the EOAA. The policy aims to improve organization and documentation of misconduct cases. 

“We’re continually working to conduct investigations more quickly … because we know that when it takes a long time, it’s hard on both parties involved,” Marisam said.

Though the conclusions of the audit were mostly positive, Marisam said the school will continue working to improve its handling of sexual misconduct cases. 

“These are really important cases, and we need to … always be improving so that we can make sure to … come to the right conclusions,” she said.

Information from the audit is also being used in a bill introduced in the House higher education committee that would amend how the University reports sexual misconduct incidents.