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President Simon letter on sexual assault and harassment (Sept. 3, 2015)

To Spartans everywhere:

Sexual assault and harassment are serious problems in society and on college campuses. We have long understood that Michigan State University is not isolated from these pervasive societal issues.

As we begin a new academic year at Michigan State University, welcoming about 10,000 new students and hundreds of new faculty and staff into our community, it’s the right time to pause and renew our pledge to persistently and consistently improve the environment on our campus with regard to how we address sexual misconduct and relationship violence. We owe that to every member of our community, from students to employees to families and, most importantly, to survivors. This is our collective challenge and our shared problem, and we are all part of the solution. Every single one of us.

As some of you may have seen in media coverage this week, we reached a resolution agreement with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which had been investigating MSU since 2011 for its handling of student Title IX complaints. Michigan State was one of more than 120 institutions under investigation by the OCR for their handling of Title IX complaints. The OCR found the university was not timely enough in resolving two complaints, and closed a third, while also acknowledging MSU has improved significantly in its responsiveness to these issues during the time period covered by the investigation.

In the past eight months alone, we revised and expanded our Relationship Violence and Sexual Misconduct policy, hired more investigators, created a standalone Office of Institutional Equity to handle all discrimination complaints, and implemented mandatory training for all faculty and staff. In addition, all incoming students are required to participate in MSU’s Sexual Assault First-year Education e-learning program, or SAFE.

It is important to note the OCR review is by its nature backward looking, focused on MSU policies and procedures in place at that time of the complaints, and not on current versions. We have been constantly making improvements, using reviews of best practices and various inputs, including surveying our climate, to be better tomorrow than we are today. It’s also important to emphasize that the conclusion of the OCR investigation most certainly will not end or diminish our efforts to address the problem of campus sexual assault and relationship violence.

Next week, MSU will issue a new Relationship Violence & Sexual Misconduct Policy, which was revised based on feedback from the 2014 Sexual Assault Task Force, as well as input from the campus community and a review of national best practices. Later this month, we will receive the results of a sexual assault climate survey administered in April in collaboration with the Association of American Universities. Those results will help guide decisions and policies regarding sexual assault. And later this fall, MSU will form a new sexual violence advisory council with representation from across campus.

While the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has become part of a national conversation, we must not forget that its impact is very personal. No member of our community should be threatened by sexual violence. MSU has taken significant steps to increase resources for survivors and revise policies to ensure complaints are heard in a timely manner consistent with federal guidance.

We continue to do an honest assessment of where we are and where we want to be. We have made many changes, and we have devoted significant resources in addressing concerns. But we fully realize our work is not complete; we must continue to vigorously pursue all avenues for improvement.

I call on all of you to be active participants in building a culture of respect and caring. We must look after one another. As the national bystander campaign in which we participate says, It’s On Us, and as our own long-standing campaign asserts unequivocally: there is No Excuse for sexual assault. We cannot be passive. We must not be observers. We must appropriately intervene if someone in our community is at risk or has been harmed. Anything less from any of us fails to live up to our values as Spartans and our potential as human beings.

Lou Anna K. Simon
President, Michigan State University