The first responsibility of a university should be to provide a safe space for learning

Should I be envious? Look at these scores that Bruce Conforth of the University of Michigan got on RateMyProfessor. This may be the first time in years that I’ve so much as glanced at that hellsite (no, don’t tell me what my score is, I don’t want to know), but I heard all the news about what an inspiring, award-winning instructor he was, so I had to check.

Yeah, “all the news”. You know something awful has happened, because you don’t get national attention for being really good at your job. So let’s get the whole story.

Several sexual assault allegations surfaced Friday against former University of Michigan American Culture lecturer Bruce Conforth, who won the 2012 Golden Apple Award for most outstanding U-M instructor, according to the New York Times.

Conforth, a musician and founding curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, retired in early 2017. His retirement came after three women reported to the University in 2008 and 2016 that Conforth had attempted to engage in sexual relationships with them as students, according to the Times.

Now, six former students have filed legal papers with the intent of suing both Conforth for sexual misconduct and the University of Michigan for failing to provide Conforth with consequences or protect the victims with further investigation and action.

Conforth’s allegations of sexual harassment include unsolicited messages and rape.

Warning: the article gives more detailed accounts of his behavior. It was hard to read through to the end, where you discover that six other professors and administrators at the University of Michigan have been committing unrelated sex crimes in recent years, and the university has only reluctantly acted on them. I guess it’s easier to hand out awards.

We get an idea of the university’s policies from the timeline.

The University claimed to have taken action against Conforth by setting restrictions on him after the first report of sexual assault in 2008, and planned to conduct an investigation after the second two reports in 2016, if Conforth did not agree to retire in 2017.

So…you rape one student, and the U wags a finger at you and gives you a major teaching award a few years later; you have to rape three students before you’re asked to quietly retire and collect your pension. No wonder they’ve accumulated an impressive collection of sex offenders on their faculty.

But he was so popular and enthusiastic in his lectures, you know…


  1. says

    Is there anyone who makes it through a BS these days without suffering from some form of sexual assault? I know I didn’t. It’s a nasty quiet suffering that nobody wants to do anything about.

  2. says

    I, uh, kinda couldn’t resist. I wouldn’t have posted it, but, actually, there is no rating. Perhaps a nice thought, that your students are considerate or well-taught enough not to use aforementioned hell-site.

  3. says

    I have a particular student who always comes to my mind. Her first year here, she was excited, enthusiastic, frequently stopping by my office to just let me know how things were going. Then she stopped. I didn’t see her for a while. She finally dropped in one day, looking wan, and gave me a cursory update of her classes. It was like that for some time — she was going through the motions, the spark was gone.
    Later she let me know she’d been raped by another student, and was going through some fairly intense counseling to get through it.
    That’s what she’ll remember about her undergrad years.
    I have no tolerance for anyone who abuses our students.

  4. blf says

    @2, Eh? There is a rating for poopyhead — which I will neither quote nor link-to. The comments (or at least the ones I quickly skimmed) are, by themselves, a good indictment of that site: Either positive or (often astonishingly) hostile, almost all lacking any details and, if citing anything, citing hearsay and rumour (both quite possibly made-up), and on and on. Some are diametrically opposed, e.g., one claims X is the general behaviour, and the very next one claims ¬X is the general behaviour.

  5. Artor says

    I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am. Not by the abuse, but that the University mishandled things so badly that they will almost certainly lose the coming lawsuits. How hard would it have been for them to pursue due diligence and make sure their professors were not molesting and raping students? The fallout from this could well bankrupt the University, and it should.

  6. says

    #4: you don’t actually have to be a student of mine, or my university, to submit a rating to the hellsite. Another reason to ignore it.

  7. garnetstar says

    That site is a sewer, and I’ll never look at it either. The only students who are really motivated to post on it are the ones who feel the need for petty “revenge”, so it’s skewed towards that.

    As for “setting restrictions” after Canforth raped a student, what exactly does that mean? The only proper “restriction” is to call the police, then fire him, or in some way make sure that he never is in contact with any student, ever again.

    My university slowly crept up on the problem, which was of course rampant: male professors had “relationships” with female undergrads and grad students all the time, the consensuality of which was not inquired into.

    So, about a decade ago, the rules changed: you couldn’t have a “relationship” with anyone whose performance you were or would be in a position to evaluate. Lot of whining about that: you mean I have to be ethical enough to wait until I give a course grade or letter of recommendation or sit on a thesis defense committee, before I can sleep with someone?

    Then, time went on, and the university sprang the next one: no “relationships” with any grad or undergrad, the end. None. I’m sure that there was whining about this, and I’m sure that the university doesn’t enforce the penalty that they say (firing), but at least it’s on the books.

  8. ANB says

    For those of us who work in K-12 public education, these things just don’t happen–bad behavior that is tolerated by administrators (that I’m aware of). Even when I was a young (and cute) teacher (or especially because), I kept a strict professional distance from students. I wasn’t going to ruin my life (or theirs). I just don’t understand how/why (some) universities allow this.

  9. snarkhuntr says

    There are a lot of commonalities between the way that your University system protects its bad actors, and the ways that corporations, police forces and other large institutions do. While there will be differences in institutional culture and ethics, I think the fundamental forces involved are basically the same:

    Co-workers know the ‘bad apple’ as a friend and colleague, if they see thier dark side at all, they likely only see it in contexts that are friendly to them.

