Meet the Student Activists Pushing Back on New Sexual Misconduct Policies at the University of Michigan

A new sexual misconduct policy at University of Michigan not only allows students accused of sexual harassment and assault to cross-examine their accusers, directly and in person, but also requires survivors to answer their alleged perpetrators’ questions—or face the dismissal of their complaint.

“The harm this policy will cause will be devastating,” says first-year Michigan student Emma Sandberg, who is currently a complainant in an unrelated Title IX case. “It would be hard enough to just be in the same room as the guy who raped me. It would be hard enough to have to hear his voice again, or to see him in person. But forcing me to speak to the guy that raped me—to allow him to speak to me, to be forced to interact with him? That’s way too much to ask of a sexual assault victim. I consider this policy to be cruel and abusive.”

Sandberg and fellow student Reuben Glasser have launched a petition demanding that University of Michigan change the policy—and formed an organization, Jane Roe, to raise awareness about and mobilize feminist opposition to it. “All the mailers they send out, they speak about diversity and inclusion,” Glasser, who says he’s “very disappointed” with the University of Michigan, told Ms. “I don’t feel that this policy is very inclusive of the whole student body. This policy does not support half of our student body—the females, and males, too. It doesn’t reflect the standards of excellence that this college has.”

A new policy at the University of Michigan rolls back the rights of campus sexual assault survivors. Students are rising up in response. (Fibonacci Blue / Creative Commons)

Michigan’s policy is just one example of the negative impacts of the Trump administration’s attacks on Title IX sexual assault protections. Feminists have feared these sorts of policy changes would result from the administration’s rollback of Obama-era guidelines requiring schools to promptly and fairly investigate and resolve reports of sexual harassment and assault, and new proposed rules from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirm their concerns.

The administration’s proposed sexual misconduct regulations narrow the definition of sexual assault, allow schools to ignore assault and harassment that occurs off-campus, limit the ability of survivors to get help, make it harder for schools to discipline perpetrators and allow schools to delay investigation indefinitely. (Feminists can submit comments in opposition to the proposed rules through January 28.)

Under the Trump administration’s new guidelines, survivors would also be forced to submit to live cross-examination at a hearing by an adviser or representative for the accused—and if a survivor is too traumatized to be cross-examined, schools would be prohibited from considering the survivor’s testimony. Michigan’s policy tilts the scales of injustice even further: Whereas the Trump administration’s guidelines require that the questions be asked by an adviser to the accused, they do not give the accused the right to directly cross-examine his accuser; Michigan’s policy gives the accused license to cross-examine survivors directly.

Allowing the accused or an adviser, however, to cross-examine a survivor is traumatic and harmful regardless. Sexual harassment law expert Jennifer Drobac argues that “a neutral, trained Title IX investigator should do the questioning of both parties and any witnesses to insure a fair process, due process and to minimize trauma to both parties, including the complainant.”

One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, and 95 percent of campus rapes go unreported. Michigan’s new policy will certainly decrease the likelihood that survivors will report assault and will exacerbate the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States.

“People don’t consider how difficult the process is for the complaint,” Sandberg explained, citing her own experiences as a survivor. “They only think about the accused. It’s a very stressful process. I’ve had multiple interviews. I’ve had to skip school to meet with lawyers. Then to add on cross examination and to make it directly between the rapist and the victim? Very few people would report. It’s not worth it.”


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.