Analyzing the University of Michigan’s $490 million sexual abuse settlement

The University of Michigan has reached a $490 million settlement with former athletes and students who say they were sexually abused over decades by long-time university physician, Dr. Robert Anderson. Anderson died in 2008. Last year, a university-commissioned investigation concluded that Anderson “engaged in a pervasive, decades-long destructive pattern of sexual misconduct.” John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The University of Michigan has reached a $490 million settlement with former athletes and students who say they were sexually abused over decades by a longtime university physician.

    A warning that some may find this story disturbing.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, Dr. Robert Anderson worked at the University of Michigan for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1966, until he retired in 2003. He died in 2008.

    Last year, a university-commissioned investigation concluded that Anderson engaged in a pervasive, decades-long, destructive pattern of sexual misconduct and that the trauma that Dr. Anderson's misconduct caused persists to this day. The report also found that the abuse was an open secret among students.

    More than 1,000 survivors of Anderson's misconduct, most of them men, will share in the settlement.

    David Jesse is the higher education reporter for The Detroit Free Press, and has written about this story extensively.

    David, thanks so much for being with us.

    I think that this case may be case may be less known to our viewers than, say, the Larry Nassar at Michigan State.

    So, can you give us a sense of the scope of Dr. Anderson's misconduct and sort of what's being — what he did, according to the reports?

  • David Jesse, The Detroit Free Press:

    So, Dr. Anderson, like you said, was at the university for 40 years.

    He started and worked in the health services for the broad campus. He also was the team doctor for the football team under famed coach Bo Schembechler. He did physicals for football team members, wrestlers, all sorts of athletes.

    So, over the course of the four decades, he saw thousands and thousands and thousands of students. And, as you said, about 1,000 so far have come forward to say that they were sexually assaulted, that when they went to him for routine physicals or because their elbow was hurting, or just kind of those routine type of things, that they had unnecessary exams done of them and were actually sexually assaulted.

  • John Yang:

    And the report said that the students — this was sort of an open secret among the students. They actually had a nickname for him.

  • David Jesse:

    That's right.

  • John Yang:

    But what's known about what administrators and coaches knew?

  • David Jesse:

    Well, we have heard that one wrestler came to the athletic director in the '70s and said that this was going on, that he had been sexually assaulted.

    The athletic director at that point swept it under the rug, actually pulled the scholarship of the wrestler. We have heard from multiple other former football players who said they reported. Bo Schembechler, the famed football coach, one of his adopted sons said he was assaulted by Anderson and told his dad about it.

    And so there's been this pattern here of several of the men coming forward and saying, the administration knew about this and did nothing and just let it keep on going.

  • John Yang:

    The investigation talked about the effects this abuse had on students while they were at the university. They needed to get counseling. They — some of them questioned their sexuality, their academics hurt.

    But in terms of the depositions and interviews, what do we know about how it affected the survivors of this abuse later in their lives?

  • David Jesse:

    So, we have heard from people like Chuck Christian, a former football player who was sexually assaulted by Anderson, who then going forward had this deep distrust of going to the doctor.

    He just didn't want to go, because he equated that pain and shame of going to the doctor with what had happened to him when he went and saw Anderson. So he didn't go. And now he has cancer, and it's pretty far along the stages. And he says, lookit, this could have been caught if I would have just gone to the doctor, but I wasn't going to because I wasn't going to go through that experience again.

    We have heard from a number of these athletes who have said the same thing.

  • John Yang:

    Sexual abuse is often a tale of a power imbalance.

    What power did he have over these students and these student athletes?

  • David Jesse:

    He had the power for playing time. He could say, yes, there healed up to, put him back in, coach.

    He had the power of scholarships of saying, they're not paying attention. They're not healed. They're injured. You don't want them here. They're not obeying.

    So he held the careers of these athletes right in his hands.

  • John Yang:

    You covered the Larry Nassar case at Michigan State. How do these two compare? And how did the settlements compare?

  • David Jesse:

    The cases are very similar, right, a large amount of people who were assaulted, both by doctors who used that trust that they have — think about you going to the doctor. You trust that your doctor is looking out for you.

    And when they say that what they're doing to you is what needs to be done, you go along with that.

    As far as the settlements, Michigan State University paid the Nassar victims $500 million. And, in this case, the University of Michigan is paying $490 million, so pretty close.

  • John Yang:

    David Jesse at The Detroit Free Press, thank you very much.

  • David Jesse:

    Thanks for having me.

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