University of Michigan pays $490 million to settle abuse cases

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The University of Michigan said Wednesday it will pay more than 1,000 people who have accused a doctor who worked with football players and other students of sexual abuse of $490 million.

The agreement, one of the largest by an American university to settle sex abuse allegations, was drafted in private talks concluded this week, more than three years after a former student wrote to Michigan’s athletic director reporting misconduct dating back to the 1970s.

This former student, and eventually dozens of others, said Robert E. Anderson molested them during physical exams, many of which were required to participate in Michigan athletic programs. In some cases, investigators concluded, Anderson conducted investigations that were unnecessary and inappropriate; for example, he insisted on a pelvic exam for a woman who had complained of a sore throat.

Credit…Robert Kalmbach/Bentley Historical Library University of Michigan, via Associated Press

Last June, a son of Bo Schembechler, the soccer coach who died in 2006 and who retains mythical status on the Ann Arbor campus, said he too was one of Anderson’s victims.

“The University of Michigan has accepted responsibility, financially and otherwise, for the harm Anderson caused to so many young people that could have been avoided,” said Jamie White, an attorney for many of Anderson’s victims, in a statement. “The university should be praised and not condemned.”

He added, “Most of our clients had a strong love for the university and didn’t want to see lasting damage, they wanted accountability.”

Michigan said in February 2020 that it was investigating whether Anderson had molested students and asked people who believed they had been victims of a crime to come forward. At that point, authorities had been secretly conducting an investigation for more than a year after a former student sent a letter to Michigan’s athletic director accusing Anderson of misconduct.

Michigan’s request for information resulted in more than 100 reports within two weeks. Last May, a law firm hired by the university concluded that Anderson, who died in 2008 and has never been prosecuted for abuse, “has been involved in sexual misconduct with patients on countless occasions.”

At least some university officials were aware of concerns about Anderson as his career unfolded; One told investigators he even went so far as to fire the doctor. (Months after Anderson’s alleged firing, investigators found, the same university head approved a raise for Anderson.)

Schembechler’s son, who said he was abused by the doctor, said the coach ignored his report in 1969; his claims could not be independently verified.

Anderson retired in 2003. In recent years, however, his former patients have described decades of trauma, from a reluctance to engage in intrusive medical examinations to an enduring sense of shame.

The allegations against Anderson — and Michigan’s knowledge and responsibility for his wrongdoing — led to a spate of lawsuits against the university and, after months of negotiations, to Wednesday’s announcement.

Over the past decade, universities have agreed to pay enormous sums to resolve cases of abuse. In 2013, Penn State University announced it was paying nearly $60 million to more than two dozen victims of Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant football coach. Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement in 2018 to compensate victims of physician Lawrence G. Nassar. Ohio State University has agreed to pay more than $46 million to people who said Richard H. Strauss, a longtime team doctor, abused them.

And the University of Southern California pledged more than $1.1 billion related to misconduct by gynecologist George Tyndall.

Michigan’s disclosure of the Anderson settlement came less than a week after the university’s board of directors ousted university president Mark S. Schlissel over a relationship with a subordinate that it said “occurred in a manner that . . was not compatible with the dignity and reputation of the university.”

The Regents are among those yet to approve the settlement, said the university, which has about 1,050 applicants and was reached during mediation.

In a statement Wednesday, Chief Executive Jordan Acker said Michigan officials “hope this settlement will begin the healing process for survivors.”

The university faced increasing pressure to address its history. A former Michigan running back, Jon Vaughn, began camping outside the university president’s residence in October, and rumors swirled around the state capitol of legislation that could make Michigan more vulnerable in court.

Michigan said Wednesday that $460 million of the settlement would be available to those who had already filed claims and that the university’s attorneys would not handle distributing the money. Instead, a retired federal judge will oversee payments to victims.

A university spokesman did not respond to a query Wednesday about how Michigan would pay for the settlement.

White said in an interview on Wednesday that he updated his clients on the settlement talks during a video call this week. They were, he suggested, largely in favor of reaching an agreement.

“There’s certainly a desire to get it over with,” said White, adding, “It wasn’t in anyone’s best interest to drag this out for another three years in litigation.”

The remaining $30 million of the settlement will be reserved for individuals who may have claims against Anderson through July 31, 2023.

“This is a piece of the puzzle that allows them some healing and some closure,” said Michael L. Wright, another attorney for Anderson’s victims. “I don’t think this financial settlement is going to give them everything in terms of graduation, but I think it goes a long way in letting them know that Michigan took responsibility, that Michigan knew they had these athletes and have failed students and that they are trying to help them in this process.”

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