    Supervisors may or may not like the abuser personally, but worry that any investigation/revelation/prosecution of the person’s bad acts will reflect badly on them and their management of their department/subordinates.

    Department heads and executives also may or may not have a personal relationship with the abuser, but not only worry that their performance will be judged if the abuser is publicly outed, but also will claim to be worried about the reputation/future of the organization as a whole. This latter reason may or may not be real, depending on the values of the executive under consideration, but it’s the one they’ll likely cling to if pressed about their bad decisions.

    Fundamentally, I think the first mandatory step towards fixing this problem is to stop pretending that institutions exist in a meaningful sense. “The University” or “The police force” do not protect their bad actors. Specific managers and executives make the decisions that do so. They may wish to hide behind the facade of the institution, but ultimately legal fictions do not make decisions. People do, and they should be held personally accountable for them.

    There is a shell-game that large institutions play when it comes to addressing wrongdoing by their senior employees. On the one hand, we pretend that ‘the university’ is at fault for the bad decisions of its employees, so shifting blame away from the individual bad actors. On the other hand, it’s impossible to significantly punish a public institution without (a) taking money from one group of unrelated taxpayers and giving it to another, and (b) harming those people who are/should be served by the institution.

    The solution is simple, I think. Hold the Individuals accountable for their decisions and actions, personally, and remove any shield or financial backing that the institution would otherwise provide. If a senior manager made decisions that kept an abuser employed and abusing, they – personally – should be sued, and the institution should be obligated to cooperate fully with the plaintiffs and provide no legal representation or compensation to the accused employee. Any legal advisor for the institution should have a fiduciary duty to expose the bad actions of the institution’s employees, so that they can be purged for the betterment of the institution. They should not act, and should be prohibited from acting, as advocates or advisers to specific employees, rather their interests should solely be protecting the broader organization from liability.

    Some of the sections of the disturbing but amazing podcast “Believed” that detailed the ways that institutional lawyers protected Larry Nassar, for example, demonstrate exactly the way that this system wrosk – but should not.

  10. Allison says

    Is there anyone who makes it through a BS these days without suffering from some form of sexual assault?

    I think that being male (or perceived as such) is some protection.

    Maybe “these days” are different from when I was an undergraduate (1971-75), but I was living as a male person back then, and I don’t recall anyone even hitting on me. (I do know that there was a certain (male) professor who was well known to “have relationships” with male undergraduates.)

    I don’t know what the situation was for female people back then, but I suspect it was, if anything, worse.
    But I’m pretty sure no one would have enlightened me if it was, since it was generally believed back then that if a woman was raped, it was her fault. I was hardly “woke” back then, but even I found the widespread male attitudes about women pretty gross.

  11. Dan Phelps says

    I get great reviews from my students via the assessments the community college sends out to to every student to complete. HOWEVER, I only have a handful of ratings from students on Rate my Professor. All of these RMP reviews are from disaffected students that have a grudge against me for something THEY did.

  12. Dan Phelps says

    Oh, and I talk about my personal rock collection A LOT (in a geology class-gasp!). The two reviews I have on RMP are probably by the same guy.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    Snarkhuntr @ 10
    Those creeps are accomplices after the fact. Sponaneously I want to go Jigsaw on their asses.

  14. snarkhuntr says

    birgerjohansson @ 15

    I completely agree with the sentiment, but punishing wrongdoers after the fact doesn’t undo the damage done. We need to change the structure of the systems these individuals work within to change the incentives.

    When a university deparment head hears anything at all that indicates a colleage is behaving inappropriately, their first thought should be: “I should immediately consult our legal department, or else I could lose my job or even be indicted.” Legal’s first thought on hearing the report should be “We’d better conduct an immediate and thorough investigation, reporting any criminal findings to the police and disciplining the prof for any non-criminal inappropriate behavior, or else I might lose my law license or go to jail”.

    When a police officer witnesses a colleague using excessive or unwarranted force, their first thought should be “If I don’t stop that, I’ll be charged as an accomplice.” their second thought should be “I also have to report the behaviour accurately to my supervisors and document the report, or else I’ll be charged as an accomplice.”

    Nothing less will minimize the damage that ‘bad apples’ do, until their cohorts actually fear the rot coming off them and voluntarily purge the bad ones from their ranks.

    I should also have put a content warning above about the “Believed” podcast – serious trigger warning for sexual abuse there. Had me literally weeping in parts, and I’m not a survivor of such violence myself.

  15. samuelfox says

    Very creepy information … I didn’t even think that this could happen at the university.

  16. birgerjohansson says

    When reading @ 17 I have a fladback to Ed Brayton’s blog posting “Mikey gets mail”. Unfortunately not enough spelling errors to be truly entertaining.
    I look forward to more communications containing catchwords like conspiracy, contrails, Benghazi, Real America, Mexicans, death panels, vaccine computer chips, RaNDom Capital LETTers and whatnot.

  17. jo1storm says

    @4 Read them as well. Most of them complain about being forced to read the material because some exam questions were from the book and they haven’t read it. I mean, DUH!, what were you expecting? The other negative think he is too opinionated and “preachy”.

    My favorite is the one who was made to, nay, FORCED! to answer in detail 5 questions which were, in their opinion, more suited for ethics class than biology. Felt like reading a review Victor Frankenstein would have wrote about his biology professor.